One year on from the Grenfell Tower fire
On the 8th of May 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally, and the Second World War was over in Europe. Five and a half years of bloodshed, the greatest human catastrophe in history, was finally at an end, at least in one major theatre. While the dead were buried, and would stay beneath the ground, the living had to continue amid the rubble of a broken continent. Britain was arguably the worst off after the war, having seen its economy bankrupted by the war effort, and struggling to maintain a global empire which it was on the verge of losing for good. Indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets on both sides had seen urban centres reduced to crumbling ruins, and housing was at a serious shortage. Assisted by Marshall plan dollars, the following decades saw an unprecedented economic boom, as Britain and the rest of Europe rebuilt itself. Among the chief benefactors of this boom was the construction industry, as new affordable housing was built at rates never before seen. One such development, designed in 1967, and finished in 1974, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in West London, was Grenfell Tower, which in the early hours of June 14 2017 was the site of the worst fire in modern peacetime Britain, killing 72 people. The charred skeleton of the tower block looms over the West London skyline to this day, one year later, serving as a stark reminder of the society of neglect, apathy and indifference we live in.
This was not the first such disaster to happen in a public housing facility, and unfortunately, it is unlikely to be the last. The warning signs were there, some for decades prior, and many continue to persist in dozens more tower blocks around the country, housing thousands more. As the 50s drew to a close and it became apparent that the construction efforts of the post-war period were proving insufficient to house an exploding population, the Labour and Conservative parties began a numbers game, promising more and more housing as a vote bank. The Tories promised 400,000 a year in their 1963 conference, to which Harold Wilson’s Labour responded with a promise of 500,000 a year later, one of the platforms on which they were elected into government that year. Implementing such a promise, however, would prove to be quite the challenge, as such numbers had never even been attempted before. This set in motion a tremendous upsurge in prefabricated housing, individual components of which could be constructed at the factory, and then assembled on site. Being relatively new method of construction, it had never before been experimented with at the proposed scale of the operation. And when attempting a novel technology which has had very little research and testing behind it, and working under the double constraints of time and money, there is inevitably a price to be paid. This is a pattern which has become increasingly apparent in the years leading up to Grenfell, not least because the price is always very human.
The first major casualty of this cost-cutting and time-saving exercise was Ronan Point, a 21-story tower block in Canning Town, East London. Early on the morning of May 16 1968, a mere two months after opening, a gas explosion on the 18th floor caused a collapse down an entire corner of the building, claiming the lives of three residents, and injuring several more. There is an eerie quality to the images of the building after the disaster, a tower reaching up to the sky, with an entire side caved in like a house of cards, illuminating both our ingenuity and folly all at once. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, the extremely poor workmanship that had gone into the construction became clear. What became additionally apparent was that when such serious structural problems exist for mass-produced goods which have already gone to market, those problems are no longer isolated. Not only was there a risk of collapse, but tenants found themselves living in conditions of constant damp, leaks, and widening cracks appearing everywhere, in similar housing blocks across the country. By the mid-80s, the remedial costs for fixing these buildings was already in the 10s of millions of pounds, and that’s without even considering the haphazard nature of the fixes themselves. One of the proposed solutions to the issue of rain water leaks was of course untested cladding. Adam Curtis had made a documentary covering all of this already. It was released in 1984. In it, Eric Downie, the director of a structural engineering firm, warns of the risk of fire being one of the first points of concern. In 1984.
Fast forward to July 2009, and Lakanal House in Camberwell, South London, sees what is then the worst tower block fire in British history, and another six lives are lost. From the inquest published in 2013, it is concluded that the scale of the fire, as well as the deaths were caused by shoddy construction, and bad fire safety advice. Once again, the deaths were completely preventable. Among the dead, a 20-day-old child, and a mother with both her children. People falling victim to deeply rooted systemic and structural deficiencies, becoming statistics and numbers, but not for the loved ones they have left behind.
Grenfell Tower, like many other high-rise tower blocks around the country, contained a rich tapestry of lives, hundreds of people from all over the world, some having escaped war and abject poverty to be able to etch out their little slice of heaven they could call home. Ordinary working-class people, living ordinary lives, in Kensington, the most divided borough in the country. Shortly before 1 in the morning on the 14th of June 2017, an electrical fire from a fridge on flat 16 on the 4th floor quickly began burning out of control. As the flames reached the exterior of the building, they quickly shot upwards, aided by previously untested cladding which had been installed as part of a recent renovation, and by half past 1, the entire 24-story building, save for a couple of the lowest floors, was engulfed entirely in flames from the outside. Many residents were able to escape before the fire reached too high an intensity, but several, particularly on the highest stories, were faced by heavy smoke in the corridors and stairways, and followed the official fire safety guidelines of “staying put” in their flats to await rescue. Firefighters arrived at the scene underprepared and underequipped for the scale of the operation, and even though many ignored official safety protocol and risked their own lives to try to save others, it was clear from the outset of the night that the death toll would be high. All in all, what had transpired was once again the culmination of multiple structural and institutional failures, leading to a catastrophe, the cost of which is difficult to fathom.
Ever since the days of Thatcher and her project of dismantling the post-war welfare state, the British government has, across party lines, conducted an ideologically bent race to the bottom exercise of deregulation and the stripping of public assets. Nowhere is this more apparent than the current housing crisis, particularly in London. As the Right to Buy scheme was introduced in the 80s, councils were subsequently forbidden by law to invest in new social housing from any source but their direct housing revenue. Furthermore, as central government funding of councils has decreased, in an attempt to raise revenue, councils have engaged in thousands of demolition and redevelopment projects on current council estates, often on the pretext of not being able to meet refurbishment costs. Not only is redevelopment in reality regularly more expensive than refurbishment, but those new developments are more often than not unaffordable for the existing residents, who are unable to return to homes they may have lived in for many years, and are forced to relocate to distant places.
The renovation works at Grenfell were part of such a project, which also involved the demolition of the adjacent Silchester Estate, and the building of a new academy where the old playing field used to be. The project proposals expressly stated the visual appearance of the building, which could be seen from many miles away, as a cause for the suppressed real estate value of the area, and this was seen as sufficient grounds to install cladding to the exteriors. Not only was a decision made at the last minute to use a cheaper material, which had a highly combustible polyethylene core, but the way it was installed, leaving a gap with the outermost layer of insulation, is forbidden, as it serves as a chimney-like effect, creating a vacuum which on the night of the fire sucked up the flames at terrifying speeds. This is what caused the fire to spread so rapidly, and such a construction plan should have never been approved, and yet it was because of the way the entire process is outsourced and contracted, and subcontracted. When the task of carrying out such an extensive project is compartmentalised in the name of efficiency, there is a limited framework for scrutiny and assessment, and in the aftermath of such a disaster, the various parties involved can all play a game of relaying the baton of responsibility to one another. Not only was the cladding untested, and improperly installed, but so were the fire breaks which are meant to serve to compartmentalise the fire to individual apartments. The way the fire spread also rendered the fire safety protocol of staying put useless, as residents were advised to go to outer rooms which were closer to the fire outside, when they should have been advised to evacuate the building straight away. It is important to note here that, even though RBKC council is Tory-led with some of the city’s wealthiest wards situated to the south of the borough, this culture of short-term savings and profit-driven practices in the social housing sector are seen in thousands of renovation and redevelopment projects in both Labour and Tory councils across the country.
The northern wards of Kensington have historically been economically deprived, and particularly with the influx of Caribbean migrants in the post-war period, many belonging to the Windrush generation, has been home to notoriously predatory slum landlords. In the face of social adversity, such as during the Notting Hill race riots in 1958, the local community has also had a long history of solidarity and defiance, much of which culminated in the original inception of the Notting Hill Carnival, as well as many other locally-run cultural and social initiatives. Over the years, several charities, among them Shelter, and trusts were founded in the area to tackle the problems of housing, to step in where the local government was simply not there, although many of them were founded and funded by the council. While not unique to the borough, this hands-off laissez-faire approach to governance, a cornerstone of neoliberal economics, Kensington council has also had a history of pioneering such practices throughout the last century, practices which have become the cross-party norm up and down the country by now. Kensington council’s stock of social housing is relatively small, since the majority of the borough’s stock falls under the ownership of the independent Kensington Housing Trust. In 1996 the management of the council’s own social housing was transferred to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which was formed with the intent of further decentralisation, initially promising to be a tenant-led initiative. Even though these independent bodies are funded by the council, the fact that they are at least once-removed, has led to a long-standing breakdown of trust, particularly with the residents of North Kensington. The resident-run Grenfell Action Group warned the TMO multiple times of their concerns with the safety of the building, particularly since the refurbishment, and their warnings were repeatedly ignored. On two occasions, they were even threatened with legal action by the TMO. In the aftermath of the fire the council and TMO leaders were also visibly absent, further stoking the fire of resentment felt by the residents. Of course many social workers from the council were there, and have continued working with the survivors for the past year, and many of the local charities which stepped in to help were also funded by the council, but ultimately the council’s disengagement with the community which had caused the conditions for the fire to happen in the first place were now all too clear for everyone to see.
In Jeremy Isaacs’ epic 1973 World War II documentary series The World at War, during episode 15, which is about Britain during the war, author J. B. Priestley is interviewed. He says, “The British were absolutely at their best in the Second World War…because a large number of people were living more intensely”. Later on in the episode, future Labour leader Michael Foot says, “There was a real community spirit during the war. It is the nearest thing I’ve seen in my lifetime to a kind of socialist state…of citizens believing that they could influence…what was going to be done, and that the whole world could be changed.” Great tragedies do have a perverse habit of bringing out a sense of great unity in people. As with the clean-up efforts of ordinary people after the riots in London in 2011, the community came together for the Grenfell victims and survivors in many inspiring ways. Not only was this seen in the efforts of the local residents, but also in the form of disparate groups of activists who have stepped in to fight for justice, among them Architects for Social Housing who have compiled an extensive report on the fire and its causes. And yet, the reason these private actors have had to step in is precisely because the institutional support from the authorities was and continues to be so lacking, from the causes of the fire to the response.
Meanwhile, one year on, the public inquiry has finally begun, with witness testimonies which are no doubt bringing up unimaginably painful memories for those taking the stand, from the former residents of the tower to the people involved in the response and rescue operation. The efficacy of the inquiry has itself also been called into question by the victims and activists, who have already had to fight long and hard for Theresa May to add two local residents to diversify the panel. Let’s not forget that the families of the 89 Hillsborough victims had to wait 23 years for as little as an official apology from South Yorkshire Police and The Sun. And even then, what good does an apology do? Can anything ever bring back their loved ones? The lives they used to live? Can anything ever take away the nightmare that they are still living in? Scores of families who lost everything in the fire, are still being housed in temporary accommodation while the council sits on empty houses. The real cost of a tragedy like this is ultimately incalculable.
When, after the Second World War had ended and Britain lay in ruins, Clement Attlee’s Labour government made a choice to implement William Beveridge’s blueprint for the welfare state. It was an ideological choice that everyone, regardless of background, should have a social safety net. Such an ideology however presumes the existence of a sense of society to begin with. That society clearly exists at the level of local community, even in as alienated and fragmented a place like London, as we have seen time and time again in the face of great loss, but also very much in the day-to-day, as anyone who has lived in any one neighbourhood for longer than a few years can attest to. However, the politics we are governed by is far from such notions of solidarity, rather driven ideologically by the flow of capital, as politicians have been relegated to take on managerial roles tasked with facilitating and streamlining that flow. In the hunt for the bottom line, human lives are easily added to the list of costs and expenses, and that’s what allows for the neglect for the lives of ordinary people we are reminded of every time we look over the West London skyline. And it’s always important to remember that this is not an inevitability, but rather a choice.
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