Four Years After the Grenfell Tower Fire, It’s All About Profit and No Accountability As Millions Still Live in Buildings With Similarly Flammable Cladding

14.6.21

Grenfell Tower illuminated on the morning of June 14, 2021, the fourth anniversary of the fire that engulfed it, leading to the loss of 72 lives (Photo: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard).

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Four years ago, when Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in west London was engulfed in an inferno, leading to the deaths of 72 people, it became apparent that everyone with responsibility for the safety of the block’s residents had failed to fulfil their obligations.

Those with blood on their hands included the Tory government, obsessed with cutting “red tape”, and failing to implement the lessons learned from previous tower block fires, and the local council, Kensington and Chelsea, which, in common with councils across the capital and the country as a whole, have largely neglected the maintenance of their social housing, content to subject it to “managed decline”, despite receiving millions of pounds in rent, in a manner that resembles nothing less than the behaviour of slum landlords.

The process of “managed decline” eventually enables councils to claim that estates need to be demolished, even though they are responsible for their dilapidation in the first place, at which point developers magically appear with proposals to ”regenerate” the estates with a mix of private properties for sale (generally at least half of the new housing), along with other forms of housing described as “social housing” or “affordable housing”, even though, in reality, they tend to be dubious “shared ownership” deals, or rented properties that are much more expensive than those that have been demolished.

At Grenfell, another layer of uncaring bureaucracy came into play when Kensington and Chelsea Council transferred all its social housing — 10,000 properties in total — to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), an ALMO (arms length management organisation) that seems to have been free of even the limited accountability and scrutiny under which councils operate.

It was under the KCTMO that the final component of the disaster of June 14, 2017 came into play — the re-cladding of the tower in 2015-16, in which, alarmingly, flammable cladding, especially involving ACM (aluminium composite material), and flammable insulation materials were both used. How they came to be used is a sordid saga that has been revealed, in agonising detail, in the official Grenfell Tower Inquiry — one that involves some flammable materials being legal when they clearly shouldn’t have been, evidence of companies hiding the flammability of their products, and a safety inspection system that was completely unfit for purpose.

Four years on, the Grenfell Tower fire continues to expose how those living in high-rise council flats were — and in many cases continue to be — regarded as second-class citizens by those with responsibility for their safety, to the extent that, in search of cost-cutting and profiteering, their very lives can be regarded as worthless.

That harsh but fundamental truth should never be forgotten, but in the four years since Grenfell what has also become apparent is not just how those living in inadequately maintained local authority tower blocks are regarded as disposable second-class citizens, but how this fundamental disregard for human life also encompasses those in private developments— or in the mix of private and housing association developments that replace existing council estates after decades of “managed decline”, as noted above.

The scale of the problem is enormous, and underpinning it all is, yet again, the notion, amongst politicians and developers, that profits shouldn’t involve accountability.

Although a significant amount of flammable cladding has been removed from buildings since the Grenfell Tower fire, the government’s own rolling monthly tally conceded in January that, while 461 residential and publicly owned buildings included ACM cladding systems of the kind used on Grenfell Tower, only half — 231 — had completed remediation works, mostly student accommodation blocks and those in the social housing sector.

The total number of people affected in these particular blocks was estimated to be 56,000, but as Peter Apps explained for Inside Housing last June, beyond the specific number of people affected by ACM cladding, “there are likely to be more than 600,000 in affected tall buildings and millions more in medium rise towers.” The problems don’t just involve cladding, but also, as the Guardian explained in April, “missing fire breaks in wall cavities and combustible balconies.”

Moreover, when it comes to the private sector in particular, a huge struggle over responsibility has still not been adequately addressed. In April, Parliament agreed to provide £5bn to fund cladding repairs on buildings over 18 metres tall, but stopped short of providing the £15bn that estimates have suggested is required. That leaves leaseholders, in buildings under 18m tall, facing bills that could be as much as £100,000 per property. The government is pledging to support them with loans, but is struggling to convince anyone that a loan system is either fair or appropriate.

For the leaseholders, life is already thoroughly miserable. Many have mental health issues from worrying about the safety of their homes (especially as fires have broken out on numerous occasions in all manner of new developments over the last four years), while others feel trapped, after seeing the value of their properties slump to zero, when they may well have paid many hundreds of thousands of pounds for them, and many others are being punished with massive service charge increases by the developers of their homes, with some having to pay £8,000 a year, more than double what they previously paid, to subsidise the developers’ costs of implementing proper safety measures.

Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire, it is unforgivable that the government has done so little to help people living in buildings with dangerous cladding, and I can only hope that, eventually, they pay for their obsession wth protecting developers’ profits over people’s lives by losing popular support, but in the meantime, of course, countless thousands of people will be sleeping tonight without feeling safe, through absolutely no fault of their own.

Note: Below is ‘Grenfell’, which I wrote after the fire, and recorded with my band The Four Fathers, featuring, and produced by Charlie Hart.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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 2017 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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, remembering the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire exactly four years ago, through profiteering and cost-cutting on the part of those responsible for their safety, for which, shamefully, no one has been accountable.

    I also look at how, since then, the cladding scandal that became so apparent at Grenfell now involves millions of people in unsafe tower blocks across the country, many of them leaseholders, who bought their homes in good faith, but now find themselves in unsafe and worthless properties, abandoned by the government and the developers of their homes, and facing bills of up to £100,000 to remove the dangerous cladding that was installed through no fault of their own.

    As I state at the conclusion of my article, “Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire, it is unforgivable that the government has done so little to help people living in buildings with dangerous cladding, and I can only hope that, eventually, they pay for their obsession wth protecting developers’ profits over people’s lives by losing popular support, but in the meantime, of course, countless thousands of people will be sleeping tonight without feeling safe, through absolutely no fault of their own.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    Truly outrageous! Government sides with those funding its politicians.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I think the cladding scandal threatens to be something that can damage the government, David, specifically because it involves people who have bought into the housing market, rather than those exploited by it, for whom there is, genuinely, little sympathy from our leaders, however much they sometimes pretend otherwise. Messing with people who have bought properties, however, affects the Tories’ voting base, who are mostly owner-occupiers, and will not play well if ‘aspirational’ and ‘striving’ people are seen to be abandoned by the government – as is indeed the case.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    The government doesn’t care the housing industry doesn’t care 200,000+ deaths to austerity 90+ grenfell 220,000+ deaths to covid this sick twisted warped government doesn’t care about people ..only money only power

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I think it could really damage the Tories, though, Damien, because they’re prioritising the profits of developers and the shoddy, fundamentally unregulated building industry over the safety and financial solvency of people who bought homes – the very people they’re supposed to care about.

    It’s impossible, I think, for the government to spin a positive message out of the reality that they are abandoning people who have bought flats for £600,000, £700,000, £800,000, that they won’t make their homes safe, that they won’t do anything to stop them being bled dry paying to make them safe, all while being confronted with the reality that their investment in a home is fundamentally worthless.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    This Evening Standard article yesterday is a good indicator of who’s affected, and why a lack of government support won’t play well with Tory voters, Damien. It’s the story of a leaseholder who paid £650,000 for a flat in New Providence Wharf, where a fire broke out last month, whose service charges have more than doubled to £8,000 a year, and whose flat is currently worthless. The Standard quotes a prominent campaigner for leaseholders, saying, “As for who should pay, he blames the whole debacle squarely on the shoulders of those who built the blocks, and the regulators (government and councils) who approved them”, adding, however, that “what they are doing, though, is dumping the costs on the leaseholders who are the innocent parties.” https://www.standard.co.uk/homesandproperty/property-news/grenfell-anniversary-londoners-unsafe-homes-cladding-costs-b939483.html

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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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