Reprinted from Left Horizons
By Mick Brooks, Ealing Southall CLP, personal capacity
On June 14th a terrible fire swept Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. About 80 people are thought to have died. This was not just an accident. As John McDonnell said, these people were “murdered by political decision.”
Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest boroughs in the world. Grenfell Tower is part of a working-class enclave in north Kensington around Latimer Road underground station. Although the residents of the Tower were council tenants, the overwhelmingly Tory ‘Royal Borough’ did not directly manage the tower block. The council passed it on to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) to run. The tenants, organised as the Grenfell Action Group, published a website outlining the inadequacies and neglect of the KCTMO over many years and warned of the impending catastrophe.
The Grenfell Action Group commented in 2016: “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...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.”
There have been warning signs of disaster. The Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009, in which six people died, was followed up by a damning coroner’s report. The coroner indicted the council for botched (sub-contracted) renovation work and a refusal to organise proper inspections and strongly urged that fire regulations needed updating. His recommendations were ignored.
Grenfell Tower had recently been covered in cladding. It is thought that the cladding actually helped spread the fire throughout the block. There is a choice between plastic cladding and fire-retardant, but plastic is cheaper. A fire-retardant core in the cladding for the whole of Grenfell Tower would only have cost an extra £500. Also, gas pipes that were recently installed were not boxed in with fireproof materials.
The refurbishment at Grenfell was carried out by a firm called Rydon. As is usual these days there was a chain of subcontractors, all desperate to save money at all costs and nobody was responsible for the safety and security of the refurbishment as a whole.
Jeremy Corbyn has recently called for the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his forthcoming budget to set aside £1bn for sprinklers to be fitted in all high-rise accommodation. Every resident of a high rise in Britain must have been scared stiff by the Grenfell catastrophe and the way the fire raced through the Tower. Watch this space, but at present the Tories seem more concerned with tax cuts for the rich rather than saving lives.
The Tory attitude was epitomised by a speech by Boris Johnson in 2009, where he asserted, “Health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people.” Johnson as London Mayor closed three fire stations near the Grenfell site. When queried about this, he elegantly told his critics to, “Get stuffed.” The Tories are obsessed with scrapping health and safety rules which they regard as a form of ‘red tape’, holding back the entrepreneurial instincts of business. Scrapping red tape is part of the neoliberal agenda, along with getting the cheapest deal at all costs. The Tories want an unregulated capitalist ‘get rich quick’ race to the bottom, where standards are shredded and working people inevitably suffer the consequences.
Only a handful of families have been properly rehoused – just ten by mid October. Many survivors are still being put up in hotels. Children mope around in hotel rooms with no toys and nowhere to play. With no cooking facilities, people have lived for months on takeouts. Not surprisingly, they feel forgotten.
There is massive trauma among the survivors and in all the surrounding area. It is reckoned that 11,000 people may suffer mental health issues for years to come. People are understandably reluctant to be rehoused in tower blocks after the conflagration. On the other hand, they need to live in the borough, so that children are still in contact with their friends at school and everyone stays within reach of their relatives and support groups.
The Tory Council has shown a flinty indifference towards the plight of people in North Kensington. There are more than a thousand unoccupied homes in the borough, many left empty by foreign oligarchs as bolt holes. It should not be too much of a problem to satisfy the needs of the homeless – if Tory councillors cared about everyone, not just the rich. The Guardian on September 20th showed empty housing association homes on the Sutton estate in Chelsea. They could have been used to house Grenfell survivors, but the developers think it’s more important to demolish them and build luxury accommodation on the site.
To add insult to injury, the council, which showed incredible indifference and incompetence in the wake of the fire, has decided it can lash out £1 million on 28 PR professionals to burnish the reputation of the borough.
In the wake of the disaster, Jeremy Corbyn correctly called for emergency action to house those made homeless by the fire by opening up empty luxury flats in the wealthy part of the borough. The Economist sternly warned, “British civilisation is based on respect for private property.” It is a pity that ‘British civilisation’ is not based on greater respect for working people’s lives.
The Tory government has set up an inquiry into the causes of the fire chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick. But the terms of reference are to be framed as narrowly as possible, focusing on technical issues, such as the construction of the cladding. Above all, it will try to sweep under the carpet the systematic ignoring of working class tenants which is the essential background to the tragedy.
Disgracefully KCTMO, as an Arms Length Management Organisation, is a private body and can claim ‘commercial confidentiality’ against claims to investigate their conduct under the Freedom of Information Act. So ‘commercial confidentiality’ is more important than finding out why 80 people died and preventing it happening again.
The Grenfell Tower fire is more than just a tragedy for the victims and their friends and relatives. It is an indictment of a Tory council, a Tory government and a system that puts profits first and people nowhere.