Britain’s 9/11 and Cannibalistic Capitalism: The Grenfell Tower Fire, Seven Years On

14.6.24

Remembering the 72 children, women and men who died in the Grenfell Tower fire on June 14, 2017: a graphic produced by Grenfell United and posted on X.

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You might be thinking that’s an outrageous analogy. Apart from the visual similarities between burning towers, how can I compare an attack by a foreign entity on the tallest buildings in New York’s banking centre with an unfortunate accident that befell the inhabitants of a tower block of social housing in a historically deprived area of west London?

The reason I make the analogy is because the Grenfell Tower fire, on June 14, 2017, wasn’t an accident, as such; it was the inevitable result of a system of deliberate neglect, and the deliberate erosion of safety standards, for those living in high-rise housing, which came about because of the deliberate creation of what I believe we’re entitled to call cannibalistic capitalism; or, if you prefer, economic terrorism, knowingly inflicted on civilians by politicians and almost the entire building industry.

Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians for political or ideological aims, and at Grenfell, seven years ago, 72 people died because, over the previous four decades, a system of providing safe and secure rented housing was eroded and largely erased, replaced with a new ideology that, under Margaret Thatcher, sought to eliminate the state provision of housing, selling it off via the notorious ‘Right to Buy’ policy, demonising those who still lived in social housing, portraying them as shirkers and scroungers and reclassifying them as inferior, or second-class citizens, cutting funding for maintenance and repairs, and transferring as much of the remaining social housing as possible to less accountable, or, seemingly, completely unaccountable public-private entities.

Over decades, the end result was poorly-maintained housing, often deliberately run down to enable estates to be condemned as “sink estates”, and demolished and replaced with new, largely for profit housing. This process of “managed decline” as a precursor to demolition callously threatened the safety of residents, but somehow those responsible got away with it. Councils blamed central government for cutting their budgets, but they were far from blameless themselves, as they persistently received far more in rent from social housing than they reinvested in maintaining those properties adequately, Instead, the money was siphoned off elsewhere.

The golden era of social housing

This was certainly the case with Grenfell. 24 storeys in height, and containing 120 flats, it was completed in 1974 towards the end of a three-decade-long period of extensive social home building, under both the Tories and Labour, providing affordable, safe and secure social housing — essentially, state-owned, not for profit rented housing — to millions of people.

Social home building began on a significant scale after the Second World War — on a vast number of sites bombed in the war, and also as a replacement for mostly 19th century slum housing, much of which had been identified as inadequate before the war, in the 1920s and 1930s, when council-owned social housing first began to be built in significant numbers.

While there were problems with some of this housing — some of the system-built block of the 1960s, for example, were structurally unsound, as was revealed in 1968, when the entire corner of one of these blocks, Ronan Point, in east London, collapsed following a gas explosion in one of the flats — most were well-built, often designed by architects working in the councils’ own architects’ departments (or in the architects’ departments of the LCC (London Country Council) or its successor, the GLC (Greater London Council), and with every phase of construction overseen by officials.

Grenfell Tower, the high-rise focal point of the Lancaster West Estate, which otherwise consisted of lower-level blocks, was typical of tower blocks of the time, most of which, in their hundreds, still stand and provide housing for tens of thousands of people.

With lessons learned from Ronan Point, Grenfell Tower consisted of a concrete super-structure, and in 2016 its lead architect, Nigel Whitbread, explained that it had been designed with attention to strength, and “from what I can see could last another 100 years.”

Safety problems, such as they were, related to legislative requirements at the time, which were by no means unique to Grenfell, and have not been adequately addressed ever since. No sprinkler system was installed, and there was just one stairway, rather than two, for evacuation in the case of an emergency.

Fundamentally, though the tower was safe. Structurally sound, any problems that did arise — a fire in a flat, for example — would have been dealt with through a robust system of compartmentalisation, with the flats’ front doors functioning as fire doors, containing any blaze for at least an hour, leaving time for the emergency services to arrive.

Although neglect, unfortunately, began as soon as the estates of the 1970s were built, the rot of institutionalised antipathy towards social housing didn’t begin until Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979. Initially, she presented herself as a saviour, portraying her ‘Right to Buy’ policy as a bold, democratising process, empowering council tenants to become home owners by buying their homes from their councils, and sweeting the deal by obliging councils to offer huge discounts on the properties’ market values.

However, ‘Right to Buy’ not only savagely reduced the numbers of socially-rented flats at the time; it also aggressively maintained that decline through a refusal, on Thatcher’s part, to allow councils to use any of the proceeds of sales to be used to build new social homes to replace those which had been lost.

As time passed, newly-enfranchised home owners (often stung by outrageous services charges and costs for communal repairs) sold their former council flats to outside owners, creating two-tier systems within council estates and tower blocks — as at Grenfell, where 14 of the flats were owned by private landlords and rented out at market rents — which had the knock-on effect of pushing up both the prices of properties for sale, and of rental prices, across the entire housing sector.

Since a housing bubble began after New Labour took office in 1997, the housing market has become a monstrous, out-of-control juggernaut of greed and deregulation. The cost of buying a property in London has increased by 500% or 600%, private rents, almost entirely unregulated, have risen even more ferociously, while the dwindling stock of social housing has continued to be subjected to large-scale demolition and new construction projects, in which genuinely affordable housing has been entirely wiped out, replaced by various allegedly “affordable” categories of rent that are considerably more expensive than the social rents they replaced.

Kensington and Chelsea Council, the owner of Grenfell Tower, clearly had demolition in mind for the Lancaster West Estate, along with numerous other estates under their control, but, as these plans simmered away, their most noticeable distancing of their responsibilities for their tenants came through the establishment, in 1996, of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which was, uniquely across the entire council sector in the UK, given responsibility for managing the whole of the council’s social housing — nearly 10,000 properties in total.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, chains of accountability and responsibility were shattered as councils across the country handed over their entire social housing stock to housing associations, or set up their own TMOs or ALMOs (arms’ length management organisations) to manage their properties, and the dangers inherent in this fracturing of responsibility were exacerbated when David Cameron, the Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016, announced a blitz on the “red tape” governing the housing sector in 2014.

The homicidal neglect of Grenfell Tower and its deadly refurbishment in 2015-16

The final nail in the coffin of Grenfell Tower’s safety came when the KCTMO refurbished the tower in 2015-16, replacing windows and providing new cladding that, although allegedly intended to improve heating and energy efficiency, seems primarily to have been undertaken to “prettify” the tower.

It wasn’t until after the fire that it became apparent how catastrophic the “deregulation” of the housing industry had been in terms of safety, and also how persistently KCTMO had been criticised by tenants for its comprehensive failure to respond to fire safety concerns since 2013.

As I explained in my first article responding to the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017:

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 [written by tenants of the block] 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, 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.”

This was a truly damning indictment of the failures of the management organisation (and, by extension, the council, which had also refused to get involved), but it was the homicidal failures of the housing industry, exposed after the fire, that revealed the full, shocking extent to which housebuilding, maintenance and refurbishment in the UK in the 21st century had been allowed to become a largely self-certifying and self-regulating sector, driven almost entirely by profiteering and cost-cutting to such an extent that cladding material that was insanely flammable, consisting of aluminium composite (ACM) panels with a polyethylene core, had been allowed to be used, not only on Grenfell, to deadly effect, but also on hundreds of other buildings across the UK — not just to “prettify” tower blocks of social housing, but also as an intrinsic part of new-build blocks sold on the private market, and in numerous other contexts.

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, this scandal has been exposed in the deliberations of the official Grenfell Tower Inquiry (despite entirely appropriate complaints about the failures of the inquiry to issue its final conclusions) and has been forensically described, in excruciating detail, in Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen, an extraordinary book by Peter Apps, the deputy editor of Inside Housing.

As the Guardian described revelations during the inquiry in November 2020, at which lawyers for the bereaved called the cladding companies “little more than crooks and killers”, and described how they operated in a “toxic and incestuous culture”, as they revealed emails and slideshows from inside the three main companies involved — Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan — which, as they stated, showed “widespread and persistent wrongdoing” as they sold products they knew “were dangerous to life”:

In one email produced at the inquiry, a senior executive at Arconic, which made Grenfell’s polyethylene (PE) core cladding panels, told colleagues that a shortfall in the product’s fire performance was “something that we have to keep as VERY CONFIDENTIAL!!!!” In another, he admitted PE panels would spread fire “over the entire height” of a tower.

And Celotex, which made most of the plastic foam insulation, produced a “chilling” internal presentation in 2014 that announced it would be able to market its combustible product partly because “nobody understood the test requirements”, the inquiry heard.

Kingspan, meanwhile, was “brazen” about persuading a certification body, LABC, to approve its product, Kooltherm. “We threw every bit of fire test data we could at [the certifcator]”, said Philip Heath, an executive at Kingspan in an internal email. “We probably blocked his server. In the end I think the LABC convinced themselves Kooltherm is the best thing since sliced bread. We didn’t even have to get any real ale down him.”

Sam Stein QC, representing the bereaved and survivors, told the inquiry, “These companies knew their materials would burn with lethal speed and yet they marketed their products into an uncaring and under-regulated building industry which spread them around like a disease.”

If you haven’t yet heard it, do feel free to listen to my song ‘Grenfell‘, which I recorded with The Four Fathers and the great Charlie Hart, and which was released in 2018.

A wider malaise: the far-reaching tentacles of cannibalistic capitalism

Meanwhile, in the years since the Grenfell Tower fire, efforts to remove insanely flammable cladding from other potentially deadly buildings has involved unseemly struggles between insurers and contractors, leaving huge numbers of leaseholders, in new-build properties that they bought as dutiful members of a supposed property-owning democracy, wrangling with the worthlessness of their homes, and unprincipled demands for colossal bills to remedy the negligence of the developers and contractors responsible for their homes, and the politicians responsible for deregulation in the first place.

To return to my earlier assessment of the Grenfell Tower fire as the result of cannibalistic capitalism, or economic terrorism, it is, I believe, entirely appropriate to suggest that everyone affected by the homicidal deregulation of the housing industry has been preyed upon by a system that sees their safety — whether they are renters or, ostensibly, homeowners in new-build homes — as secondary, or even irrelevant, to the greed of those who, while claiming to care about them, are interested solely in their exploitation.

At Grenfell, this contempt for the rights of individuals to live in safety was so pronounced that 72 people were killed in pursuit of private profits and cost-cutting, but as we look around the whole of the housing sector it is, I hope, easy to see that everyone, outside of the protected classes of comfortable owner-occupiers and private landlords, is being subjected to economic terrorism, a form of capitalism in the 21st century that, not content with exploiting the rest of the world for its profits, as has happened throughout centuries of colonial exploitation abroad, has increasingly sought to cannibalistically consume its own people.

It is not the only example of this malignant trend. As anyone who also lives in England knows, the privatisation of the water industry — another innovation of Margaret Thatcher, in 1989 — has led to 35 years of such chronic under-investment and such blatant profiteering and asset-stripping that is is little more than a criminal extortion racket — an industry with no debt at the point of sale that has accrued £60bn of debt to deliver £78bn of shareholder profits while running down the water supply system and its allied water treatment facilities (responsible for dealing with sewage) to such an extent that our rivers and shorelines are drowning in human excrement, and our drinking water is no longer even necessarily safe to drink.

Moreover, beyond the crucial theft of our right to adequate housing and to clean water and clean rivers and seas, the cannibalistic devourers of whatever they can lay their grubby, greedy hands on have also conspired with politicians and with media owners to suppress the biggest scandal of all: that the entire way of life that they have all been promoting since the Thatcher era — of endless self-entitled material consumption, of the freedom to drive whenever we want, and to fly wherever we want, whenever we want — is actually killing us all, as the burning of fossil fuels required for our lives of hideous over-consumption (and for their profits) has been so reckless that we have changed the weather forever, and are rapidly making our beautiful and unique planet unliveable.

In three weeks’ time, we’re expected to dutifully go out and vote in a General Election in which our idiotically unfair first-past-the-post system essentially guarantees that one or other of the two main parties will be in power. After 14 years of abject corruption and incompetence, it seems that the Tory Party is resolutely on its way out, but its replacement, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, is largely indistinguishable from the Tories, in thrall to the corporations that are either fleecing us, poisoning us or killing us.

It’s actually time for a revolution, although everyone seems to be too tired, apathetic or brainwashed to regard that as a possibility. Would it make any difference if more people knew that we are being cannibalistically consumed by 21st century capitalism, and that its methods amount to economic terrorism?

I can only hope so.

* * * * *

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 (see the ongoing 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

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, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking seven years since the Grenfell Tower fire in west London, in which 72 residents of a tower block of social housing died because of cost-cutting and profiteering, facilitated by central government and the local council, and in which almost the entire building industry — and especially the manufacturers of insanely flammable cladding materials — were complicit.

    To mark the occasion, I invite you to reflect on my conclusions seven years down the line, as, still, no one with responsibility for the safety of tenants has been held accountable for their deaths: that it represents a prime example of what I call cannibalistic capitalism, or economic terrorism, whereby our lives are, at best, secondary, and, at worst, irrelevant, to the all-consuming greed for profits of the corporations and the politicians who ought to be responsible for our safety.

    Examining the housing crisis in its entirety, I note how this cannibalistic capitalism is so rapacious that it also includes those who have bought into the notion of a property-owning democracy, as the cladding scandal also involves numerous private new-build projects, and I point out how it also extends to the privatised water industry, and to the greatest crisis facing all of us: the runaway climate collapse that is already happening, but which those wedded to cannibalistic capitalism (the politicians, the corporations and, for the most part, a servile media) are doing all they can to ignore or to sideline.

    I conclude by asking how, with a General Election just weeks away, in a broken system that can only enshrine a corrupted party in power, anyone with any sense cannot conclude that what is actually needed is a revolution.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Thank you, Andy. You always have this day present and keep the victims in our thoughts. That’s very important.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks so much for your recognition of the significance of the Grenfell Tower fire, Natalia. I hope this article explains not only why it’s important to remember the victims and to call for justice, but also why it is emblematic of the war being waged on us by our politicians and by corporations, who often don’t regard our lives as significant at all. I’m hoping that my identification of what I call “cannibalistic capitalism” and “economic terrorism” will have some resonance for anyone who reads this.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Andy, we know justice may take a while to come, but it’ll come.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I do hope you’re right, Natalia, although I’m feeling rather alarmed and despondent right now. Hopefully the official Grenfell Tower Inquiry won’t completely fudge its final findings, but it’s unlikely, if not inconceivable that they’ll properly hold anyone with power accountable.

    I suppose what I’m wondering right now, with unprecedented heatwaves and flooding taking place in so many locations – and with flooding starting to effect places like Florida and certain European countries – is whether there’ll actually be any organized resistance, or even an acknowledgement of reality by those affected (Ron DeSantis in Florida being an example of someone who should lose their job as a result of their insane climate change denial) or whether people’s derangement or apathy is so deeply entrenched that only unthinkable disaster will awaken them.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Kären Ahern wrote:

    Exactly what I ponder, Andy. We just need to be so present and do whatever we are able. In time, as proof escalates, there will be more believers, but will they act on it or continue to be in denial, wanting their comfortable lives and not make changes or demand change?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I suppose the apathetic will become more active as the extent of the peril we face becomes obvious, Kären. It’s the deniers I worry about. I fear violence from them, as they will be unable to process what is happening, and I also worry that, if the comfort they’re accustomed to, and which they think they’re entitled to, starts drying up – as it is certain to – they will become dangerously competitive and aggressive.

    It’s no doubt because I live in a mega-city – London – that I’ve probably been thinking about this more than people in places that are smaller, but I do find myself wondering about an escape route.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Andy, I think only an unthinkable disaster will awaken people and what a shame it has to come to that.

    Watching the news – super tornados in china … you don’t get super tornados in china or at least you didn’t just like last week’s tornado in Africa … this is happening right before our eyes … yet people are still in denial.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    It feels like we’re in Pompeii just before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, Damien, in the company of the brightest person in town, who’s done some thinking about volcanoes and can tell that something deadly is about to happen, but no one will listen to them.

    It’s not even as though any of this is remote anymore. It’s not just people dropping dead of the ‘wet bulb’ effect in India; it’s unprecedented rainfall flooding Florida, where wealthy climate change deniers live, and unprecedented rainfall flooding well-established towns and cities in Europe. Surely, at some point, the citizens of these places – who are soon going to find out that no one will insure them – are going to get organised, aren’t they?

    DW report here: https://www.dw.com/en/in-the-aftermath-of-flooding-in-germany-and-elsewhere-5-charts-to-help-explain-climate-science/a-69289787

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    I just don’t know what to say with this world right now … deranged.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    As I’ve been saying for a while, Damien, I think the derangement is related to a deeply-buried recognition – however much it is furiously denied – that the good times are over, and that we’ve f*cked ourselves.

    Those of us who are conscious are ready for a massive, collective global mitigation project – shut down capitalism, divert all our attention to how to die less quickly – but far too many people are incapable of dealing with the enormity of it (our mammalian self-preservation instincts have obviously been completely destroyed by the collective infantilisation and undeserved sense of entitlement of our so-called ‘civilisation’), while the deniers are becoming ever more dangerous.

    I honestly think the current war lust that began with the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is now so horribly, sickeningly evident in the support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza, is tied in to this unprecedented scale of denial, and that the ripples throughout society are going to make a lot of people even more rage-filled than they are already.

    The nice people are going to have to work out how to stick together, and try to persuade more and more of the fearful on board, all while building barricades to stop the depredations of the zombie consumers enraged by their loss of entitlement. Fun times!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    The clock has almost run out and time’s up … it’s becoming and has become deranged, the climate is collapsing right now right before us and these wars they’re getting worse and worse and lets not kid ourselves that f*cker Starmer isn’t going to help anybody only himself and his cronies … it’s falling apart all around us and yet the hollow empty people are still obsessed with their money their luxury … these people will become a burden on the rest of us … if only things were different … we blew it, Andy.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s sad, Damien, because it’s not for want of trying. I remember meeting you at Occupy, and I remember thinking something was going to change when Extinction Rebellion occupied central London in April 2019, but we’ve never been able to reach a tipping point – to get enough people to properly disrupt the system.

    And in the last few years, of course, the repression has become immense. It’s genuinely quite shocking that this horrendous Tory government has managed to suppress dissent to such an extent that Just Stop Oil protestors have been getting arrested the moment they stepped off a curb.

    Sadly, Starmer, who will probably be horribly authoritarian, is unlikely to repeal the anti-protest laws if Labour win, but at least there’ll be some energy for confronting them if they’re as dismal as we expect them to be!

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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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