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Grenfell and After

This summer, the annual Notting Hill Carnival took place as usual. The two-day carnival, Europe’s biggest street festival, has been a major London event every August since 1966. But this year, the carnival followed the tragic fire in June at Grenfell Tower, which happened in the same London borough, Kensington and Chelsea, and the carnival procession began with a commemoration for those who died in the inferno.

Picking up the weekend Financial Times, I flicked to the House and Homes section. The feature this carnival week (‘Get the Party Started’, Financial Times, 26-27 August 2017) focused on real estate in the same area. A graphic informed us that £1m will buy us a 2-bed flat, £10m will secure a 5-bed penthouse; a more unfeasible £35m will deliver a grand 8-bed detached home with a car lift.

It’s worth remembering that the constituency in which these excesses in the housing market are played out was also the site of one of the major upsets of the 2017 general election, held just a week before the Grenfell Tower disaster. The election, called in a fit of hubris, ended up with a reduced majority for the government — and the first Labour member of parliament ever for the Kensington and Chelsea constituency.

Change is afoot, not least because housing issues are at the bleeding edge for those damaged by austerity policies and a city economy that delivers homes for investors or those who have already made money in the housing market, while neglecting those facing overcrowding or stagnating incomes, or the city’s poor. The terrible events at Grenfell Tower revealed arrogant and incapable local government that was unable to look after the safety of its tenants or deal with the subsequent emergency; it had to be put in the hands of NGOs like the Red Cross.

The ‘traumascape’ of the incinerated shell of the Grenfell Tower stands in an area of wealth and poverty which exist side by side. This is the area Wyndham Lewis described as ‘Rotting Hill’ in his 1951 novel of that name. By the turn of the millennium it had become the romantic stamping ground of Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill (1999).

Notting Hill and its wider London borough still have around a quarter of residents in public housing (2011 census data), often adjacent to wealthy streets and terraces that feature in global property supplements. The important point is that property speculation and investment ride on the cultural heritage and diversity of the area — the community carnival serves as a reminder to consider what and where to buy with the prospect of significant capital gain.

Such advice sits uneasily alongside the kind of social anger now focused on foreign investment and the many empty and under-used homes and second homes of central London. The inadequate and socially disconnected policy elite, at both central and local government levels, amplifies this, as does the continuing insufficiency of the response to the Grenfell tragedy. Most of the former resident-survivors are still in hotels and temporary accommodation.

Rowland Atkinson is chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield and the author (with Sarah Blandy) of Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front (Manchester University Press, 2016) and co-editor of Building Better Societies: Promoting Social Justice in a World Falling Apart (Policy Press, 2017).

This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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