The devastating fire at Grenfell Tower this week is nothing short of heart breaking. The incident which has seen over 100 people made homeless and left only with the clothes they managed to escape in has gripped the whole city, but it’s the tragic number of deaths that are likely triple the number of survivors that is most chilling. The fact that this incident was completely preventable and seemingly caused by negligence, greed and systematic discrimination has been playing over and over in people’s minds and everyone wants answers.
The death toll is currently being reported as 79 (19th June). But the real estimate will far exceed this number. Lets look at the maths.
There are 120 flats in Grenfell Tower.
Occupancy is estimated at between 400 -600 people so lets go with an average of 500 residents.
There are 108 survivors in hospitals and hotels.
This means around 392 people are unaccounted for.
What is most shocking is that this very incident was predicted by residents of Grenfell Tower (Grenfell Action Group) and was brought to the attention of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) around eight times since 2013, yet their concerns were ignored. A blog post entry on the residents blog just seven months ago in November 2016 stated, “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”. That this prediction had to manifest is a travesty.
An inquiry that must be 100 per cent independent of the government needs to be conducted, as well as a criminal investigation into the practices and dealings of the KCTMO and their regeneration project partners. There are so many questions as to how this could possibly happen in one of the most developed cities in the world in 2017 and not a single doubt that the cladding that was used to makeover the block was a significant contributor to the cause of the inferno that the Grenfell Tower became last week, the same cladding that has been banned in the US and across most European countries precisely because it is too flammable. This begs the questions, why on earth was it able to be used here in the UK? How did it pass quality assurance tests? Did it pass quality assurance tests? Was it used illegally? How can something this important be overlooked?
Although the KCTMO operates as a non-profit making organisation their Companies House accounts show that “key management personnel” shared a salary of £760,000. Now, hard work should definitely be rewarded however the idea that the proper management and maintenance of their buildings was compromised in order to hoard money to pay bigger salaries to these ‘key management personnel’ is certainly hard to swallow. The whole regeneration project and its partners are marred in controversy, for instance one project partner has a history of tax avoidance and Rydon (who fitted the cladding) had a five-year work contract terminated by another council after just a year and a half due to their work ‘falling short of requirements’.
The criminal investigation needs to be thorough and none of KCTMO’s partners should be left out. There have been calls in the past for investigation into the practices of KCTMO and there is no question that there will be endless scrutiny in the months and years to come. It has even been brought to light that the former chairman of the KCTMO, Reg Kerr-Bell stood down some years ago over concerns about the way the organisation was run and has said of the fire that it was “a disaster waiting to happen”.
The role of social cleansing
Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn called for all the victims who have been left homeless to be housed in the empty properties in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Although an audacious suggestion, the mere fact that this in theory is possible is outrageous. There are apparently 1399 empty properties in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea right now. For those who are not aware, this borough is the wealthiest in London and is a large part of the reason the London property market is saturated with foreign wealth. Foreigners using London homes as investment vehicles is the reason there are so many empty homes and the reason ‘normal’ people are being priced out of the areas they know and love.
The UK needs to take a serious look at this issue, is money really more important than the wellbeing of your citizens? (Was that a serious question?). Consider Iceland’s property buying laws for example, their laws prohibit foreigners from buying unless they live in the country full time. Its also worth noting that Iceland is ranked the 3rd happiest country in the world, although this point is somewhat utopian, these things do play a major part and with the UK far behind on the index at number 19 is evidence that our socialist values are lax.
The accumulation of investment properties by rich foreigners is precisely what is creating this false demand for properties and driving London’s house prices up. The fact that there are so many empty properties is infuriating to say the least; it means that working and middle class Londoners who actually do live and work in the capital cannot afford to buy. People that were born and raised in social housing in inner city London cannot afford to live there anymore after their rents go up with regeneration; councils are struggling to house people in the boroughs they are connected to. Where are these people supposed to go, and what quality of life do they have to look forward to? Imagine being plucked from the community you have lived in your whole life, around family and friends and being plonked in the middle of nowhere, a town that may as well be foreign land to you. This happens, and it happens often, you only need to Google “social cleansing London” to read countless of these stories. If the UK were to implement a similar system to Iceland, this false property demand would halt and house prices would eventually stabilise and become more affordable.
If you have been watching the news coverage on this you will have noticed that the recurring theme is “poor people” have historically been ignored and treated as second-class citizens by the government.
The reality is, people on lower incomes are being demonised and have been since the influx of wealth into London. If you take a brief glimpse into the history of London you will learn that it was purely working class people who originally populated the inner city, market traders, factory workers and people that worked on the docks lived and worked in London. London was England’s industrial centre and trading port and is why it was such a busy and important city and made the capital. Back then, the UK’s rich were not interested in living in London, they lived out in the suburbs and the poor lived in the inner city, London also became the landing ground for many immigrants in the middle of the 20th century because of the job opportunities. The effect of this today is generations of working class and immigrant families have been living within communities in London, and London is all they have ever known. Again, now that regeneration and social cleansing is squeezing them out of their communities, where are they supposed to go?
The need for change
It is clear that the Grenfell Tower regeneration was purely aesthetic, the outside of the building was changed but the inside remained the same. Tenants have said that gas pipes were installed in the main stairwell (which likely contributed to the spread of the fire), that smoke alarms did not go off (which if they had could have saved many more lives), and that there was a single fire exit to serve 120 homes (which is unsuitable by every measure). The term regeneration is supposed to mean the creation of better, more decent homes and the development of existing communities. Everyone has a right to a decent home that they can feel safe in no matter their circumstances. The people of Grenfell Tower were failed in so many ways.
Social housing should be just that, run by the government by people employed by the local councils with no agendas and no incentive to keep costs low. If ownership must be delegated, the councils or another governing body need to be involved with the management of these properties in a supervisory capacity, and tenants should be able to raise management concerns to an outside body with the assurance that their voices will be heard.
Make no mistake; the Grenfell Tower fire is a scandal by every measure. What we are seeing here is greed in its purest form, a blatant disregard for people on lower incomes and a repulsive abuse of power. It is maddening that so many people have lost their lives and their homes and that some are mourning loved ones at the same time, we can only imagine the harrow and trauma they are experiencing. The emergency services did a outstanding job and risked their lives saving many people, the fire should have never reached the scale that it did. The victims have the whole city backing them and we all want to see justice.
As much as we work to advance ourselves individually, we need to open our eyes to a system that only recognises the zeros and understand that we have a collective voice; there is power in numbers. Social cleansing is happening on the doorsteps of thousands of Londoners today. It is not inevitable. It is very much preventable.