Any sane, humane person viewing the footage of the Grenfell tower, burning with people alive inside, could not fail to be appalled. In the early stages of the fire, it was clear there was no way even the bravest fire service workers could save the lives of desperate residents. Fire hoses reaching only a quarter of the way up the building looked like hopeless token gestures. The sight of people futilely waving from windows as smoke then fire overcame them, made us all participants in a tragedy unfolding in real time before our eyes. We became witnesses to death. By-standers’ videos from the night show visions of hell. Fearsome fire, trapped innocents. People on the ground frustrated at seeing and hearing both friends and strangers calling for help in the face of flames. Live communications between loved ones confined by height and smoke and fire, diminishing, and then stopping altogether as the inferno took hold. Everybody’s worst nightmare played out in grim detail – Trapped in a burning high rise, with no way to escape. Peoples’ desperation as they threw babies, children, and themselves out windows or as they succumbed and died.
And now the litany of missing persons… Whole families, young couples full of promise, children separated from their parents in the rush and crush. A man who didn’t want to abandon his beloved dogs. A promising artist. So many people dead. Fire staff say some victims may never be identified. Incredibly, apparently the ‘true number of dead’ may never be known. A community worker assisting with evacuations told the Daily Mail that he believed no one in the top three floors could have survived.
These are scenes that should never be repeated, but this was no accident. This catastrophe was inevitable, as predicted by residents, and a case of systemic failure of government and council policy over a period of time. This was a perfect storm.
In the ongoing blogs from the Grenfell tower residents’ group, clearly articulated, reasonable and repeated concerns about fire risks, are no match for a system designed to disempower residents every step of the way. Jonathan Freedland writing in the Guardian says this catastrophe is the result of four key deliberate policy choices; deregulation, privatisation, inequality and austerity. These are the conservative forces of a neo-liberal agenda, and the deaths of these people are a direct consequence.
Deregulation reduced building and fire safety rules and standards, and allowed highly flammable cladding to cloak a building largely inaccessible to fire fighters, despite the product being banned because of realised fire risk elsewhere around the world. Apparently post-Brexit plans are to reduce ‘red tape’ and building regulation even further. And while the rich can afford to buy their fire security, their safety, and their legal representation to pursue justice, the poor are dead.
Privatisation meant that the Grenfell tower apartments were among 10,000 local social housing properties managed by the Kensington-Chelsea Tenant Management Association (KCTMA). The KCTMA is an arms’ length social housing management company that failed to return resident association calls or act on concerns, that refused to communicate or address issues seriously. The residents complained about the (one) regularly impeded fire escape, about dangerous power surges causing fire risks, about the lack of sprinklers, alarms, emergency lighting.
Communication from the company in response to these fears, was poor. The residents’ demands weren’t unreasonable, but no-one could be held accountable. Some say at least if the housing complex had continued to be run by the council, bad management could be punished at the ballot box, or recourse could be sought through public complaint. Despite the compelling concerns of the residents, communicated clearly, the KCTMA operated according to other imperatives; assumedly, saving money, at the expense of lives, the cost and loss of which, were accurately predicted by those who lived in the flats.
Almost everything wrong about inequality and the modern public sector was manifest in the Grenfell and similar tower blocks and in this fire. The South Kensington area is one of the most deprived areas in Britain. Hundreds of already disenfranchised and dispossessed, are crammed into low amenity tower blocks just down the road from the UK elite, some of the richest people on the planet, who live in multi-million-pound luxury apartments. Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian says “people were burned alive within feet of the country’s grandest mansions”.
Locals are angry at the effects of gentrification in the area that sees them further marginalised. They feel under pressure and that the council are looking for reasons to knock down the towers completely because of the value of the underlying land. It’s no coincidence that the work done on the building was a façade, a cosmetic improvement to enhance the look of Grenfell tower, apparently to appease wealthy residents and improve their views, rather than on fire safety improvements to enhance the tower’s function as a home for hundreds. Aamer Anwar, a human rights lawyer said ‘Councillors heeded the demands of the nearby rich people to reclad the building, instead of the demands of the residents to install fire suppression systems and improve the stairs”.
Austerity was the final fatal flaw in the modern policy paradigm that led to this disaster. Housing and safety inspection staff numbers have been stripped. In Parliament, Ministers rejected Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestions that houses must be made ‘habitable’. In cost cutting measures, 10 fire stations were recently closed, 27 fire engines have been removed from service and 500 fire staff roles were axed. A further £23.5million worth of related budget cuts are planned for 2019.
Like many avoidable disasters in retrospect, there are so many things that could and should have been done differently. If only. If only smoke stop doors, sprinklers and fire containment systems had been retrofitted as recommended after a similar fatal fire in a tower block nearby in 2009. If only the KCTMO and even fire fighters, hadn’t advised people to stay put, to shut their doors and put down a wet towel to prevent smoke intrusion, rather than to evacuate. If only cost cutting hadn’t resulted in the use of a cheaper cladding product that was clearly highly flammable, rather than a non-flammable, but slightly more expensive alternative. If only the flammable product was banned in the UK as it is elsewhere, for buildings of this height, exactly because of the fire risk. If only a series of deliberate decisions had not eroded public safety regulations, corporatized housing management, stripped the public sector, concentrated race and class inequality into low standard housing enclaves.
Theresa May and her conservative agenda look even less legitimate now than just after the election. It shows a week is a long time in politics, and May’s hold on power is looking less tenable than ever. Duly criticised for her wider agenda, for being ‘dead to emotion or empathy’, avoiding the victims of the fire, for speaking ‘at’ the victims via tv rather than meeting with them directly on her first ‘non-visit’ to the site, it’s hard to imagine how she could have come across worse from her response to this disaster.
Deborah Orr also writing in the Guardian, says this event shows Britain as an angry and divided nation, ‘without a functioning government’. Angry crowds storming the local council chambers demanding answers (or acknowledgement at the very least), protestors calling for Theresa May to resign, calling her a coward, jeering, crying ‘shame’, shame, shame’. The Conservative leader is under pressure, and the conservative agenda is in the spotlight for its failings. One of the many articulate and angry locals said to a reporter ‘this is a message, this is the point where the system is broken’. This fire, and the deaths of so many already vulnerable and innocent victims, shows as usual, the unfair burden of costs of systemic failure rest on the shoulders of the poor.
Theresa May has promised a public inquiry into the disaster, though inquiries into similar disasters both in the UK and elsewhere in the similarly deregulated world, have led to little change. Reasonable cynicism leads to fears the inquiry will be a whitewash, that it will be biased, ineffectual, too little, too late. An inquiry into the disaster might take several years. In the meantime, the causes of such a tragedy, rooted in the wider neo-liberal agenda, will continue to prevail. Only when inequality, deregulation, austerity and privatisation are reversed, will justice be done for the Grenfell dead. In the meantime, the hollow, haunted Grenfell wreck that was home to as many as 600 people, will stand as a testimony, an epitaph to the epic failure of an economic programme that sacrifices its poor in pursuit of power and profit.