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After the Grenfell fire

Before

“We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!”

In July 2014, this chillingly innocuous-looking email was sent from a project manager to a cost consultant in respect of a refurbishment project. The consultant, Artelia, duly replied with a range of options, including reduced costs for overcladding as part of a package to save £293,368.

This proposal was adopted. The rest is history.

We are beginning to build up an incomplete but workable picture of that history, including a failure to learn lessons on fire safety over three decades. We are starting to understand the labyrinthine supply chain — the council farming tenant management out to an arm’s-length organisation, the TMO commissioning Rydon to undertake the refurb, and the swathe of consultants and suppliers spreading outward. We can read the Grenfell Tower proposals from 2012, which incorporates the use of Celotex FR5000 cladding (FR standing for fire-resistant). We know this recommendation was not followed, and that suppressing the tower’s fire risk report was proposed.

As time progresses — and often no thanks to the authorities — we will understand a story that began with an ambitious public housing project to replace pre-war slums, and ended in horror decades later.

The present is much harder to understand.

At the moment it can only be pieced together in snapshots. A woman, not long after the fire, breaking down in tears in the road, immediately surrounded by a horde of flashing cameras. The satellite vans always on the street, the more unscrupulous journalists outside every school gate, nestled in every corner. A local councillor, a former librarian who lives adjacent to Grenfell, shaking as the council leader bars residents from a meeting. A local politician on the Today programme, confronted with news that a Grenfell Tower survivor is still paying rent on their destroyed home, asked if this makes the council look incapable. “Oh, come on”, she says dismissively. Bright sunshine on a Sunday evening, an open bar and a tray heaving with chicken and rice cooked for a fundraiser, Paul Weller spontaneously playing a set, Portobello Road still able to throw a good party even at the darkest hour.

Early photograph of the estate (Constantine Gras)

During

I wrote in the days immediately following the fire that from the street, it seemed as if the voluntary response was working far more efficiently than the Town Hall one — and often voluntary agencies were ready to fill key gaps but unable to do so due to an information deficit. This is a phenomenon corroborated by people on the ground, many of whom are physically — as well as emotionally — exhausted from nonstop work. At the same time reliable missing lists have been impossible for people to find, much less confirmations of deaths. Some have been confirmed simply with short words scrawled over missing posters.

The first response is now at least partially stable. £3.4million and counting is being routed through local umbrella charity the K&C Foundation. The British Red Cross, the Mayor of London, Ealing Council and others have taken over large functions from an impotent local council. Sources from across the political spectrum are more confident in the abilities of response team chief John Barradell, who helped lead Westminster council’s response to the 7/7 attacks.

On the campaign side of things, the Grenfell Action Group whose safety warnings fell on deaf ears are still active, supported by the wider Radical Housing Network. Individuals, residents’ associations, community groups and a nascent Justice 4 Grenfell campaign have, through a fairly loose assemblage, been fielding vast amounts of media requests, signposting, meetings with politicians and scrutiny of the bodies involved. Recently-elected Labour MP Emma Dent Coad — who has branded the circumstances around the fire “unforgivable”, has been tireless and constantly visible, both in Parliament and the press, and in the community.

But things keep slipping up. There were the group of survivors evicted from Holiday Inn emergency accommodation with just hours’ notice. There’s the rental income being taken from at least one survivor, as well as from apparently the hundreds living on the rest of the Lancaster West estate, some of who have been evacuated and others who are left without functioning utilities. There’s the group managing widely-attended art therapy sessions who found themselves locked out of the community centre. And there remain both medium- and longer-term questions about rehousing.

Though on the last point, it is worth noting how many people, including those close to the council, asserted that rehousing residents in the borough would be outright impossible. While the granting of flats in Kensington Row to 68 households might not quite be the “luxury flat handover” it was spun as, it’s hugely significant that these homes were set aside to Grenfell residents, and as social rather than as “affordable”, i.e. slightly sub-market rate. (They will have to, sadly, live with people who have told them they are not wanted: “North Kensington is not this Kensington. I don’t want them here”, says one resident. That attitude is not reflective of South Kensington at large, but growing up there, I was on the sharp end of it often enough.)

Local political mismanagement has been even worse. At first, the sole sacrificial lamb looked to be an unelected bureaucrat, Town Hall chief exec Nicholas Holgate. Then rumours leaked out that council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown had offered his resignation — shortly after providing a bizarre interview which appeared to blame residents for not wanting sprinkler systems. The move was reportedly blocked by colleagues who feared a domino effect if their leader left.

The drawbridge remained firmly up, until farce ensued on the afternoon of June 29th, when the council announced its usually public Cabinet meeting would be held in closed session under Standing Order 31.01 to discuss Grenfell. Residents would not be allowed to sit in, and nor would journalists.

The transparent excuse was a supposed threat of residents storming the building — leaving aside that there is little to storm if people are permitted inside, and the Town Hall has controlled large crowds before. Journalists obtained a court order forcing their way into the meeting, and so the council changed tack. Paget-Brown delivered a short prepared statement and left. Labour councillors were furious. The handful of residents and press outside stood dumbfounded.

A day later, Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen (no stranger to investigations into his dealings as a councillor) finally resigned together.

In all of these cases, public or media pressure has turned a pivot. Rehousing, rent amnesties, resignations — all things that would seem pedestrian parts of a decent response — have been produced as the result of campaigning, pressure, scrutiny and a media storm. The community has been forced to fight for every inch it has been given.

Nationally, the picture has been little better. Theresa May did finally attempt to meet residents after doing her best to avoid them. She may have promised to leave “no stone unturned”, but her administration’s approach suggests otherwise. She is right to point to a series of failures “decades in the making” — beginning with her party’s all-out war on council housing during the 1980s — but her framing seeks merely to pass the buck to other parties rather than acknowledge the pace of change over the last seven years from safety regulations to fire cuts.

Firefighters protest cuts

Even though it may yet be the case that fire cuts did not hinder response time at Grenfell Tower, we should still talk about it. Because with pay, conditions, engines, fire stations and support for the brigade slashed, if not today, it will be the cause of another disaster tomorrow. As for the hundreds of firefighters dealing with the aftermath of their experiences that night, the dedicated mental health support team has been cut from fourteen staff to just two.

There is no suggestion that any action will be taken on the web of personal links between the Government and the catastrophic culture of negligence on safety that has now been identified. This is not to say they’ve all been useless; one Labour adviser has nothing but praise for a particular Conservative junior minister’s responsiveness and care. Ministers boasted about cutting back the “red tape” of safety regulations — and discussed scrapping fire safety rules just before the Grenfell Tower fire broke out.

Reports were apparently sat on by the now-PM’s chief of staff, and regulating sprinkler systems advised against by the now Home Office minister on the grounds that having to fit them would deter developers. A director of the firm which produced Grenfell’s cladding is a government adviser on a committee accused of being skewed towards the building industry.

There is no suggestion that action is being over against any of these links, or others that have emerged.

In fact, government have pursued the same approach in the week’s following. Another mandarin who advised against retrofitting sprinklers to tower blocks and proposed £200m in fire cuts has just been appointed an independent expert to the government’s new fire safety panel. Moore-Bick LJ, the judge appointed to the Grenfell public inquiry, could perhaps be forgiven for his role in a judgment, slapped down by the Supreme Court, which dispatched a single mum of five in Westminster social housing to Milton Keynes. But his indication that his inquiry’s terms may be narrower than residents want is much more concerning. Residents, of course, have no say in the terms of reference, while a government that may be culpable does.

As far as the emergency services go, they have tried to hold firm to the pay cap that has seen the longest sustained fall in living standards among some public service workers since the Second World War. Again, after pressure, fire unions have forced a concession. Meanwhile the promise to rehouse all residents within three weeks has run aground.

And Government has taken a lighter touch approach to the council that has a whiff of cronyism. When local service failures are identified in authorities led by other parties, the communities department has been swift in appointing commissioners to assume local functions. They initially refused to do so here, with MPs branding it “undemocratic”, and of course there has been no public pressure from them for resignations. Party seems to have come first — but again, under pressure, they have buckled and announced a taskforce.

Particularly galling is the attempt by some senior figures to shunt the issue into a debate about the utility of tower blocks per se; as if there is no such thing as both good and bad high-rise buildings, as if this is an academic debate about aesthetics rather than a series of catastrophic failures, and as if the decision to coat the building in flammable plastic was not in part motivated by a desire to make the building look nice for the rest of Notting Hill.

Safety checks on a massive scale are now absolutely necessary (and I would guess that these are often maintenance rather than design issues — for instance firefighters report there being no visible floor numbers on Grenfell stairwells, and having to add them in with chalk, and elsewhere damaged or destroyed fire doors have not been replaced.) But after years of residents being pushed out of London, there is genuine fear that the shock of Grenfell Tower could be used to further erode council housing.

The tower from a nearby street

After

That fear is present among attendees at the launch of the Justice for Grenfell campaign on a balmy July evening. What next? There are no clear answers. The meeting is in a lively community hall under the Westway; and the teething pains of any new campaign coming into being are exacerbated by grief. A police chopper hammers overhead in circles — is it watching the crowd? Is it something to do with the claim that rain is now destroying evidence at the tower?

People feel watched, monitored, treated like a “tourist attraction” or a “zoo”, and as if the sustained attacks on their community over the last decade are continuing even now. Earlier, someone else says he’s lived in Kensington for decades but it’s the last five years in which everything has changed most, and more and more people have been forced out. There’s nodding from people elsewhere in London; the experience is shared.

Six years ago Kensington Housing Trust, after knocking down 48 family homes in the north of the borough, claimed some time later that “work was well under way” to replace them with something better (the newbuilds turned out to be a wreck). Local campaigners snapped photographs of the site through peep holes to demonstrate it was not. The council acted swiftly — to board up the peepholes.

Incidents like this are caustically funny, and humour is a weapon used by so many of those burdened with bad housing use to get by. A woman in another meeting near Grenfell jokes that the leak in her kitchen — unrepaired for weeks — “should be turned into a water feature.” I used to joke at length about the kinds of pasta shapes one could identify in the strange twists of mouldy growths on our walls. That neglect, and the cultural references borne of it, is the one thing that has been a constant in the lives of council and social tenants and most private renters.

It is time for that to change. Residents of Britain’s council housing stock have been asked to cope with a lot. But even now, the powers that be have a chance to redeem themselves. There’s an old principle that goes something like: “judge people as much on what they do after as on what they do.” So far, the response from the top has been left severely wanting. There is still time for them to learn lessons. But that time is rapidly running out and there can be no return to business as usual. Business as usual is what got us here in the first place.

Yet we have seen how public pressure has been used these last few weeks. It’s not right that a mourning community has been forced to lead charge after charge. But they have risen to the challenge and won important concessions. Those not used to being accountable have been forced to be. Their castles are falling.

Three weeks after the fire I visit old school friends — brothers — who I hadn’t seen in a long time. The older one has recently got a journalism job and is trying to make a more sensitive piece on the disaster than many of the media have; and as his cameraman films, he has to reassure passers-by that he’s local, that he’ll be sensitive. The younger is just finishing his MA and has a well-kept mini-allotment in the centre of his block. They’ve lived in the same council-owned block for decades.

We walk and come to a stop on the pavement between a jumble of architecture from every period over the last couple of hundred years, and he explains the origins of some of the buildings before we turn to Lancaster West. We’re inches away from the yellow bin he stood by on the night, on the phone to a friend in the tower as it blazed.

That night will last forever; the frame of the tower, dark and peeling with orange blisters that we guess are the core of the cladding, overshadows the town. Police cordons and streets bursting with flowers, commuters on the Hammersmith and City line gawking, moving to the train windows to snap pictures of the 24-storey tomb.

One day it will probably be pulled down. For now there is too much unfinished business, the need for resolution in Kensington, and the need for a complete turning point in how this society treats people.

Everyone is a long, long way from closure.

2 Comments

  1. Junius says:

    Response time is, according to firemen, only part of the key to successful fire fighting – the other part is what is colloquially called ‘weight’ – the number of men there early, with kit.
    The response time was good, but due to Johnson’s ideological cuts, there was ‘weight’ lacking at the start.

  2. Bazza says:

    Grenfell- I find Tory Neo-Liberalsm GUILTY!

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