Two years ago, I switched on my TV and watched in horror as flames engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West Estate in North Kensington, in west London, leading to the loss of 72 lives.
To anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of the safety systems built into concrete tower blocks, it was clear that this was a disaster that should never have happened. Compartmentalisation — involving a requirement that any fire that breaks out in any individual flat should be able to be contained for an hour, allowing the emergency services time to arrive and deal with it — had failed, as had the general ability of the block to prevent the easy spread of fire throughout the building. Instead, Grenfell Tower went up in flames as though it had had petrol poured on it.
It took very little research to establish that what had happened was an entire system failure, caused by long-term neglect and a failure to provide adequate safety measures (in particular, the tower had no sprinkler system fitted), and, more recently, through a refurbishment process that had turned a previously safe tower into a potential inferno.
Moreover — and this was the truly damning revelation — residents had been warning about a potential inferno for many years, but had been completely ignored by those responsible for their safety — Kensington and Chelsea Council, and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), a management company that had taken over all of the council’s social homes in 1996.
The 40-year war on social housing
As a social tenant myself, since the 1980s, it had long been apparent that we were all regarded as pariahs, or, at best, second-class citizens. The rot set in when Margaret Thatcher began her war on social housing through her ‘Right to Buy’ policy, first introduced in 1980, and her cuts to funding for council estate maintenance.
New Labour had further entrenched Thatcher’s legacy, as was recently revealed when a 1999 article in The Week, ’Shelter for the Middle Class’, resurfaced, noting how “Labour councils in London are using their housing policies to alter the social mix in their boroughs. The move is part of a deliberate process of gentrification that will result in social housing being replaced by owner-occupied dwellings and developers being given free rein to build luxury flats.”
When the Tories regained power in 2010, the war on social housing intensified, with further cuts as part of their sweeping austerity programme, cynically introduced as a response to the banker-led global economic crash of 2008.
Deaths foretold at Grenfell Tower — and lives still at risk
Into this sorry saga of historic under-investment, which, at Grenfell, led to fire doors that didn’t work, and windows that were not adequately sealed and fire-resistant, came a raft of public-private tiers of management, and private contractors refurbishing — when they weren’t demolishing — structurally sound but neglected estates with a truly scandalous disregard for safety. At Grenfell, the appearance of an inferno spreading like wildlife as though the block had petrol poured on it was uncannily close to the truth — the cladding used was dangerously flammable, and in installing it, the structural integrity of the block had been fatally compromised.
As I noted in my article, Deaths Foretold at Grenfell Tower: Let This Be The Moment We The People Say “No More” to the Greed That Killed Residents, written two days after the fire, all of this was known in advance by residents of the block. As I explained:
On November 20, 2016, under a photo of a tower block on fire and the heading, ‘KCTMO – Playing with fire!’, a representative of the Grenfell Action Group wrote, “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. We believe that the KCTMO are 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 and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.”
The author of the post also stated, “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 characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”
It was also stated, “It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!”
The article also pointed out, “We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.”
Two years on from the Grenfell fire, as those us who live in social housing, or who care about it, are still faced with the inconvenient truth that tenants — and, ironically, leaseholders who bought flats under the ‘Right to Buy’ programme, as well as those who are now tenants of private owners — are confronted every day with the knowledge that even our lives, as second-class citizens, can be sacrificed at the altar of profiteering and cost-cutting, the political establishment and the building industry have shown a shocking unwillingness to acknowledge their own responsibility for the lives that were lost in the Grenfell Tower fire.
Many of the survivors are still in temporary accommodation, and, moreover, in the last two years the authorities’ collective response to the dangers of flammable cladding has been pitiful.
As the Guardian reported yesterday, out of 158 social housing blocks with flammable cladding, 56 have been fixed, but “tens of thousands of people are likely to be living in buildings that remain at risk.” In the private sector, the response has been even poorer, as developers and insurers have wrangled over who should be reponsible for costs, and, in numerous cases, have tried to make leaseholders pay. As the Guardian explained, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government admitted this week that, “In the past four months, only three of the privately owned housing high-rises found to be wrapped in Grenfell-style cladding have been fixed, leaving 146 still vulnerable.”
As the Guardian also explained, “Tests on other cladding materials such as high-pressure laminates that may prove to be combustible are yet to be completed, raising the prospect that more may need to be fixed”, and, in addition, “Fire risks presented by faults unrelated to cladding are emerging as a potentially bigger problem, with faulty fire-breaks, dangerous insulation, missing intumescent paint and wooden cladding emerging as risks on 14 blocks in Manchester alone.”
From the moment the Grenfell fire occurred, the community in Notting Dale, Notting Hill’s historically poorer neighbour, where Grenfell is located, had to organise their own reponse to the disaster, in the face of paralysis by central government, the council and KCTMO, and, via a handful of organisations — Justice4Grenfell, for example, and Grenfell United, profiled here in a Guardian long-read by Robert Booth — they have established themselves as an unassailable force for the right of those in social housing to no longer be treated as fundamentally disposable by the political establishment, and the right of everyone to live in a safe home, and their persistence stands in stark contrast to the ponderous progress of the official inquiry into the fire.
As Booth described it, Grenfell United “have been drawn towards bigger goals”, far beyond their immediate neighbourhood, “including winning greater powers for England’s 9.5m renting households, improving fire safety and ending prejudice against social-housing tenants”, all while “wrestling with their own grief and trauma.”
“In a way”, he added, “they had no choice, because the fire at Grenfell exposed some of the gravest social problems facing Britain today. Deepening divides along race and wealth lines, and the seriousness of the housing crisis, were reflected in the fate of a single neglected council block.”
On Wednesday evening, Grenfell United highlighted the authorities’ ongoing failure to deal adequately with the fallout from the Grenfell fire by projecting messages up to 12 storeys high on buildings in London, Greater Manchester and Newcastle, warning that, as the Guardian described it, “two years after the fire that killed 72 people, they are still not fitted with sprinklers, feature defective fire doors or are wrapped in dangerous cladding.”
The London projection was on Frinstead House on the Silchester estate, next to Grenfell, and highlighted the block’s lack of sprinklers. As the Guardian explained, “All new residential towers require them, but retrofitting is not mandatory.” In Salford Quays, a private block, NV Buildings, was illuminated with a message that read, “2 years after Grenfell and this building is still covered in dangerous cladding. #DemandChange.” A leaseholder in the building, Peter Brown, explained that, scandalously, “nearly 250 households faced a bill of nearly £3m to make their homes safe.”
Two years on, however, those driving Grenfell United’s pressure for meaningful reform to the way in which those living in social housing — and in flammable private blocks — are treated are “considering a change in strategy”, as Booth described it. Ed Daffarn, one of the tower’s survivors, told the Guardian, “You have to make something good come out of something bad, and what is so terrifying about this is I am beginning to doubt whether that’s going to happen.”
Speaking of the ministers and civil servants with whom he and others have had more than 30 meetings, he said, “There’s an empathy gap, but they also have this problem that they are indifferent and incompetent. We had every right to shout at people and be upset. We haven’t done any of that. We have gone in and negotiated. We have worked. We have been grown-up about it.”
Now, however, as Booth put it, Grenfell United “are considering a different posture.” As Booth described it, Daffarn conceded that, “Such was the violence they suffered during the fire, the idea that more violence could help is anathema”, and Grenfell United “has been committed to a peaceful, constructive and pragmatic approach.” But as Daffarn also told Booth, “The one thing they fear is social unrest – and rightly so. Go to any meeting in Kensington and that anger is still there. It hasn’t dissipated. We wasted [two years] trying to do it this way, and now we have to come up with another solution. We have learned a lot. They failed us.”
That anger is most palpable in North Kensington, of course, because of the as yet unrepeated loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire, but it is also echoed across the capital, and across the country, where profiteering, cost-cutting and contempt for those living in social housing — even Margaret Thatcher’s supposedly cherished leaseholders — continues to be implemented in estate demolition programmes that are hugely unpopular with local communities: in Southwark, Newham, Lambeth, Lewisham and Hackney — all Labour-led, and all identified as enthusiasts for estate regenerations and social cleansing in The Week‘s 1999 article — as well as other boroughs, like Tower Hamlets and Haringey.
In Lewisham, I’ve been involved for the last two years in one of the capital’s many campaigns against the demolition of estates — and, in our case, a precious environmentally significant community space — against the juggernaut of ‘gentrification’ and ‘re-generation’, and, as in other places, our efforts are providing serious grass-roots challenges to the long-held notion, by those in power, that estates and their residents are fundamentally disposable. See the Save Reginald Save Tidemill campaign page here, and my archive of articles here.
On the second aniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, as we have all watched and honoured the commitment of the survivors and the wider North Kensington commmunity to effect change through negotiation, I wouldn’t want to quibble with Ed Daffarn’s assessment that “social unrest” may be the only way forward, as those who play with our lives, socially cleanse our neighbourhoods and destroy our homes don’t seem to understand the gravity of their actions unless, frankly, they are made to feel threatened.
Note: For another response of mine to the Grenfell Tower fire, please check out my song, ‘Grenfell‘, recorded with my band The Four Fathers, and produced by Charlie Hart, who also played accordion on it. If you’d like to buy it as a download, all the taking will go to the Grenfell Foundation, established last year “at the direct request of bereaved and survivors from Grenfell Tower” to “provide independent support to the former residents of Grenfell Tower, their families, dependents, and the local community.”