Friday, 16 June 2017

The fire that was always going to be political

A social housing tower block was destroyed by fire this week. Of course this is political. It is naive to suggest otherwise. When housing is provided by or heavily subsidised by the government, politics will never be far behind.

It is the people directly affected by the Grenfell Tower who are politicising it. They were political before the fire and they will continue to be political. 

And rightly so.

The people who this week have lost everything, friends, neighbours, family members, as well as possessions, are grieving but they are angry. Very angry. 

For years, they warned that Grenfell Tower was a disaster waiting to happen. Kensington and Chelsea Council, which owns the flats, was lobbied. The MP was lobbied. Boris Johnson was lobbied. Yesterday, Sadiq Khan was yelled at by a child. Residents wanted to seek legal advice over their safety concerns, but legal aid wouldn't quite stretch that far thank to, yes, that's right, the government. Now lawyers have offered to work pro bono but it's a shame those offers weren't there before this week. 

The residents, a mixture of social housing and private tenants, were not listened to before the fire. Today, they are marching on Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall.

Perhaps the Conservative-run council and the Conservative MP, who was defeated by Labour in last week's general election, didn't think they'd ever need the votes of the people who live in the deprived part of one of the country's wealthiest neighbourhoods. Perhaps they took for granted their positions of power. Perhaps they thought the people who have lost everything would not even bother to turn out to vote. 

Those in ivory towers looked down on those in tower blocks.

While the cause of the fire is yet to be fully investigated and the fire service is still recovering bodies, information is coming to light. And it is the residents who are leading the way, forcing politicians of all stripes and journalists to look at awful things and confront uncomfortable facts. 

Why was a 24-storey social housing block of 120 flats only equipped with one set of fire stairs? Why did the multi-million pound refurbishment of the building not include sprinkler systems, but did include plastic-laden cladding which is banned in Germany? What can the new MP, Labour's Emma Dent Coad, tell us about her time as the council representative on the board of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, the housing association appointed by the council to manage Grenfell Tower?

When successive housing ministers sat on a report for four years and didn't change a damn thing, they need to answer hard questions as well. The 2013 report, the results of a coronial investigation, came after the 2009 Lakanal House tower block fire, which killed six people in south London. The recommendations included installing sprinkler systems in all tower blocks. This is only the law for tower blocks built since 2007, yet in hotels in Britain, it is law for sprinkler systems to be installed. Grenfell Tower was built in 1974. So please, enough with the cries about safety regulations being too onerous. If this country and its hotel businesses can afford to keep tourists safe, we can afford to protect the people who live here, regardless of their income.     

The residents of Grenfell Tower do not need or deserve to be told that politics has nothing to do with the fire. 

Only now is there a public inquiry, after the death toll is at 30 and rising. It is fatuous to say the safety concerns of these people must now be taken seriously. That should have happened a long time ago.

Photography by Zdenko Zivkovic/Flickr

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