Grenfell One Year On: How Can We Feel Safe in a Country That Regards Everyone in Social Housing as Inferior?


The Silent Walk for Grenfell, December 14, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Exactly one year, ago, an inferno engulfed Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in north Kensington, in west London, with such speed and ferocity that 71 people died, and a 72nd person died this January as a result of injuries sustained that night.

It was a disaster that should never have happened, and the fact that it did cuts to the heart of how Britain operates in the 21st century.

The tower block was built of essentially incombustible concrete, and the process known as compartmentalisation was meant to ensure that any fire that broke out would be contained within the flat in which it broke out, with every other flat supposed to be able to resist the spread of fire for an hour, giving the fire services time to arrive on the scene.

In fact, fire leapt up the tower like nothing anyone had seen before, clearly indicating that every safety measure that was supposed to prevent an inferno had drastically failed. At the heart of the disaster were measures taken that had fatally corrupted the structural integrity of the tower. In order to make the tower appear more attractive, new cladding had been applied to it, but the cladding was flammable, and had created the inferno that took so many lives.

Faced with this unprecedented disaster, the Fire Brigade Union was out of its depth. In a building without fatally compromised structural integrity, and with compartmentalisation intact, telling residents to stay put is sensible; in the case of Grenfell, it was the opposite, and by the time the FBU realised, it was too late.

However, it was not the FBU that had created the death trap in the first place. That was the cumulative effect of decisions taken by successive governments, to reduce red tape and increase profits for those making money off social tenants, and the council (Kensington and Chelsea), which had farmed out all its social housing to a management organisation (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) that was clearly unconcerned about those in its care.

In a searingly devastating blog post in November 2016, Edward Daffarn and Francis O’Connor of the Grenfell Action Group were particularly appalled by the incompetence of the KCTMO. In an article entitled, ‘KCTMO – Playing with fire!’, which I came across on the day of the fire, they wrote, with chilling prescience, 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”, adding, “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!”

Adding to the disaster were those in the building industry who were part of an increasingly deregulated world in which self-certification had become widespread (rather than work being objectively assessed), and flammable materials were routinely used in circumstances where, as at Grenfell, that could prove to be fatal.

Death trap

All of this was easily discerned at the time, but it took nearly a year for the official inquiry to begin, although last week, as the Guardian reported, Danny Friedman QC, “speaking on behalf of law firms representing survivors and the bereaved, said his clients were watching the inquiry with ‘calm rage.’”

Friedman explained how Grenfell Tower “was turned into a ‘death trap’ by a dangerous and reprehensible refurbishment carried out by Kensington and Chelsea council and the local tenant management organisation”, and his accusations came, as the Guardian noted, “as commercial firms responsible for the work came under pressure to end their effective silence and participate more actively in the investigation.”

Friedman proceeded to explain that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was “lethal”, adding, “In the second decade of 21st-century London, governed by a regulatory framework designed to ensure fire safety, a local authority instigated and oversaw the refurbishment of a social housing, high-rise tower block in such a way as to render it a death trap.”

He also said, “The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the tenant management organisation did this using public funds paid to an array of contractors and subcontractors – none of whom have yet taken any responsibility for what happened”, even though the building works were “obviously dangerous, reprehensible and contrary” to regulations.

“Residents and many people told them that this would happen but they were fobbed off and certainly not treated as equals. Seventy-two people died. Those who escaped owed their survival to chance rather than as a result of assessments or contingency planning by the fire brigade”, which “failed to realise quickly enough that this was a ‘fire that could not be fought and required evacuation that could not be delayed.’”

There was equally robust criticism of the building industry from Stephanie Barwise, counsel for the same law firms, who, as the Guardian put it, “focused on the flammability of the material used in the cladding and refurbishment.” As she said, in a line that has stayed with me since I read it last week, “Our understanding is that the ignition of the polyethylene within the cladding panels produces a flaming reaction more quickly than dropping a match into a barrel of petrol.”

So Grenfell Tower — and hundreds of other tower blocks in the UK — were clad in material that catches fire “more quickly than dropping a match into a barrel of petrol.”

How that is possible in modern Britain is because greed and indifference to others has become part and parcel of modern life, in which all notions of the common good appear to have been abandoned by those with power and authority.

June 14, 2017

On June 14 last year, after I had woken to the shocking images of Grenfell Tower aflame, I was drawn to see it for myself, to realise the enormity of what had happened. I took the train from my home in Lewisham to Clapham Junction, and then cycled across Wandsworth Bridge and though Fulham. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and people were sunbathing on Parsons Green. It was hard to believe that, just a few miles away, a disaster was still unfolding.

From Fulham, I then made my way east on the Kings Road, turning north near World’s End, and enduring traffic-choked roads through Earls Court and the wealthier parts of Kensington until I finally saw the smoke and the charred skeleton of the tower. I immediately felt the enormity of what had happened, and also felt rather ghoulish, and so, as I made my way to the places of refuge that had established themselves on Latimer Road, I threw what money I had in a bucket, marvelled at how quickly the community had rallied, providing huge amounts of food, water and clothing for the survivors, took note that there was no official presence whatsoever, and also noted a group of Muslim teenagers applying themselves with great dedication to making sure that the survivors were being looked after.

I then left, cycling home, and taking photos along the way, as I always do, but it was obvious to me that something had changed irrevocably, that something had happened that could not be forgotten; that should not be forgotten. Although the sun still shone, and people were going about their everyday lives, it felt to me that this normal life was no longer acceptable, that the lives of all those who died deserved more, and that a spotlight needed to be relentlessly shone on those who were responsible, to hold them accountable, to make sure nothing like this would ever happen again, to make sure they looked after the survivors, and to learn from what the disaster said about the perceived value of people in Britain today.

One year on

Unfortunately, one year on, it would be hard to say that much of the above has been achieved. Not all the survivors have been rehoused, even though it is impossible to imagine this happening if, for some reason, hundreds of the wealthier inhabitants of Kensington had suddenly lost their homes in a devastating incident. As the Independent explained today:

More than 200 homes bought by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) to rehouse Grenfell survivors are empty a year on as scores of households remain in hotels because the properties are deemed unsuitable.

Charities and lawyers have condemned the “very poor” quality of housing offers made to displaced households, with survivors offered “rabbit hutch” flats which lack basic facilities such as living rooms, while other properties purchased by the council are still in need of renovation and that will not be ready until 2019.

With already long waiting lists for social housing in the borough, the council spent £235m on buying 307 properties intended for Grenfell residents in the immediate aftermath of the fire in a bid to get all of the survivors rehoused within a year.

But 12 months on, just 81 of these have been moved into. A total of 129 Grenfell households – more than half of those that escaped the blaze – are yet to be permanently housed, with 72 of these stuck in emergency accommodation, many of them families with young children.

Just as shockingly, to my mind, very little has been done to remove the flammable cladding from the other tower blocks — 323, of which 138 are privately owned, according to an Inside Housing article two days ago  — that were subjected to similar refurbishment, or were built from new with flammable cladding. This is a national disgrace, and as such the government should have been dealing with it with some urgency, but in fact it took almost a year for Theresa May to promise £400m to remove unsafe cladding from tower blocks around the country, an even then, as I noted at the time, “questions remain — about where the money is coming from, under what circumstances it will be provided, and what will happen if it is not enough.”

The establishment’s contempt for those of us in social housing

Essentially, both failures — the rehousing and the national cladding problem — reveal a government and, to be blunt, almost an entire political establishment that cannot actually see beyond its own blinkered perspective about what is important. Almost entirely composed of owner-occupiers, the political class as a whole and its business associates no longer has a view of society as a whole.

Instead, as the twin viruses of Thatcherism and Blairism have eaten away at the nation’s soul, those who don’t have mortgages are regarded as second-class citizens, whatever supposedly placatory words our politicians — from across the political spectrum — may occasionally utter. Grenfell was the defining example of property owners’ contempt for those of us in social housing, but variations on the theme are being played out across London on a permanent basis, as councils of all political persuasions queue up to knock down council estates, removing social tenants and eradicating social tenancies in their united quest to screw everyone out of as much of their incomes as possible to feather their own nests.

Private renters in the UK are already amongst the most shafted and least protected people in the western world, and our politicians — Labour as well as the Tories — continue to pursue policies of estate demolition, and eradicating the provision of genuinely affordable social housing, with an enthusiasm that shows nothing less than contempt for those of us who rent.

As we remember the victims of Grenfell, and continue to call for justice and accountability, let us also call for a political sea change, one that seeks to puncture the housing bubble that has dominated our economic life for the last 20 years, endlessly increasingly inequality along the way, and that is dedicated to a massive social homebuilding programme, to provide genuinely affordable rents to everyone who doesn’t want to or is unable to join the owner-occupiers.

Secure and genuinely affordable housing is, essentially, a human right. In Grenfell Britain, however, that right was destroyed by the self-interest and callousness of the establishment to such an extent that people lost their lives because those responsible for their safety saw life only in terms of endless profiteering and class contempt. It’s time for revolutionary political change. I’m up for it. Are you?

Please see below the video of ‘Grenfell’ which I wrote last summer, remembering those whose lives were so needlessly lost, and calling for those responsible to be held accountable, as performed by my band The Four Fathers with beatboxer The Wiz-RD:

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.

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    On the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, in which 72 people died, here are my reflections – on what we’ve known from the beginning about how it was entirely preventable and should never have happened, and how we have now had the fatal erosion of safety standards officially confirmed, about the extraordinary resilience and solidarity of the local community, who came together to fill a vacuum left by the establishment in the wake of the fire, about the government’s failure to re-house survivors, and its failure to remove potentially lethal cladding from hundreds of other tower blocks, and how, as I describe it in my article, “those who don’t have mortgages are regarded [by almost the entire political establishment of owner-occupiers] as second-class citizens, whatever supposedly placatory words our politicians — from across the political spectrum — may occasionally utter. Grenfell was the defining example of property owners’ contempt for those of us in social housing, but variations on the theme are being played out across London on a permanent basis, as councils of all political persuasions queue up to knock down council estates, removing social tenants and eradicating social tenancies in their united quest to screw everyone out of as much of their incomes as possible to feather their own nests.” As I conclude, “It’s time for revolutionary political change. I’m up for it. Are you?”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Brian Wilkes wrote:

    Great article Andy. As you highlight, revolutionary political change is absolutely essential if genuine change is to be achieved. I’m up for it and wholeheartedly with you.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the solidarity, Brian!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Londoners – this Saturday (tomorrow, June 16). Please be there!
    One year on: Justice for Grenfell Solidarity March
    Hosted by Justice4Grenfell

  5. Tom says...

    A lot of low income housing here is the same as Grenfell.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it seems to be a global problem, Tom. Chronic under-investment to facilitate profits for whoever the profiteers are, and then either demolition or a disaster like the Grenfell fire. There’s a war going on, a neoliberal war, involving housing and a cannibalistic desire of western neo-liberals to ruthlessly exploit their own populations, and people need to work out how to fight back, or we’ll all be back to 19th century levels of squalor and exploitation.

  7. Tom says...

    One example of this. Robert DeNiro is a partner in a global restaurant chain (Nobu) that’s expanded into hotels. Now the latest is a partnership to build luxury condominiums in downtown Toronto. The housing bubble is still going there, so demand for these is high. How many of these are being bought by foreign investors who will almost never live there? While officially Mayor John Tory welcomes this, their website is still very secretive.

    Meanwhile the going rent for a studio flat is $2,000 on up.

  8. Tom says...

    Another example of a DeNiro project is a Nobu hotel in Antigua. He says he and his family have been going there for years, so he knows the area well. He’s made a deal with the Antiguan govt. to start construction. The problem is, why would you build a hotel that’s so expensive that none of the locals can afford to go there?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for those anecdotes, Tom. It’s more money making money, isn’t it, with no overview about what damage that causes. Unless allegedly decent people start thinking about the poor, rather than how to just service the rich and the aspirational, the gulf between rich and poor will continue to grow.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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