By Paul Taylor
A huge wave of grief and righteous anger has swept across the country in the wake of the horrific loss of life at the Grenfell Tower fire.
The outrage and anger has been driven by the fact that from the very first hours after this tragic event it was clear that the inferno resulted not from a sad accident but shoddy refurbishments which had compromised fire safety, which the so-called Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) had failed to rectify despite prior urgent complaints from tenants.
As a result, Grenfell – the shocking images of the burnt-out building and the failure of the authorities to provide support and care to the victims and survivors – immediately came to stand for the deliberate neglect and abandonment of the poor that has resulted from seven years of Tory austerity. A wave of revulsion at the Tories, Theresa May, the council leadership in the RBKC, and all those associated with austerity has swept the population, leading to a plunge in support for May’s attempted coalition with the DUP and a further surge in support for Corbyn.
The wave of protests in Kensington and Downing Street amplified the lessons from the general election result – the majority of people believe that there is an alternative to austerity, deregulation, privatisation and reject the type of society that is resulting.
The completely inadequate response from the Tory government and the council only added to that fury.
Most of those affected are still struggling to confirm the fate of their loved ones. The helpline has not worked properly. Information about the identity of those confirmed safe was not coordinated centrally, and relatives and friends had to visit hospitals, go to welfare centres and wander the streets desperately seeking information.
There is a complete lack of belief in the figures given for casualties so far – the authorities were confirming 79 at the time of writing. Estimates by locals range from upward of 100 to potentially 350. It is impossible to know as no accurate information has been issued on total estimated residency in the block, or the numbers of those confirmed safe.
As to support for the survivors: for days this was solely down to hundreds of volunteers and donations of food and clothing through local centres of faith and other community organisation, with no sign of the local authorities. Four days after the fire started Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council was stripped of responsibility of caring for survivors.
Survivors were given contradictory promises as to whether they would be housed locally or not. Some were put up in hotels, others left to fend for themselves with a £10 donation from the council for emergency supplies. It took four days for the government to announce £5,500 in emergency funds for residents who lost their homes in the fire. Families continue to report that commitments to rehouse people locally are not being fulfilled.
The surprise victory of Labour in the Kensington constituency was already a rejection by Kensington voters of the Tories’ austerity. Labour’s result in Kensington saw an increase in its vote share of 11.1 per cent to 16,333. In 2010 and 2015 the Conservative candidate won by more than 7,000 votes. The turnout in 2017 was up 6.8 per cent to 63.8 per cent.
This rejection of austerity seen in the election fed into the protests after the fire that demonstrated the perceived culpability of both the Tory council and government.
All those responsible for the failures that led to the Grenfell Tower fire – government, council, companies and individual – must be held account for their criminal acts. Correctly the local population is saying the failures to meet adequate fire safety standards amounts to corporate manslaughter and at the very least heads should roll, if not prison sentences for those individually culpable.
But above all we should recognise the deeper causes of a systemic failure. The deaths of so many people were man-made and were preventable; instead the priority of cuts and company profits were chosen over people.
As Jeremy Corbyn put it in the election campaign, ‘you cannot keep people safe on the cheap.’
If – as the Tory ‘small-state’ ideologues claim – giving more money to the wealthy was the best way to bring progress to the whole of society, RBKC would have to be a shining example, given the extreme wealth in the borough. Instead the glaring truth is that cutting welfare in favour of profits and allowing the wealthy to accumulate more does not lead to ‘trickle down’, or even trickle across the street. It benefits only the wealthy few themselves, while growing inequality leads not only to the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire but the growing degradation of human life itself.
The failure to find the money necessary to make Grenfell Tower safe is even more shocking given the amount of wealth in the RBKC.
David Lammy has said that the RBKC has £270m in reserves. In 2013/14 the RBKC underspent by £30m ‘thanks to an overachieving efficiency drive’, according to Council Leader Nick Paget-Brown. There was no reinvestment and top rate council taxpayers were offered a £100 rebate.
At the same time, Caelainn Barr, writing in the Guardian, pointed out that the ‘vicinity of the tower was among the 10 per cent most deprived areas in England’. The English Indices of Deprivation show that 11 areas in Kensington and Chelsea ranked in the poorest decile in the country, while 14 areas were among 30 per cent of the most well-off in the country. 40 per cent of children in the borough are living in overcrowded conditions according to West London Action for Children.
The fact that the population of Grenfell Tower was overwhelmingly from ethnic minorities was probably a further reason why the borough council invested so little in improving the quality of the accommodation. Some lives seem to matter more than others. The refurbishment that was undertaken subordinated real improvement and safety measures to cosmetic changes to the external appearance of the block for the benefit of the gentrified quarters that abut it.
The government has called a public enquiry. This should be convened immediately. There must be no cover-up about why the fire was so devastating and why so many died, and it is vital that the full truth comes out quickly. The survivors, families and friends of the victims cannot wait years for answers; nor can all those living in tower blocks across the country that are afraid to sleep in the aftermath of the fire.
The Grenfell Action Group had repeatedly warned of serious dangers in Grenfell Tower. In November 2016 it said, ‘Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation] residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterises the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.’
Tragically the Daily Mirror has reported that those behind this complaint possibly died in the fire they warned might happen. It reported that ‘two women feared dead in the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy were threatened with legal action.’ They were ‘believed to have received letters warning them to stop a campaign for improved safety.’
The inquiry should examine the failure to respond to concerns from Grenfell Tower residents and the attempt to silence local politicians who supported them and those responsible held to account.
The installation of non fire-resistant cladding, rerouting the gas mains up the stairs, failure to reseal fireproof ceilings, the absence of sprinklers and the reported failure of the alarm system all appear to have contributed to the conflagration. Both the local council and the companies responsible for the tower have to be held to account for their actions, including potential criminal charges and corporate manslaughter.
The role of the Tory government must also be put centre stage. The damaging consequences of its ideological predilection for cuts deregulation and privatisation must be laid bare.
The most obvious example of the Tories’ reckless attitude was Boris Johnson’s response to a formal London Assembly question as to how his cuts to fire stations, fire engines and fire fighter numbers were not ‘a reduction in fire cover?’ ‘Get stuffed’ was Johnson’s clarificatory reply.
But Johnson’s was not a maverick irresponsible voice.
* In January 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good.’
* In January 2016 the Tories defeated a Labour amendment to the government’s Housing and Planning Bill. The amendment aimed to make sure that all rented accommodation was ‘fit for human habitation.’
* A review of building regulations regarding fire safety was promised for 2016, in response to the coroner’s report into six deaths in a 2009 fire in a Southwark tower block, which had said that around 4000 tower blocks in the UK were subject to out of date part B Building Regulations. But when the review was raised in the House of Commons in October 2016, Gavin Barwell, Housing Minister at the time – and now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff – refused to give a date for a review. The trade journal, Fire Risk Management, in March 2017 reported, ‘Experts have warned that a government delay in reviewing building regulations could be endangering tower blocks throughout the UK.’
* Recommendation by fire services, and the coroner’s report above, to fit sprinklers in high-rise blocks has repeatedly been ignored by ministers, despite fire services saying that there has not been a single fire death in a building fitted with functioning sprinklers for many years.
* In August 2016 the government dropped the requirement for fire sprinklers to be fitted in new schools. The Chief Fire Officers Association reported in 2015 that over the ten years from 2003/4 to 2013/14 there were 4,208 fires in schools resulting in 129 casualties. Angela Rayner, Shadow Secretary of State for Education labelled the decision ‘a disgrace.’
The Grenfell Tower fire is a terrifying omen. Over the coming weeks and months, much more will be revealed about its causes and those responsible.
It is critical that all barriers should be removed to the voices of tenants and the families of victims being heard, including paying for them to have appropriate quasi-legal representation at the public enquiry to ensure their words are not twisted and dismissed by so-called experts. All those who, before the fire, were put under pressure to keep quiet about their concerns must also be encouraged to have their say.
Only when a full accounting is made and those responsible made to pay will justice have been done.