The fire that consumed the Grefell Tower block in Kensington a couple of weeks ago has taken all of us aback. It is a horror beyond precedant and the photos and videos of the block ablaze are horrific and will scar our collective memory forever. I’ve been thinking about the fire everyday and what continues to shock me the most is not the fact that it happened, but how it was allowed to happen. We are the fifth richest economy in the world, and we have allowed for a council estate in the richest borough in the UK which housed around 600 people to burn to the ground. When I say ‘we’ of course I don’t mean your average working citizen. I mean ‘them’. ‘Them’ being a Tory government and a Tory local council which did nothing to stop something like this from occurring. That’s the thing about this. The fire itself was shocking enough. But in the aftermath, we have learnt so much that is ten times more shocking. This is a national tragedy and it is the nation that will reap the consequences.
Grenfell was a 24 storey tower block under control of the local Tory council, and this isn’t the first time it’s been in the news. From as early as 1997 (when New Labour were in government), residents of the Grenfell Tower have been writing to the council and their respective MP’s worried that it would take a tragic fire like that which we have seen, to realise the danger that these buildings are in, and guess what? Those concerns were ignored. Those voices were discarded. Those voices were not voices of wealth. They were not voices of big business and capital. They were the voices of the working class. Voices of the elderly. Voices of the young. Voices of the Black and Minority ethnic. And these voices were silenced and shut down. That is criminal. How has it taken the death of 79 people and the destruction of hundreds of people’s livelihoods to realise that we cannot go on kicking poverty and deprivation under the rug, pretending it doesn’t exist? This cannot continue.
What a way for Theresa May’s already disastrous administration to begin. You’d think that both her and the people around her would look at the situation they were in before the fire – having run a dire, presidential-esque campaign and subsequently losing a snap election she called expecting to smash, having to be propped up by the reactionary DUP, being laughed at by our European neighbours just before Brexit negotiations begin – and they’d surely think that we need to make her seem slightly more human and Prime Ministerial by sending her down to Grenfell and actually looking like she gave a shit about it. But no, some clever clogs at no.10 presumably thought it was ok for an already hated PM to go to the site, ignore the victims and talk to a few police officers and fire fighters. Seriously, what on earth does she think she is doing? People keep praising her for apologising for the government response to the tragedy but that is simply not good enough. Her apologising isn’t some grand statement of humility and selflessness, she had to do it. She should never have had to apologise, and this should never have happened.
At Glastonbury whilst on a panel at the Leftfield stage hosted by the Guardian’s John Harris, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that the victims of Grenfell were ‘murdered’ by successive government decisions on Health and safety regulation. Earlier, Ex-Shadow Business and defence secretary, now backbencher Clive Lewis said that the politics of neo-liberalism were to blame for the fire. Both truthful, accurate and fair judgements to make but they have since been slated for overly ‘politicising’ such a tragic event. This is the most misguided and ridiculous criticism. It’s a sentiment used by the guilty to deflect any responsibility. This is a deeply political tradegy, in the same way that Hillsborough was a deeply political tragedy. Everything is political, I don’t think people actually get that. There have been consistent decisions made in the corridors of power that have led to the fire at Grenfell and that is what is so damning about all of this.
Gavin Barwell, the ex-Croydon central MP and Housing Minister before losing his seat on June 8th, who has since replaced Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy as May’s Chief of Staff, has been rightly accused of sitting on a review into fire safety regulation in high-rise buildings for several months. Asked recently by Sky News to comment on the Grenfell fire and the review he oversaw delays on, he merely said he ‘couldn’t comment’. How unabatedly shameful do you have to be to refuse to even say a few words on a tradegy that you could have stopped? And if you thought this couldn’t get any worse, Chancellor Philip Hammond went on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday and tried to deny that sprinklers (which had not been installed in Grenfell) would have been able to stop the fire, even after being told by Marr that no one had ever died in a fire in a building which had sprinklers. Not only this, but he also came out and said that he was under the impression that the flammable cladding used on the outside of the tower block, and hundreds of other tower blocks around the UK has in fact been banned. So why the bloody hell was it not taken down? This information was clearly known to the government and local authorities yet they still failed to act, costing the lives of 79 people and destroying the lives of many more. This government is a total and utter disgrace and it must be held to account over its consistent failures.
So what should we take from all this? It’s been slightly difficult to comprehend to be perfectly honest. Something so unexpected yet totally inevitable at the same time. The Housing crisis in this country has been permeant for decades, and governments of both Labour and Conservative have consistently failed to address the issues at the very heart of this tragic event.
The plastic cladding on the exterior of Grenfell, banned in the USA and in most European countries, which allowed for the fire to easily spread was apparently installed recently as there had been several complaints from wealthier members of the community concerning the ugliness of the building prior to cladding. When you hear that, does your heart not sink? If this is true, what does it tell us about inequality, poverty, wealth, deprivation and the role of the state? To me, it says a lot. The clear disparity between the rich and the poor in Kensington and Chelsea (richest borough in the country), reminds me of Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. There isn’t a more apt description of this event than that.
In the last couple of days, we have heard that 80 or more similar tower blocks have the same flammable cladding and that there has been an 100% failure rate for fire safety checks undertaken since the fire at Grenfell. Residents in numerous tower blocks in Camden were evacuated 2 nights ago as the buildings were deemed far too dangerous, leaving people uncertain about what the future may hold as they might not be able to go back into their homes for weeks. It’s just utter utter chaos and it shouldn’t be happening anywhere, let alone in the fifth largest economy in the world.
Unfortunately for her, Theresa May’s legacy as PM will be dominated by three things: the brexit screw-up, the laughing stock election and her clear lack of common humanity. As if the ‘Fields of Wheat’ video wasn’t strange enough, her clear lack of confidence when speaking to the public or facing up to responsibility renders her unfit for the great office of Prime Minister. She is a leader in office but not in power. The tragic events at Grenfell and her failure to respond like a Human being will be her downfall.