Nine Months After the Entirely Preventable Grenfell Tower Fire, UN Housing Rapporteur Says UK Government May Have Breached Residents’ Human Rights

14.3.18

The Silent Walk for Grenfell, December 14, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.





 

Today, survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire last June — and supporters from across London —  are taking part in a Silent Walk that begins outside the offices of Kensington and Chelsea Council and ends by the blackened skeleton of the tower, where over 70 people died. The fire should never have happened, but did so because safety standards have been fatally eroded over many years by those responsible for the safety of tenants and leaseholders — central government, local government, management companies that have taken over the management of swathes of social housing, and contractors.

For me, the fire was the defining moment of 2017, and in summer I wrote a song about it, remembering those whose lives were “so needlessly lost”, and calling for ”those who only count the profit not the human cost” to be held accountable. Three members of my band The Four Fathers — myself, Richard Clare and Mark Quiney, accompanied by my son Tyler beatboxing — were recorded playing the song by a German film crew in autumn. We released it as a video in December, and I’m pleased to note that it currently has nearly 1,500 views on YouTube (posted below) and on Facebook. Please watch it, and share it if you like it. We hope to make a studio recording soon, and would be delighted to hear from anyone in the Grenfell community who would like to be involved, as we would love it to be used to help the survivors.

Yesterday, over 150,000 of us also received notification that Parliament will debate the terms of the official Grenfell Inquiry on May 14, which, presumably, the government hasn’t recognized as marking exactly eleven months since the fire. The date has been set in response to a petition to the government, launched at the end of November, which stated, “Bereaved families & survivors call on PM to exercise her powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 to appoint additional panel members with decision making power to sit alongside Chair in Grenfell Tower Inquiry: to ensure those affected have confidence in & are willing to fully participate in the Inquiry.”

Petitions are eligible for debate when they reach 100,000 signatures, and thanks are due to Stormzy for promoting it last month, when his request for support for the petition, following his extraordinary appearance at the Brits, when he tore into Theresa May for her failures on Grenfell, helped the petition get around 100,000 signatures in a single day.

Criticism by Leilani Farha, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing

Last week, the government — and the British political establishment in general — faced further criticism from the United Nations, when Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, told the Guardian she was “concerned that international human rights standards on housing safety may have been breached, and could have been a factor in the causes of the tragedy last June,” as the newspaper described it.

Farha, a Canadian lawyer, who has been the UN’s unpaid housing investigator since 2014, was in London last week “on an informal visit to meet Grenfell survivors and local residents, at the invitation of human rights law academics and activists,” and, as the Guardian put it, she was “concerned that residents had told her they had been excluded from decisions about housing safety issues before the fire and had not been engaged ‘in a meaningful way’ by the authorities about their views and needs in its aftermath.”

She said she had been struck by survivors’ “feelings of not being heard, of feeling invisible, and not being treated like equal human beings,” adding, “I’m concerned when I have residents saying to me they feel they are not being heard and that they are not always being treated like human beings. Those are the fundamentals of human rights: voice, dignity, and participation in solutions to their own situations.”

As the Guardian described it, she also said that “[s]afety standards in the tower – from the types of cladding used on the building to electrical circuits and ease of access to the building for fire and rescue vehicles – may have breached residents’ human rights to safe and secure housing.”

The Guardian also mentioned the terms of the inquiry, noting that the government “faces increasing criticism from survivors’ groups, residents and local politicians over what they feel is an unrepresentative and overly rigid official inquiry, headed by the retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick.”

Farha said that her visit “was not to make a formal assessment of Grenfell,” in the Guardian’s words, but she stressed that she was “concerned that survivors and local residents had been stereotyped and discriminated against on the basis that they lived in social housing,” which “meant they may have been treated less as people with human rights, and more as objects of charity.”

As she put it, striking to the heart of the dreadful inequality that currently reigns, almost unchecked, in the UK, “Residents told me they feel the government’s position is that they should feel lucky that they are going to be rehoused and that they should feel lucky that they had social housing. That doesn’t suggest residents feel the government recognises them as rights holders. The fact that so many residents have said to me they are not being treated as human beings is suggestive of a society that is structured in a way where those in social housing are viewed perhaps as counting less. And that is deeply troubling.”

It is indeed deeply troubling, but it is also accurate, as I can confirm as a long-term resident of social housing. Over the years, social housing — genuinely affordable housing — has gone from being regarded as an important service, in which councils provided as much non-profit housing as possible, as an antidote to the profiteering of private landlords, to something that should only be used by the neediest and the most desperate. That this is a trick ought to be apparent from the fact that, as this narrative has developed, an insane housing bubble has also been allowed to develop, so that more and more people cannot afford mortgages, and are being strangled by unfettered private rents imposed by landlords whose greed is not challenged by any existing legislation. The need for not-for-profit social housing is, therefore, greater than it has been since at least the 1960s, although for the levels of inequality we’re now looking at, the increase in homelessness and the nature of the everyday struggles faced by so many people, it is starting to be more accurate to look back to the Victorian era for where the British political establishment thinks Britain in the 21st century should be.

Farha questioned whether regarding social tenants as inferior “may have influenced the decision to fit the tower with cheaper cladding that turned out to be flammable, reportedly to save £300,000,” as the Guardian put it. As she said, “If the population wasn’t viewed as somehow undeserving, as really lucky to receive the benevolence of state support for housing, if they were viewed as rights holders, I just wonder if that same decision would have been made.”

The Guardian also noted that Farha “has been a persistent critic of what she calls the ‘financialisation’ of housing, by which unregulated global capital is allowed to pour billions into exclusive, hyper-expensive new property developments in cities such as London, excluding local residents from local housing, pushing up rents and and fuelling housing instability,” and in February 2017 the newspaper ran a profile of her, under the heading, ‘Housing should be seen as a human right. Not a commodity.’

At the time, Farha was presenting a paper on housing commoditisation to the UN human rights council in Geneva, and the Guardian noted that her report included an analysis of Kensington, “a prime location for rich investors,” where the “numbers of vacant homes rose by 40% between 2013 and 2014 alone.” Her report stated, “In such markets the value of housing is no longer based on its social use. The housing is as valuable whether it is vacant or occupied, lived in or devoid of life. Homes sit empty while homeless populations burgeon.”

In the February 2017 profile, Farha used the phrase “residential alienation,” which, the Guardian noted, was borrowed from In Defence of Housing, a book by David Madden and Peter Marcuse: “In Vancouver, people were telling me they live in neighbourhoods where this house is empty because it’s been bought as an asset, this is occupied, this one’s empty and this one’s empty. So you have no neighbours, you have schools closing down because there aren’t enough students to go to the school; so your children, if you live in one of these vacated neighbourhoods, are not going to school in your community any more. Shops are closing, restaurants are closing. You see immediately a loss of vibrancy.” The analysis is remarkably similar to that put forward in ‘This dire Battersea Power Station development is genuinely dystopian,’ Owen Hatherley’s new article for the Architects’ Journal, about the horrible Battersea Power Station development, in which he states:

This is where it ends; developers offering cars to investors as incentives to buy flats in what were once meant to be pedestrian-based walkable cities, with empty private cinemas in barely occupied towers, and with what one estate agent describes as ‘empty rooftop bars with no one living at home to buy drinks at them’.

And, whereas many of the luxury riverside developments have been on industrial wastes with few landmarks, here, it is happening around one of the most recognisable and best-loved buildings in London, suffocating it with utterly useless, barely inhabited luxury living solutions, in a city where homelessness has got to the point you can barely move now without walking past people sleeping rough. It is genuinely dystopian. How did things get this bad?

Returning to Grenfell, Leilani Farha “said it felt symbolic that Grenfell Tower was in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest and most socially unequal boroughs in the capital,” as the Guardian put it. She said, “My sense is that in London there is an emphasis on the development of property to attract money and wealth to the city. My concern is that is overemphasised, and the standards and wellbeing of tenants in social housing are underemphasised, and that is a structural issue.”

She added, recognizing an issue that is of profound concern to campaigners, and that is the focus of the new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK,’ which I narrate, “Social housing is under considerable stress in the city. I’ve heard that many council estates are scheduled for demolition for regeneration projects – which seems to mean the development of high-end properties and the displacement of those living in social housing.”

Farha was not able to meet ministers during her visit. The Guardian noted that “a meeting with the housing secretary, Sajid Javid, could not be scheduled,” but that did not stop a government spokesperson from complaining that, “Had the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing approached the government to discuss her concerns we would gladly have met with her to discuss the work we are doing to support the Grenfell community.” Perhaps she was remembering the unprincipled attacks on her predecessor, Raquel Rolnik, who, in 2013, had called for the abolition of the disgraceful bedroom tax on the grounds that it violated tenants’ human rights. Rolnik had “warned that Britain’s relatively good record on housing rights was being eroded by the sell-off and neglect of social housing, and by welfare reforms that left poorer tenants in poverty and despair,” but ministers dismissed her criticisms as a “misleading Marxist diatribe,” and I reported at the time on her treatment in an article entitled, Disgusting Tory Britain: UN Housing Expert Attacked After Telling Government to Axe the Bedroom Tax.

Farha made it clear that she “did not want to imply the UK government had done nothing in the wake of Grenfell,” because it “had done a great deal” and it “was important that ministers had set up an inquiry, she said, even if it appeared to be moving slowly and was not as wide in scope as it could have been.” She also said she was keen to start a conversation with the government, and had “not ruled out writing a formal letter to the UK government setting out her concerns.” She stressed that it was important that the government “engaged seriously and urgently with survivors and residents – who had struck her by their thoughtfulness, expertise, intelligence, and resourcefulness – and that it investigated the structural causes of the fire.” As she put it, “I don’t deny it is complicated, but lives are at stake. I’m hearing stories of suicidality, children being extremely traumatised. These are the days that will make or break people.”

And that’s a conclusion that no one in government should be seeking to dismiss, with a repeat of the Tories’ disgraceful behavior in 2013. The bottom line, however, as, in significant numbers, Grenfell survivors are still not re-housed, is that they are not given anything like the treatment that they would have been given if last June’s disaster had happened in the richer part of Kensington — although, of course, that is unlikely, as those responsible for the safety of housing in the richer parts of Kensington wouldn’t, I presume, be looking to cut corners to ensure greater profits in the first place.

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Today it’s exactly nine months since the Grenfell Tower fire, an entirely preventable disaster in which over 70 people died, and here’s my latest article, looking at the criticism made by Leilani Farha, the UN’s housing rapporteur, who met with survivors last week and was alrmed to hear them say that they “are not being heard” and “are not always being treated like human beings.” She suggested correctly, that those in social housing are viewed as “counting less” than homeowners, a fair reflection of the disgraceful two-tiered system of perceived rights and significance that currently exists in the UK.
    My article also features the video of my song ‘Grenfell’, performed by my band The Four Fathers and teenage beatboxer The Wiz-RD, which now has nearly 1500 views here and on YouTube: https://youtu.be/BLehKWOhMyY
    The article also mentions the Silent Walk this evening, from the offices of Kensington and Chelsea Council to the tower, which is an extremely moving experience, if you can make it along, and the welcome news, received yesterday, that on May 14 Parliament will debate giving power to residents and their representatives as part of the official inquiry into Grenfell after over 155,000 of us signed a petition to the government. Please ask your MPs to get involved!

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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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