Over 1,200 Views for The Four Fathers’ ‘Grenfell’ Video, Remembering Those Whose Lives Were Lost, and Calling for Those Responsible to be Held Accountable

11.2.18

The Silent Walk for Grenfell, December 14, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Last month, at a party of activists in Brooklyn, towards the end of my annual US visit to call for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on the anniversary of its opening (the 16th anniversary of its opening, on January 11), I played ‘Grenfell’, the song I wrote after an entirely preventable inferno consumed Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in west London last June, killing 71 people.

I wasn’t sure how much the small audience of human rights activists knew about it — how much news of distant disasters spreads around the globe, despite the notion that technology has made us all inter-connected — but I realised when introducing it that it was, for me, the defining moment of 2017, and I’m sure my passionate rendition of it helped one small corner of Brooklyn to understand.

I wrote ‘Grenfell’ last summer, as my response to the disaster, and played it with my band The Four Fathers for the first time in September at a benefit gig for campaigners in Tottenham, as part of their opposition to the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a deeply unpleasant proposal by Haringey Council to enter into a £2bn deal with the rapacious international property developers Lendlease (the destroyers of Southwark’s Heygate Estate), which would involve the council transferring all its social housing to the HDV, with the ensuing destruction of entire estates, and their replacement with new private housing, from which most of the existing tenants would almost certainly be excluded.

In October, a visiting German film crew, making a documentary about London’s housing crisis, recorded my band The Four Fathers playing ‘Grenfell’ — or, to be specific, three members of the band (myself, Richard Clare and Mark Quiney), plus my son Tyler beatboxing — which we made available as a video, on YouTube and Facebook, in December. The YouTube video is below, and the Facebook video is here, and I’m delighted to note that the video, on YouTube and Facebook, has now had over 1,200 views. I hope you have time to watch it, and will share it if you appreciate its sentiments.

The state of social housing — and its future — have long been of concern to me, as a social tenant myself for most of my adult life, first on a council estate in Brixton, then in housing co-ops, and, latterly, as a tenant of a housing association. I’d love to see social housing — housing for rent, on a genuinely affordable basis — made available to anyone who wants it, but it has been under attack throughout this entire period.

As part of her ‘Right to Buy’ initiative in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher sold off council housing at huge discounts, but refused to allow councils to re-invest the money they made in new housing, starting a supply problem that has persisted ever since. Moreover, in Brixton, the estate I lived on was one of six areas designated by Thatcher’s government in 1987 as Housing Actions Trusts (HATS), where the cynical intention was to take estates out of council control, hand them over to private developers to renovate, and then, so the story went, rent them back to existing tenants. On Loughborough Estate, where I lived — and particularly on Angell Town next door, where the tenants’ organisation was led by the formidable Dora Boatemah — we weren’t fooled by this scam, which, in a premonition of today’s regeneration projects, would have led to most tenants being priced out of their homes, and we fought for tenants’ ballots, and saw off the Housing Action Trust proposal in 1988.

Since then I have continued to champion social housing, but have been sadly aware that it has been persistently under attack, partly as New Labour turned its back on its socialist principles, partly as the right-wing media and the Tories cynically and inaccurately portrayed council estates as “sink estates” full of criminals, and partly through a general consensus of the better-off that social housing ought to be only for the most desperately poor, rather than being something that ought to be as widely available as possible.

The denigration of social housing is, shamefully, one way in which those with power and influence maintain an endlessly overheated and artificially maintained housing bubble in which, for most of the last 20 years, housing has become a source of exploitation and profiteering on a colossal scale. With mortgages nowadays beyond the reach of all but the wealthy, and with an unfettered private rental market, in which tenants have essentially no protections whatsoever against exploitative landlords, who can charge whatever they can get away with, can kick people out at a moment’s notice, and can oblige people to live in slums, the need for genuinely affordable social housing is greater than it has been since the large-scale visionary projects of last century, which Thatcher’s malignant government brought to an entirely unnecessary end.

In recent years, however, the destruction of social housing has become even bigger business. Shorn of money by central government, councils — and let it be noted that Labour councils figure prominently in this story — have turned to private developers to, conveniently, help them knock down estates that can be portrayed as too expensive to renovate, to be replaced by new housing from which, as was intended in 1987 by Margaret Thatcher’s Housing Action Trusts, existing tenants can be priced out.

That’s what happened at the Heygate Estate in Southwark, mentioned above, it was the intention of Haringey Council, until a formidable grass-roots movement rose up that seems to have derailed it, and it’s a story that is being replicated across London, and up and down the country, which can only be stopped by concerted resistance. This is something I’m trying to help with through my role as the narrator of ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, a new documentary film about the destruction of estates and the inspiring resistance of residents, through my establishment of a specific campaign group in Lewisham, ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’, and through my music.

To return to Grenfell Tower, another huge problem with social housing has been the failure of everyone with responsibility for the safety of tenants living in high-rise blocks to protect them, and this was something that became shockingly apparent as the reasons for the inferno at Grenfell were analysed.

As I undertook research, I discovered the work of the Grenfell Action Group, representing tenants in Grenfell Tower, whose writings, shockingly, had foretold the disaster. As I explained in Deaths Foretold at Grenfell Tower: Let This Be The Moment We The People Say “No More” to the Greed That Killed Residents, an article I published on June 16:

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 {Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation], 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!”

Although KCTMO were directly responsible for the management of Grenfell, and all of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s social housing, politicians at the central and local government level also have a significant responsibility for what took place — to give just a few key examples, cutting “red tape” to make the management of social housing more profitable, failing to order the installation of sprinklers in all tower blocks, eroding safety standards so that contractors were allowed to self-certify that their work was safe, allowing flammable materials to be used as cladding, as specifically happened with Grenfell Tower, and failing to ensure that the structural integrity of tower blocks was maintained when, for example, towers were re-clad, another fatal omission that specifically happened with Grenfell Tower.

Unfortunately, although the disaster inspired widespread outrage in the days and weeks that followed it, the media and society as a whole have moved on. A public inquiry has begun, but those affected do not trust it to deliver justice (see the petition here), and the survivors made homeless by the disaster have, for the most part, not been re-housed. In addition, there is no sign of a desire on the part of anyone with power and influence to immediately address some of the most serious problems identified at Grenfell — the need to install sprinklers in all tower blocks, and the need to remove flammable cladding, and to make sure that safety standards are amended to remove obvious examples of safety being compromised.

Instead, stories continue to emerge of how tenants continue to be failed by those responsible for their safety. In the last few weeks, for example, the Guardian has published the following articles: Only three out of 160 social housing towers reclad after Grenfell fire, Residents of tower with Grenfell-style cladding told they must foot £2m bill, Taxpayers face £4m bill as landlord refuses to make tower block safe and Salford block residents must pay £100,000 for fire wardens.

On January 24, Seraphima Kennedy, a writer and academic researcher, who used to be a neighbourhood officer at KCTMO, wrote an article for the Guardian summarising the failures of the seven months since the disaster. Her article began as follows:

There was a moment in the aftermath of the fire at Grenfell Tower when all political parties were agreed: no government of any stripe could fail a community the way that residents in North Kensington had been failed. It felt like a turning point, both locally and nationally, in how social housing tenants were being treated. Theresa May admitted: “The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough … That was a failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most.”

Yet on Monday the Guardian revealed that tens of thousands of people are still living in unsafe homes across the country, with 312 social and private housing blocks wrapped in flammable cladding seven months after the disaster. That 299 of these blocks are likely to breach building controls reveals the state of inertia gripping this government when it comes to looking after the lives of its citizens. Even after a report confirmed that the current system of building controls was not fit for purpose, the government still refused to commit any additional funding to help cash-strapped councils meet the costs of fire safety works.

A Shelter housing commission, launched on Wednesday in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, shows that almost half of families in social housing who reported issues around poor or unsafe conditions feel ignored or are refused help, and a quarter feel looked down on because of where they live. Edward Daffarn, a Grenfell survivor and member of Shelter’s panel, says change will only ever be achieved when social housing tenants are never again “treated like second-class citizens”.

To make that happen, we need to make sure that Grenfell is not forgotten, and its lessons are not swept under the carpet. If you like ‘Grenfell’, a heartfelt effort to support the community, and to call for justice, then please share it. And if you can, come to the Silent Walk this Wednesday, February 14. The Silent Walks take place on the 14th of every month, and this Wednesday’s walk marks eight months since the disaster. I went on the walk in December, and will be going again this Wednesday, and I can confirm that there is something extremely powerful about marching in silence to show solidarity with the victims and the survivors.

The Four Fathers also intend to make a studio recording of ‘Grenfell’ soon, and we’d like to use it to support the Grenfell community, so if anyone from the area wants to be involved — via a studio, or as a guest rapper, for example — then do get in touch. We are still intent on doing all we can to provide support and to try to keep the spotlight on Grenfell, where it should remain until justice is delivered, and promises can be made that nothing like the Grenfell Tower fire should ever happen again.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, publicising the video of my band The Four Fathers playing ‘Grenfell’, the song I wrote last summer about the entirely preventable fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London last June, killing 71 people, in which I remember those whose lives were “so needlessly lost”, and call for “those who only count the profit not the human cost” to be held accountable. The video has had over 1,200 views to date on YouTube and here on Facebook, and if you haven’t seen it, I hope you will, and will share it if you appreciate its sentiments.
    My article looks at how those living in Grenfell Tower were failed by everyone responsible for their safety, and I also reflect on 30 years of the erosion of respect for social housing in general by governments, the media and, sadly, far too many of the British people, and call for social housing to be protected from those who seek to destroy it, to cynically replace it with private developments that are unaffordable for those who used to live there, a process of social cleansing that is taking place across the capital and throughout the UK.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It contains elements of my thoughts on the importance of social housing, based on 30 years of living mostly in social housing, that I will be continuing to develop this year. I particularly enjoyed writing about my involvement in resisting Margaret Thatcher’s proposed implementation of Housing Action Trusts (HATS) in 1987, which we saw off in Brixton in 1988, and which contains themes that will be all too familiar to anyone interested in or affected by the social cleansing of today. As I note, “in Brixton, the estate I lived on was one of six areas designated by Thatcher’s government in 1987 as Housing Actions Trusts (HATS), where the cynical intention was to take estates out of council control, hand them over to private developers to renovate, and then, so the story went, rent them back to existing tenants. On Loughborough Estate, where I lived — and particularly on Angell Town next door, where the tenants’ organisation was led by the formidable Dora Boatemah — we weren’t fooled by this scam, which, in a premonition of today’s regeneration projects, would have led to most tenants being priced out of their homes, and we fought for tenants’ ballots, and saw off the Housing Action Trust proposal in 1988.”
    Does anyone else have any memories of HATs? I’d love to put on an event in Brixton this year to mark the 30th anniversary of our successful resistance to the proposals. On one memorable occasion, housing minster William Waldegrave came to Angell Town Estate to try and sell us the project, and was shouted down by tenants who saw through his lies. Many of the Afro-Caribbean people in Angell Town had already been evicted from their homes (ironically, Victorian terraced housing, and alleged slums that would be worth a fortune today) when Angell Town was built, and had no intention of moving again, and they also knew, and told Waldegrave, that they – as bus drivers, porters, nurses – wouldn’t be able to afford the over-priced flats that the Tories very obviously had in mind. Thoroughly shouted down and clearly rattled, the minister left in a hurry, driving off the estate in a clattering government car that had had tin cans tied to it during the meeting!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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