After the Fire
The Royal Borough Kensington and Chelsea is a strange area of London. As in many parts of the city, pockets of social housing are interspersed between more upmarket private rentals and owner-occupied properties, but here the contrast between rich and poor is particularly stark. Two-bedroom flats regularly change hands for upwards of two million pounds. A moderately sized townhouse can go for several times that amount. What’s more, many properties are purchased as investments and left empty.
Though residents are of mixed incomes, the council has long been overwhelmingly dominated by the Conservative party. (Earlier this month the Kensington parliamentary constituency was won by a Labour MP, an anti-gentrification and housing campaigner, in a narrow victory that surprised many pundits.) Local cabinet member for housing, Rock Feilding-Mellen, is a self-described “strategic land developer” whose company “partners with landowners to help them optimize the value of their land.” In 2014, the council issued a council tax rebate, based on budgetary savings, to wealthier residents; individuals claiming council tax support weren’t eligible. Following the Grenfell Tower fire last week—when at least seventy-nine people died when a malfunctioning fridge may have caused an entire high-rise tower block to go up in flames—one recipient described the £100 refund as “blood money.”
In 2016, a group known as the Grenfell Action Group published a blog alleging Feilding-Mellen may be “inappropriately using his position of power on the Council for his personal benefit”—on the basis that he purchased a house in the Latimer area, which has since been targeted by the council for regeneration, and may have done so with the knowledge that this would increase the property’s value.
The Grenfell Action Group published another blog post later the same year. Largely ignored at the time, it has since received widespread media attention. In it, they warn that property management company KCTMO was putting Grenfell Tower residents’ lives at risk by ignoring “terrifying power surges” and other fire safety issues, and predict that that their words will “come back to haunt the KCTMO management.” They also allege that “attempts to highlight the seriousness of [a narrowly averted major fire in 2013] were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee.” A blogger who wrote about the danger in the months after the incident was sent a letter by lawyers working for the council—accusing him of defamation and harassment. Grenfell Action Group representative Pilgrim Tucker has stated that residents tried to seek legal advice, but couldn’t afford to do so because of the legal aid cuts introduced by the Conservative government.
The Grenfell Tower residents were mainly social tenants, though some units had been purchased via the Tories’ much vaunted right-to-buy scheme, under which social housing stock has been depleted without being replaced. (The thinking in the Conservative party leadership, as expressed by their former coalition partner Nick Clegg, is that housing is a “petri dish” and social housing “just creates Labour voters.”)
This morning, Scotland Yard announced that a manslaughter enquiry was being launched.
Among the known dead is a Syrian refugee who escaped so much horror in his country of birth in order to begin a new life here. Most were people of color—indeed, as geographer Danny Dorling notes, “the majority of children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks, in England, are black or Asian.”
It would be easy to use words like “tragedy” to describe what happened, but that implies some level of ineluctability. Tragedies are natural disasters and motorbike accidents and the freak malfunctioning of theme park rides. They’re things that might have been preventable, had we known—but then how could anybody know?
This was different. There were people who could know. David Lammy, a Labour politician who lost his friend in the fire, immediately called the fire “corporate manslaughter.” As with many similar buildings across the country the exterior of Grenfell Tower had recently been covered in an aesthetically pleasant cladding—partly to increase insulation; partly, and, many suspect predominately, to please the eyes of wealthier residents of the surrounding area. This morning, Scotland Yard announced that the panels had failed safety tests conducted as part of its investigation, and that a manslaughter enquiry was consequently being launched. The Metropolitan Police have “seized . . . material” from various companies involved in installing the renovation work. Though it’s too soon to know exactly where the blame lies, it has become clear that an active decision was made to convert a tower housing hundreds of low income, predominately ethnic minority individuals into a twenty-four-storey tinder box.
It’s alleged that the more flammable form of cladding—with a polyethylene core rather than a more fire resistant alternative—was chosen to bring down costs. The Times of London published a story claiming that the estimated saving from using the cheaper product was just £5000. A spokesperson for the U.S. company that produces the panels told the Times that it was banned on tall buildings in the United States “because of the fire and smoke spread.”
Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council apparently inspected the Grenfell Tower renovation works sixteen times between 2014 and 2016, but failed to question the use of a flammable form of cladding. One of a minority of Labour councillors in the borough told the Guardian: “this raises the question of whether the building regulations officers were sufficiently competent and did they know what they were looking at. It also begs a question about what they were actually shown. Was anything concealed from them?”
In the days following the fire, the concealment of information has become something of a running theme. Local residents complained about a total lack of official presence. Left waiting days before any allocation of government funds was announced, the community rallied round and set up crowd-funding pages to support victims. Mosques and churches became round-the-clock drop-in centers. Rows of beds were set up in sports halls as, for reasons that remain unclear, the provision proper hotel accommodation took days to accomplish.
Frustration grew as councillors steadfastly refused to talk directly with victims—and rumors started to spread that the death toll, which has steadily crept upwards since initial reports placed it at seventeen, was being deliberately suppressed. There were also concerns Grenfell residents would be forced to move as far as Preston—200 miles away—or else be declared “intentionally homeless,” a status that confers them no legal right to housing. However, following sustained political pressure apartments have been found for them within the borough. (Much to the chagrin of some of their well-heeled prospective neighbours, who have complained that living alongside social tenants would lower the value of their properties.)
It feels like a potential tipping point—where public opinion finally catches up with brutal reality.
Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Grenfell site but avoided meeting with ordinary people. As she exited nearby St Clement’s Church she was met by crowds chanting “coward.” Both the Queen and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did speak with members of the community when they similarly visited, undermining the claim that May was kept away because of “security concerns.”
Ultimately, this is a story about contempt. The contempt for human life displayed by whoever was responsible for choosing to go with cheaper, more flammable cladding to save a measly few thousand pounds—in a borough where wealthier residents will happily drop that sort of cash on a last minute weekend break or a fancy bottle of wine. The contempt towards social tenants shown by a council which clearly believed its primary role was to represent the interests of those more affluent voters, and god help anyone who dares get in its way. The contempt of Theresa May for the people who suffer as a result of the policies her party promotes—proudly cutting public services and health and safety regulations—and really for anyone who might answer back.
The unspeakable barbarity inflicted on residents of Grenfell Tower seems to incorporate so much of what is wrong with contemporary Britain that it’s destined to become a modern day morality tale. For many who’ve long campaigned on housing and related issues, it feels like a potential tipping point—where public opinion finally catches up with brutal reality. In both the UK and the United States, politicians have increasingly outsourced their duty of care towards the most powerless members of society to corporations. All too frequently, the all-consuming quest for profit has led these corporations to cut corners, take risks and ignore the concerns of the individuals they’re entrusted to protect. In the specific case of the Grenfell fire, manslaughter charges are being considered—but with at least seventy-nine lives lost it’s already far too late. Whether this atrocity will provoke any lasting change, it’s difficult to tell.