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Grenfell Tower: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Charred, lifeless and brutal, the hollowed out remains of Grenfell Tower in west London screams of the human agony inflicted when, on 14th June, the building became an inferno.

Whilst there are various theories about what triggered the fire – dodgy wiring, a faulty fridge, a gas leak – what is clear is that this disaster was not an accident, it was the consequence of a social housing policy dating back to the 1980’s, systematic neglect, social injustice and the ongoing war being waged on the poorest members of British society by the Conservative government. And this time the result is not just low pay, second-rate education and housing, lack of opportunities, increased anxiety and depression, but murder; families torn to pieces, lives destroyed.

Deep sadness shrouds the whole area, and, coming as it does on the back of a spate of recent atrocities, distress and a sense of collective bewilderment pervade the country.

The initial shock of the disaster has morphed into contained anger as the level of official incompetence and apathy becomes increasingly clear. Residents’ warnings of the risks of fire were repeatedly ignored by The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) who own the building and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO); the most insistent residents – two of whom are now dead – were bullied and threatened with “legal action for defamation” by KCTMO, the company responsible for the management of the building, The Independent reports. This attitude is widespread, the Radical Housing Group (RHG) makes clear that “the recent history of social housing is one of contempt for council tenants and denigration of council housing…the underlying causes of the Grenfell tragedy are deeply economic and political.”

The list of factors that led to this disaster is long and intertwined, rooted in the poisonous ground of commercialization, social division and official complacency.

There were no sprinklers installed. This is compulsory in buildings over 30 meters tall built after 2007, and retro-fitting has been repeatedly recommended in high rise flats built before then, but fearful of deterring commercial developers no doubt the Government failed to make the retro-fitting of sprinklers mandatory, in fact fewer than 1% of council tower blocks in England are fitted with sprinklers. The building was serviced by only one flight of stairs in and out, stairwells were cluttered with rubbish, and in an £8.6 million refurbishment last year, highly flammable plastic cladding, which is banned in buildings above 18 meters in height, was fitted to the outside and overlooked during a series of council inspections. It served no purpose other than a cosmetic one and on the night of the fire allowed the flames to spread rapidly upwards from the fourth floor. The fitting of sprinklers throughout Grenfell Tower would have added an extra £200,000 to the recent renovations, non-flammable cladding a mere £5,000.

At the time of writing the number of those that lost their lives stands at 79; some are questioning if the true figure is being released. Given that there could have been up to 600 people or more in the tower (we will never know the exact figure), and fire enveloped it within 15 minutes, the fatalities are probably in the hundreds. Scotland Yard is conducting what they describe as a “far-reaching” criminal investigation into how the fire started, how it spread and how the Tower was maintained, the absence of fire measures and the refurbishment.

Survivors are being housed in temporary accommodation and are reportedly receiving £10 a day from the council to live on. Response from the local authority and government agencies has been appalling: there has been no coordination of the largely community led relief operation and no overall organization. Whilst council tenants made up the majority of residents, private renters, homeowners, and subtenants lived in Grenfell, including many migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom don’t trust officials and are not coming forward to access support, including accommodation, for fear of immigration issues. Some, having survived the nightmare of the fire and lost everything they owned are now reported to be sleeping on the streets.

Neglect and Incompetence

The building, with 120 flats over 24 floors, is owned by RBK&C (the smallest borough in London), the richest borough in the country with financial reserves of around £300 million – up from £167 million the previous year. The huge stockpile has been created by under-spending on council activities including adult social services. In 2013/14, RBK&C under-spent by £30m; instead of reinvesting the money in public services, top rate council taxpayers were offered a £100 rebate. The council, Labor Councilor Robert Atkinson makes clear is hoarding money “in non-election years only to give it back as a pre-election bribe immediately before a council election.”

KCTMO manages the building; an unaccountable quasi-private company driven as all such groups are by profit. The residents group, Grenfell Action Group (GAG) has been highly critical of KCTMO for years and repeatedly highlighted health and safety risks in the building, including fire. In 2013 a major incident was ‘narrowly avoided’, when residents experienced power surges caused by faulty wiring. This, GAG claims, was covered up by KCTMO and the RBKC Scrutiny Committee “who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders”. As recently as November 2016 GAG wrote on their blog that the building was a disaster waiting to happen, saying they believed “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” They go on to say, “Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterize the malign governance of this non-functioning organization.” Nobody listened, no action was taken, and now people have died, others are badly injured, hundreds are homeless and have lost everything.

In March this year Labor councilor Judith Blackman, a member of the KCTMO board, passed on residents’ fears about the installation of gas pipes in stairwells. KCTMO said they would be boxed in with “fire rated protection” but this was not done. She also asked for an “independent safety adjudication of the building, but this was declined,” The Guardian reports. “I was treated like I was a nuisance,” she said. “I raised 19 complaints on behalf of individual residents. Every single time we were told that the board had satisfied itself that the fire safety was fine.”

The responsibility for this disaster flows in a putrid line from KCTMO to Kensington Council onto Westminster and government policies over decades: the commercialization of public services, the cutting of funds to local authorities and emergency services – consistently praised but numbers cut, stations closed, wages frozen – the marginalization of the poorest sections of society and gross neglect at the root of this tragedy. Manifold causes that are themselves effects of a destructive, divisive approach to governance, in which financial considerations and not human concerns or social justice determines action, policies and attitudes.

Gentrification and Social Cleansing

Grenfell Tower forms part of the Lancaster Road West Estate in Notting Hill Gate. An area that, like many other parts of the capital, has been subjected to a gentrification assault accompanied by systematic social cleansing that goes back decades and has intensified over the last 10–15 years.

In 1980 Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right-to-buy’ policy, allowing council tenants the chance to buy their homes. Since then the number of council homes in Britain has been reduced by over two million and the poison of neoliberal market economics has infiltrated all areas of social policy, including housing. Council property – flats, houses, libraries, school playgrounds, youth clubs etc. are regarded as commercial assets to be sold off and profited from. Council homes have been removed from local authority ownership and control and handed over to ‘arms-length’ management companies – like KCTMO – and/or transferred to housing associations. Local authorities, RHG relate, have “become distanced from housing provision, central government funding for social housing has been reduced, and the involvement of powerful private companies has increased.”

The commercialization of social housing has resulted in a lack of accountability, acute shortage of council accommodation, a derisory attitude towards social housing tenants and inflated rents. Throughout London, commercial and residential prices have gone through the roof, whilst cuts to housing benefit by the Conservative Government have meant that those unemployed or on low incomes cannot cover rents.

As areas are redeveloped people living in estates like Grenfell Tower are being pushed further and further out of the city, their concerns disregarded, their voices ignored, their lives regarded as irrelevant. Private companies dominate regeneration projects; firms are given valuable land, in exchange for their work, on which to build expensive flats that only the wealthy can afford. Public spaces are absorbed, becoming private commodities, local residents’ concerns are routinely disregarded, the city becomes a corporate space, city living more and more expensive and the poor are discarded, unwelcome.

Social diversity and colour are gradually being sucked out of the area around Grenfell and a bland homogenized ghetto for the rich created. Pubs and low cost cafes where people would traditionally have met have been closed down to make way for expensive restaurants, ritzy spas, delis that nobody can afford and designer cafes. All of which are aimed firmly at the wealthy residents who own the £X million flats and houses two streets away from the estate and can afford the exorbitant prices.

Some fear that the council could use this disaster as an opportunity to intensify its assault on the poor demolish the tower and build another luxury high-rise. All Grenfell residents must be offered long-term affordable accommodation within their local area or an area of their choosing, to this end and to address the shortage of council property in the borough (there are approximately 3,000 people waiting for social housing in Kensington) the council should buy private property and turn it into council housing. News that 68 flats have now been bought in Kensington by the Corporation of London to house survivors is welcome, however the details of any offers need to be scrutinized and who it applies to, victims consulted and listened to, their wishes honored.

Whilst they may not have lit the match, this disaster is the result of long-term socio-economic policies pursued by successive Governments that discriminate against the poor, of the abdication of responsibility by local government and criminal negligence by KCTMO.

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Graham Peebles is a freelance writer. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org  

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