Grenfell Six Years On: Still Crying Out For Justice – OpEd


Six years ago today, on June 14, 2017, I watched in horror on the news as an inferno engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey block of council flats in North Kensington, in west London.

London — and the UK as a whole — would never be the same again.

Compelled to visit, as a photo-journalist covering London for my project ‘The State of London’, I cycled from my home in south east London on what was, objectively, a radiant sunny day, through a city that was going about its everyday business as though nothing had happened. It was only as I got closer and the charred, still smouldering skeleton of the tower finally rose up, make me feel slightly queasy and, disturbingly, rather ghoulish, that the enormity of what had occurred struck home.

On the ground, the local community had gone into overdrive to help the survivors, donating vast amounts of food and clothing, and seeking to do all they could to help, but, throughout this heartfelt humanitarian effort, it was clear that they were alone; no one in a position of authority was anywhere to be seen.

After donating what money I had on me, and feeling uncomfortable that I had accidentally become some sort of voyeur of disaster, I cycled back home, but it was impossible to see everyday life going on in the streets of London in the same light as before. There was a reality before Grenfell, and a much more disturbing reality in the wake of the fire. I particularly recall cycling back through Hyde Park, and finding it incongruous that people were playing, or sunbathing, as though nothing had happened, and the world hadn’t changed.

I live in social housing, so I know how tenants have been denigrated over the years, and I was already aware of how the rhetoric of ’sink estates’, used by politicians and the mainstream media, was being cynically used by councils — often Labour councils — to gloss over their failures to maintain their estates, and to insist that they needed to be demolished, to be replaced by a mix of new housing for private sale (at least 50% on these new developments), as well as more expensive rental options. Everything about the estate demolition programme was wrong — from the councils, who had behaved as slum landlords, approving the destruction of their own properties as though they had never degenerated into being slum landlords in the first place, to the so-called “affordable” housing that isn’t actually affordable at all, to the social cleansing evident in policies that seek to prioritise new homes for private ownership on land previously occupied by council-owned properties at genuinely affordable social rents.

The “managed decline” of estates was well known to me — even if it was hidden from the general public by the blizzard of lies and distortions about crime-soaked “sink estates” —  but nothing had prepared me for the fact that those living in social housing were now regarded with such contempt that their very lives could be lost through callous indifference on the part of everyone responsible for their safety.

Grenfell, however, demonstrated that this was indeed the case.

Moreover, as I began researching the background to the fire, it became apparent that the council, Kensington and Chelsea Council, and the management company, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), who had been given responsibility for the maintenance of all of the borough’s social housing in 1996  — had known all about the dangers in advance, and yet had done nothing about it.

As I discovered as soon as I began researching Grenfell for an article published on June 16, 2017, Deaths Foretold at Grenfell Tower: Let This Be The Moment We The People Say “No More” to the Greed That Killed Residents, members of the Grenfell Action Group had been warning of the dangers of a fire since 2013.

On November 20, 2016, under a photo of a tower block on fire and the heading, ‘KCTMO – Playing with fire!’ (which, oddly, is no longer on their website, but is included in the evidence for the official Grenfell Tower Inquiry), the Grenfell Action Group had written, “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that 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.”

After calling the KCTMO “an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates”, the article proceeded to explain that the Grenfell Action Group had “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 characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”

Although fire safety issues have been addressed to some extent by social landlords in the wake of the Grenfell fire, social tenants continue to be treated with contempt by their landlords— both councils and housing associations. Research undertaken by ITV News, and by the tireless one-man campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa, have revealed a seemingly unending story of homes blighted by mould, and by leaks, with estimates that “more than 150,000 households” are affected, and yet, even after a coroner found that Awaab Ishak, a two-year old who died in Rochdale in December 2020, had “died from respiratory illness caused by chronic mould” in his home, the scandalous neglect continues.

In addition, as housing campaigners recently pointed out in a revealing Twitter thread, councils continue to neglect the maintenance of estates that they want to demolish, even though they continue to rake in significant amounts from rent and service charges — and, even more crucially, in spite of the potentially hazardous effects on residents of failing maintain their homes adequately as the ‘regeneration’ plans drag on, often for many years.

In documents secured through Freedom of Information requests, tenants discovered that, at Achilles Street in New Cross (Lewisham Council), £2.6 million was generated in rent and service charges over a six-year period, but just £239,000 was spent on maintenance, at Central Hill Estate in Gypsy Hill (Lambeth Council), £7 million was generated over 5 years, but just £1 million was spent on maintenance, at Cressingham Gardens (also Lambeth Council) £1.2m has been generated per year circa 2015, but just £200,000 has been spent  on maintenance, while at West Kentish Town Estate (Camden Council), £20 million has been generated since 2002, with only £4 million spent on maintenance.

The cladding scandal

Beyond the crimes of social landlords, however, what Grenfell also highlighted was homicidal complacency and corruption in the construction industry, and, specifically, in the cladding used in the refurbishment of the tower, which took place in 2015-16.

This has been highlighted in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, whose final report is expected later this year, and it was also covered assiduously by Peter Apps of Inside Housing, whose book, Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen, should be required reading for everybody involved in housing. As the publishers’ website explains, Show Me the Bodies“exposes how a steady stream of deregulation, corporate greed and institutional indifference caused this tragedy.”

In my article on the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell fire last June, I noted how the inquiry had “established in horrific detail how the entire building industry, and everyone involved in it, up to and including ministers and council officials, either knew or should have known that the type of cladding used at Grenfell — ACM (aluminium composite) panels filled with polyethylene — was homicidally dangerous.” I added that, “As Inside Housing has explained, polyethylene is ‘a ferociously combustible plastic which has been compared to solid petrol by experts’, and in the early days the inquiry heard that, as the Times described it, ‘The use of combustible materials on Grenfell Tower had the effect of dousing the building with 32,000 litres of petrol.’”

As I also explained, the inquiry “also heard how the primary manufacturer of the cladding, the US-based firm Arconic, covered up or manipulated the results of safety tests showing how dangerous it was, and how the British government had ignored warnings about it since 2002, refusing to change regulations governing its use so that the UK became a dumping ground for these deadly products; primarily, a cheaper, but even more flammable type of ACM panel that was used on Grenfell to cut costs, even though it had been banned in other European countries.” Two other companies — Celotex and Kingspan — were also implicated.

“In addition”, as I also explained, “the botched cladding operation had also paved the way for disaster through the installation of horizontal and vertical cavity barriers that were ‘defective’, as an expert explained to the inquiry, and through replacement windows across the entire block that ‘were smaller than the original ones and left gaps between the frames and the original concrete columns’, and which were filled with an ‘Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM) weatherproof seal’, another highly combustible material.”

It is, of course, a sign of how corporate profiteering is regarded as more valuable than human life that cladding as flammable as petrol should be allowed anywhere near buildings, but as the last six years have shown, when it comes to contempt for human life, social housing tenants are not the only people whose lives are regarded as less significant than corporate profits.

In the wake of the Grenfell fire, as urgent investigations took place into the cladding on other tower blocks across the UK, it was discovered that the same cladding had been found on 477 other buildings over 18 metres tall, including not only social housing, but also flats in new developments that had been bought by leaseholders, who suddenly found that they too were at risk, that the owners of the properties they had ‘bought’ were, for the most part, seeking to evade responsibility, and to hand the often vast costs for remedial work onto them, and that, until this was resolved, their properties were essentially worthless.

The cladding scandal has still not been resolved, of course, and extends to many more than the 477 buildings with Grenfell-style cladding. Hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of thousands of properties are affected by other dangerous cladding, who have all discovered that, in today’s grotesque world of deregulation and greed, almost no one is safe from corporate predators, with their disdain for life, or from their facilitators in the increasingly toxic world of politics.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is an investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers). Worthington is the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison"

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