London’s Grenfell Tower: Neglect, incompetence and contempt for the poor

Grenfell Tower fire
By Graham Peebles

Charred, lifeless and brutal, the hollowed out remains of Grenfell Tower in west London scream of the human agony inflicted when, on 14 June, the building became an inferno.

While there are various theories about what triggered the fire, what is clear is that this disaster was not an accident. It was the consequence of a social housing policy dating back to the 1980s, systematic neglect, social injustice and the ongoing war being waged on the poorest members of British society by the Conservative government. And this time the result is not just low pay, second-rate education and housing, lack of opportunities, increased anxiety and depression, but murder, families torn to pieces, lives destroyed.

Deep sadness shrouds the whole area, and, coming as it does on the back of a spate of recent atrocities, distress and a sense of collective bewilderment pervade the country.

Contempt for the poor

The initial shock of the disaster has morphed into contained anger as the level of official incompetence and apathy becomes increasingly clear. Residents’ warnings of the risks of fire were repeatedly ignored by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), which owns the building, and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the company responsible for the management of the building. The most insistent residents – two of whom are now dead – were bullied and threatened with “legal action for defamation” by KCTMO, The Independent reports. This attitude is widespread,. As the Radical Housing Group makes clear, “the recent history of social housing is one of contempt for council tenants and denigration of council housing… the underlying causes of the Grenfell tragedy are deeply economic and political”.

The list of factors that led to this disaster is long and intertwined, rooted in the poisonous ground of commercialisation, social division and official complacency.

There were no sprinklers installed. This is compulsory in buildings over 30 metres tall built after 2007, and retro-fitting has been repeatedly recommended in high rise flats built before then. However, fearful of deterring commercial developers the government failed to make the retro-fitting of sprinklers mandatory. In fact, fewer than 1 per cent of council tower blocks in England are fitted with sprinklers. The building was serviced by only one flight of stairs up and down, stairwells were cluttered with rubbish, and in an £8.6 million refurbishment last year, highly flammable cladding, which is banned in buildings above 18 metres in height, was fitted to the outside and overlooked during a series of council inspections. It served no purpose other than a cosmetic one and on the night of the fire allowed the flames to spread rapidly upwards from the fourth floor. The fitting of sprinklers throughout Grenfell Tower would have added an extra £200,000 to the recent renovations, non-flammable cladding a mere £5,000.

At the time of writing the number of those that lost their lives stands at 79; some are questioning if the true figure is being released. Given that there could have been up to 600 people or more in the tower (we will never know the exact figure), and fire enveloped it within 15 minutes, the fatalities are probably in the hundreds. Scotland Yard is conducting what it describe as a “far-reaching” criminal investigation into how the fire started, how it spread and how the tower was maintained, the absence of fire measures and the refurbishment.

Survivors are being housed in temporary accommodation and are reportedly receiving £10 a day from the council to live on. The response from the local authority and government agencies has been appalling: there has been no coordination of the largely community-led relief operation and no overall organisation. While council tenants made up the majority of residents, private renters, homeowners and sub-tenants lived in Grenfell, including many migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom don’t trust officials and are not coming forward to access support, including accommodation, for fear of immigration issues. Some, having survived the nightmare of the fire and lost everything they owned, are now reported to be sleeping on the streets.

Neglect and incompetence

The Grenfell Tower, with 120 flats in 24 floors, is owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (the smallest borough in London), the richest borough in the country with financial reserves of around £300 million – up from £167 million the previous year. The huge stockpile has been created by under-spending on council activities, including adult social services. In 2013/14 the borough underspent by £30m. Instead of reinvesting the money in public services, top rate council tax payers were offered a £100 rebate. The council, Labour Councillor Robert Atkinson says, is hoarding money “in non-election years only to give it back as a pre-election bribe immediately before a council election”.

… 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… (Grenfell Action Group, November 2016)

The body that manages the Grenfell Tower, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, is an unaccountable quasi-private company driven, as all such groups are, by profit. The residents group, Grenfell Action Group (GAG), has been highly critical of KCTMO for years and repeatedly highlighted health and safety risks in the building, including fire. In 2013 a major incident was “narrowly avoided”, when residents experienced power surges caused by faulty wiring. This, GAG claims, was covered up by KCTMO and the borough council’s Scrutiny Committee “who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders”. As recently as November 2016 GAG wrote on their blog that the building was a disaster waiting to happen, saying they believed “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”. They go on to say, “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.” Nobody listened, no action was taken, and now people have died, others are badly injured, hundreds are homeless and have lost everything.

In March this year Labour Councillor Judith Blackman, a member of the KCTMO board, passed on residents’ fears about the installation of gas pipes in stairwells. KCTMO said they would be boxed in with “fire-rated protection” but this was not done. She also asked for an “independent safety adjudication of the building, but this was declined”, The Guardian reports. “I was treated like I was a nuisance,” she said. “I raised 19 complaints on behalf of individual residents. Every single time we were told that the board had satisfied itself that the fire safety was fine.”

The responsibility for this disaster flows in a putrid line from KCTMO to Kensington council onto Westminster and government policies over decades. The commercialisation of public services, the cutting of funds to local authorities and emergency services – consistently praised but numbers cut, stations closed, wages frozen – the marginalisation of the poorest sections of society and gross neglect are at the root of this tragedy. These are manifold causes that are themselves effects of a destructive, divisive approach to governance, in which financial considerations, not human concerns or social justice, determine action, policies and attitudes.

Gentrification and social cleansing

Grenfell Tower forms part of the Lancaster Road West Estate in Notting Hill Gate. This is an area which, like many other parts of the capital, has been subjected to a gentrification assault accompanied by systematic social cleansing that goes back decades and has intensified over the last 10-15 years.

In 1980 Margaret Thatcher introduced the “right-to-buy” policy, allowing council tenants the chance to buy their homes. Since then the number of council homes in Britain has been reduced by over two million and the poison of neo-liberal market economics has infiltrated all areas of social policy, including housing. Council property – flats, houses, libraries, school playgrounds, youth clubs, etc. are regarded as commercial assets to be sold off and profited from. Council homes have been removed from local authority ownership and control and handed over to “arms-length” management companies – like KCTMO – and/or transferred to housing associations. Local authorities, the Radical Housing Group says, have “become distanced from housing provision, central government funding for social housing has been reduced, and the involvement of powerful private companies has increased”.

The commercialisation of social housing has resulted in a lack of accountability, acute shortage of council accommodation, a derisory attitude towards social housing tenants and inflated rents. Throughout London, commercial and residential prices have gone through the roof, while cuts to housing benefit by the Conservative government have meant that those unemployed or on low incomes cannot cover rents.

As areas are redeveloped, people living in estates like Grenfell Tower are being pushed further and further out of the city, their concerns disregarded, their voices ignored, their lives regarded as irrelevant. Private companies dominate regeneration projects; firms are given valuable land, in exchange for their work, on which to build expensive flats that only the wealthy can afford. Public spaces are absorbed, becoming private commodities, local residents’ concerns are routinely disregarded, the city becomes a corporate space, city living more and more expensive and the poor are discarded, unwelcome.

Social diversity and colour are gradually being sucked out of the area around Grenfell and a bland homogenised ghetto for the rich created. Pubs and low cost cafes where people would traditionally have met have been closed down to make way for expensive restaurants, ritzy spas, delicatessens that nobody can afford and designer cafes. All of these are aimed firmly at the wealthy residents who own the flats and houses worth millions of pounds and located just two streets away from the estate and can afford the exorbitant prices.

Some fear that the council could use this disaster as an opportunity to intensify its assault on the poor and build another luxury high-rise building in place of the burnt-out tower. All Grenfell residents must be offered long-term affordable accommodation within their local area or an area of their choosing. To this end, and to address the shortage of council property in the borough (there are approximately 3,000 people waiting for social housing in Kensington), the council should buy private property and turn it into council housing. News that 68 flats have now been bought in Kensington by the Corporation of London to house survivors is welcome, but the details of any offers need to be scrutinised, who it applies to ascertained,  the victims consulted and listened to, and their wishes honoured.

While they may not have lit the match, this disaster is the result of long-term socio-economic policies pursued by successive governments that discriminate against the poor, of the abdication of responsibility by local government and criminal negligence by the KCTMO.

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