In all my years as a journalist, I can’t recall another tragedy that felt more like a tipping point. As the flames licked voraciously up the side of Grenfell Tower, consuming its inhabitants like expendable ciphers, it was as if all the failings of our broken state were being writ biblically large on an angry sky.
The gap between rich and poor, so normalised that millionaires in luxury condos could look, without shame, at their neighbours’ matchboxes and say “Tart up these ugly buildings, they’re spoiling my view”; the austerity policies that place the burden of the deficit on the shoulders of those already carrying the greatest load; the relentless chafing against “health and safety” regulations; the vast carelessness of a political class that makes decisions on a whim then retreats into its job in the City or its house in the Home Counties – all of this and more were last week welded into one terrible Old Testament parable, a warning to the government, the property-gobbling oligarchs and the corner-cutting profiteers: “This. Must. End. Here.”
Of course, there were those who would have preferred to shut that warning down. “Don’t politicise this tragedy,” they said. As if the deaths of people trapped – metaphorically and, in the end, literally – in the 24-storey social housing block could be anything but political. As if those who sought to expose the scale of the unfolding scandal were shady opportunists and not committed activists who have been shouting about London’s mounting housing crisis and the impact of cuts on public services since the crash in 2008.
It was exasperation at the growing inequality – the way in which the UK capital’s less affluent residents are seen as an obstacle to gentrification and treated as second-class citizens – that led to Kensington and Chelsea passing from the Conservatives to Labour for the first time in its 34-year history at the general election. Its new MP, Emma Dent Coad, a former councillor, has a track record of protesting against the buying up of properties by foreign billionaires who can’t even be bothered to occupy them, complaining there is no trickle-down effect from rich to poor. Despite the acute shortage of accommodation, Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council only increased its housing stock by 1 per cent between 2004 and 2014 (it is worth noting Labour did little to mitigate the impact of Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy either).
Members of the Grenfell Action Group were vocal, complaining to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation again and again about fire risks such as power surges and a lack of checks on safety equipment until, like Nostradamus, they predicted a major disaster. Unlike Nostradamus, they were sent a lawyers’ letter telling them to shut up.
When London Assembly leader Andrew Dismore raised concerns about cuts to fire stations, fire engines and firefighters, he was told to “get stuffed” by the then London mayor Boris Johnson. After footage was leaked last week, Johnson accused Labour of “game-playing”.
The same self-interested voices that want to depoliticise this ideologically driven and preventable tragedy want to silence investigative journalists too, accusing them of “jumping to conclusions”.
In fact, the alacrity with which reporters were all over the story made a cover-up more difficult to instigate. Within hours we had learned of behaviour so amoral, so indefensible, that three days later it still comes as a shock to set them down.
We were told, for example, that a succession of Tory housing ministers including Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s newly appointed chief of staff, had sat on a report calling for a review of building regulations in the wake of six deaths in a fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009. One of the report’s recommendations – that sprinklers should be retro-fitted in all older tower blocks – was ignored, with the result that 4,000 high rises across the country are still without them.
At Grenfell, an £8.6 million refurbishment left the building with 120 flats, one staircase, one exit, no sprinklers and swaddled in cladding (for insulation and aesthetics). The aluminium panels, along which the fire spread rapidly, have a flammable plastic core and are banned in the US for buildings taller than 40 feet. An alternative fire-resistant panel sells for £24 per square metre – just £2 more expensive than the version used on Grenfell – meaning the contractors could have provided the safer option for £5,000 extra.
And then there was this most distressing of facts: that residents were advised in the event of fire to stay in their flats and await rescue. Italian couple Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi waited hopefully, and then less hopefully; but no rescue ever came.
In the immediate wake of the tragedy, politicians have failed to provide the leadership required or to understand the degree of righteous anger that is rippling through the community.
Though London is full of hotels, the residents who managed to escape spent the first couple of nights sleeping on a leisure centre floor and there appeared to be little support on hand for those still looking for missing relatives. When residents’ frustration tipped over into justifiable anger, and they forced their way into the council offices, some – including a Tory councillor – branded them a lynch mob.
Outwith London, there was also anger tinged with self-loathing. In the wake of a terrorist atrocity, we can at least tell ourselves: “This is an attack on our democracy – we will not allow them to win.” But the conditions that created Grenfell reflect the values of our own state and a craven government that, despite beating on the disadvantaged, just won another general election.
As with Hillsborough, Grenfell cannot help but force through changes. Before we get to inquiries and/or inquests, fire safety must surely be reviewed and stricter building regulations enforced (with any similar cladding hopefully ripped off straight away). There may be criminal charges to follow.
But the tragedy will also change the political direction of the country. Though the threat of revolution will likely dissipate, the greed-is-good climate is no longer sustainable. A spike in Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity means the discredited era of austerity was probably over anyway, but the Grenfell fire has sounded its death knell. Which is to be welcomed obviously; but, oh God, the price that’s been paid for it.
Leader: Page 6