Around 1am on Wednesday 13 June a fire tore through 24-storey Grenfell Tower in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, killing a currently unknown number of people. Firefighters have told people the number will be in triple figures.
Many hundreds of people have had family members, friends, neighbours, and homes taken from them. Survivors and local residents are angry. ″This symbolises the divide between rich and poor in this area″. ″They don′t care″. ″They put human beings in pigeon holes. Just because you can′t afford anything doesn′t mean you should be dumped in somewhere like that″. ″That would not happen in Chelsea″, ″Corporate manslaughter″. ″Why!?″.
Grenfell has exposed inequality in housing and exploded the narrative that “we’re all in this together”. The class divide exists. It kills people.
The fire spread very fast, by some reports covering one side of the building in just 15 minutes. Photographs show how the fire quickly reached the top of the tower before spreading back down the opposite side in the space of a few hours, reaching those who were trapped in their flats.
Grenfell Tower was reclad and refurbished at a cost of £8.7m just last year. The type of insulation used in the cladding is banned in the US and Germany, and on Sunday 18th chancellor Philip Hammond, Chancellor, suggested that it is also banned in the UK for buildings over 18 metres. Similar cladding was identified as a key reason for the spread of fire at Lakanal House in South London in 2009. Sam Webb, who acted as an expert witness at the Lakanal inquest, says that the lessons over cladding were not learnt. The supplier has confirmed that the insulation supplied was a slightly cheaper flammable type. The non-flammable version which would have cost just £5000 more for the whole block. In the richest borough, in the richest city, in one of the richest countries in the world, people lose their lives for want of an extra £5000 for non-flammable cladding.
It was not that there was no money to refurbish the flats. It is that profiteering and lack of democratic control shaped how the money was spent. Money was spent which made safety worse, not better. A choice was made not to spend the £8.7m on a functioning fire alarm system, on fixing suspected faulty wiring, on fire risk assessments by experts, or on retro-fitting sprinklers. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association estimates around £200,000 for retrofitting sprinklers in Grenfell Tower.
Documents and minutes from the council and the arms-length management company repeatedly cite one of the major reasons for the recladding as improving the external appearance of the tower (it also improved insulation). So long as it looked good, safety was secondary. Insulation materials used inside the tower may also have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.
Without democratic oversight by councils, and democratic oversight of councils by tenants and local people, more spending may damage, not help, safety. Since 2007 all new blocks of flats over 30 metres must by law have sprinklers fitted by law. There is no obligation to retrofit them to older buildings. Successive governments , both Labour and Tory, have decided against obligation. The BBC reports: “Just two miles away [from Grenfell Tower] is 3 Merchant Square... It’s a different world. The penthouse apartment was sold for £7.5m. One-bedroom flats are at least £1m.
“Once you get past the sales brochure description of 3 Merchant Square’s walnut cutlery drawer inserts and integral wine coolers, the adjustable mood lighting and heated bathroom walls, you [find] every flat has... sprinklers”.
The International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA) says that automatic fire sprinkler systems are the single most effective fire protection measure available. There has never been a multiple loss of life from a fire in a building protected by a properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler system.
The prevailing mood in government has been that regulation is a burden on the housing and construction industries. In 2011 David Cameron promised to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and abolish the “albatross of over-regulation”.,More than 2400 pieces of regulation have been scrapped by the government under the “Cutting Red Tape” scheme. In February 2017 a government report under the scheme boasted about how fire safety inspections in some companies had been reduced from six hours to just 45 minutes.
The “health and safety gone mad” brigade would have us put our lives at risk for the “right” of businesses to the largest profit possible. Only it wouldn’t be their lives, but those of working-class people forced into substandard housing.
Grenfell Tower was managed for the council by an arms-length outfit, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. KCTMO sub-contracted the refurbishment to a company called Rydon, which then again sub-contracted to a myriad of companies. Now the government, the council, KCTMO, and Rydon all scrabble to hand blame down the line. But contracting-out is a problem in itself!
Many years of local government funding cuts have reduced councils to economy-obsessed overseers of housing, libraries, social care, youth clubs. Local authorities used to have their own Direct Works departments, which provided stable jobs to building workers and more accountability over the work done. Most of those were shut down, under pressure from the Thatcher government, in the 1980s or 1990s. As well as being pushed along by cuts, contracting-out has been a political choice, often made by Labour councils. When the council is providing and managing your housing there is someone to complain to who can act directly to solve the issue (whether they do or not is another matter). But when your housing is owned by the council, it is managed by an ALMO, and refurbishment, repairs, and fire safety checks, it is all too easy for residents’ concerns to be lost in the maze.
A 2012 fire risk assessment on Grenfell reported that “emergency lighting and fire alarm systems along with the dry riser, fire fighter lifts and the hose reels are all subject to a maintenance contract carried out by a third-party contractor”, but concluded that there was no evidence that maintenance was being carried out. The Grenfell Action Group reports that an investigation into faulty emergency stairwell lighting in 2004 found that contractors had been falsifying inspection certificates. It censured poor communications between the contractors and KCTMO.
On Friday 16 June a letter from a richer resident of Kensington and Chelsea reported that the council had given everyone who had paid their year’s council tax upfront a £100 rebate. The letter described it as “blood money”. The letter continued: “For years, the Royal Borough has been running huge underspends in its revenue budgets which it then transfers into capital reserves. The underspend in the 2016-17 adult services budget alone is £1.9m. Apparently, adult services in the area are doing so well they don’t need the money.
“And every other social service must be performing brilliantly, as the council’s projected reserves of £167m by the end of 2016-17 has climbed to a staggering £209m – that’s £42m surplus to requirements. How many sprinkler systems is that?”
Kensington and Chelsea council has built just 10 social homes in the last 28 years. In the same period private developers built 4060 homes. Social housing has become seen as a full-of-holes safety net for the most desperate, rather than decent, planned, affordable homes for all. Councils are being prevented from borrowing in order to build housing. Into the gap step greedy private developers. They get Section 106 agreements which allow them to shake off their responsibility to build a minimum of 20% social housing and instead give an “equivalent” pay-off to build a leisure centre or a traffic crossing. Local democracy goes down the drain when the big private money turns up. Social housing in London is being squeezed further and further.
Councils need a democratic overhaul. All building should be democratically controlled, with councils as elected bodies as the core of that control alongside tenants’ and residents’ groups. New building should be council building. Councillors should be accountable and not merely rubber stampers.
Tenants’ organisations should have access to public funds to organise themselves, and have a presence in the community. More and more people have been squeezed out of any sort of social housing into the clutches of profiteering private landlords who are subject to even less regulation and charge soaring rents. In 2016 Tory MPs voted down a Labour amendment to the Housing Act which would have meant rented homes would have to be “fit for human habitation”. 72 of them were themselves landlords, including Fire Minister Nick Hurd, the fourth generation of the Hurd family to sit in Parliament. Many have called for thousands of towers of a similar age and build to Grenfell in the UK to be torn down. Some of them may need to be taken down, but what will replace the homes, an average of 100 to 120 per tower block?
Across London tenants are struggling against redevelopment plans that are not creating better housing for them, but replacing often decent, if a little run-down, housing with developments where the original tenants have been erased entirely or reduced to a token percentage. Labour-run Haringey council on Thursday 15 June re-confirmed that it will go ahead with a £2 billion redevelopment plan in partnership with LendLease – who are being investigated in Australia for using, flammable cladding on the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. Families At Grenfell Tower, many of the one and two bedroom flats were occupied by families of four, five, six people.
Overcrowding is the rule rather than the exception. Many of the missing, presumed dead, were disabled or elderly, yet they were housed on high floors with no emergency escape plan. The victims at Grenfell were overwhelmingly BAME, many recent refugees. Kensington and Chelsea Council saw poor, BAME, people as a nuisance and ignored their repeated warnings. Tenants organised in the Grenfell Action Group wrote just six months ago wrote that they 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”.
Tenants had complained over a number of years over a variety of fire risks. Emergency lighting systems not working. Fire extinguishers out of test date or condemned. Regular fire safety inspections lacking. Rubbish blocking fire exits. Power surges and faulty wiring. Fire safety instructions and advice lacking. The Action Group also highlighted the increased fire risk caused by the refurbishment work; and the cladding which had been implicated in the fire at Lakanal House in Southwark. Tenants were treated with contempt. Two of the tenants who are now missing, presumed dead, were sent legal threats by KCTMO and the council because of their efforts to organise tenants to campaign for safer and better housing. Because why would working-class people know anything about fire safety?
In fact the tenants had organised themselves, educated themselves, joined up with other housing campaigns and probably could have run rings round KCTMO, the council and their myriad of profiteering contractors in an open forum. So those responsible hid behind legal threats and empty promises. Those responsible are continuing to hide. The local community, and volunteers from across London have stepped in to support residents while as the local state institutions have failed. Ealing council has now stepped in to help run the emergency relief effort. We demand: • The rolling-back of contracting-out • The repeal of fire service cuts and restoration of fire safety checks done by the fire service • Councils to be mandated and funded to carry out an audit of fire safety in their areas, and all consequent works. This must be a political turning point. There must be justice for Grenfell.
Occupy the houses of the rich!
Jeremy Corbyn has demanded that the empty houses of the rich in Kensington be requisitioned to house the victims of the Grenfell fire. Why is the basic human need of shelter privatised? Why is land distributed so that some have large homes with many spare rooms, or multiple homes, and others are packed into overcrowded death-traps?
How can we have empty homes when 170,000 people are homeless in London alone? Councils should be given the power to requisition property left empty and put it to social use. And, as Corbyn also said, if councils won’t do that, people should simply occupy the empty palaces. Fire service cuts put us at risk
The fire service could have done little more than they did to tackle the fire once it had taken hold, but cuts in the fire service play a role in the background. The government cut Fire and Rescue services by 30% in the last parliament. It intends to cut them by another 20% this parliament. 10 London fire stations shut in 2014. One firefighter job in six has been cut since 2010. Firefighters have to work longer, putting their own health at risk or risking failing fitness checks and being made redundant.
Fire service cuts most acutely affect fire prevention. Fire safety audits have fallen by 25% since 2010. The number of specialist fire safety officers is estimated to have dropped by two-thirds. The number of counsellors who support fire fighters after disasters like Grenfell was cut by Boris Johnson from 14 to just two. Appeals have now been made for volunteer counsellors to help .
The waste and tragedy of class society
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in West London generally feels like another world compared to my own borough, Lewisham, in South East London. We visited frequently with my kids when they were younger, I watched their eyes widen, I heard their intakes of breath, at the towering dinosaur skeletons and the life sized blue whale at the Natural History Museum. The blackened Diplodocus stood in the entrance hall. We felt connected with life, big, old, everywhere.
This last Sunday we visited Kensington for a different reason, I took my teenage children to the Grenfell Tower site. Now I watch their eyes widen and heard sharp intakes of breath, as they stood before another giant blackened skeleton. No celebration of life here, but the waste and tragedy of class society. We stood around for a while in silence alongside others starring up, slowly shaking their heads with expressions of disbelief and anger.
From a small huddle of people, rises a woman’s voice, it’s old but strong. She stabilises herself on a bench and shakes a fist at the sky. “How could this happen ... in Britain ... 2017 ...2017!” She apologises to the huddle of people, for her tiredness, her broken English. She tells us she’s fasting but does not retreat from the baking heat. She wants to educate the crowd, telling us about the council and their miserly “savings” which led to contractors and sub-contractors using combustible materials. She tells us of her son’s experiences of the police. She blames the government. Her head, shaking in defiance, calls us all into solidarity.