Burning embers: Below Grenfell Tower crises meet and unrest grows 


Grenfell anger: Class, housing and poverty drawn together in human tragedy

PEOPLE ARE ANGRY. As journalists and government politicians try to mediate below the Grenfell tower – where the number of expected deaths from the bloody blaze grows – a community is shaken and enraged. 

A 24-storey block of public housing in North Kensington, London, is now the epicentre for the political fury of class discontent and alienation. Dozens are dead in a fire that surged up the building in the early morning hours of Wednesday 14 June. 

The community’s Grenfell Action Group had warned, repeatedly, with now horrific prescience, that the block was a death trap – with flagging fire safety measures. 

In a piece directed at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the tenant management group working on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council, Grenfell action warned: “We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of  looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.

“Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”

This was seven months ago. “It won’t be long before the words of this blog come back to haunt the KCTMO management,” the group wrote. 

“Corporate manslaughter”, an English law criminal offence, is an act of homicide committed by a company or organisation. A police investigation, not yet on any specific charges against any person or organisation, has begun. 

Questions have been raised regarding the building’s ‘cladding’, which an expert report to the UK Government warned can be the source of rapid combustion on a building. Eyewitnesses watched the fire spread rapidly up the tower-block, with reports of the cladding combusting and falling off the side. ‘Reynobond PE cladding’ was provided at a £2 cheaper per square metre rate than the alternative ‘Reynobond FR’, which stands for “fire resistant”. Reports suggest it would have cost just £5,000 to have added the safer cladding onto the building when a recent ‘renovation’ took place.

Grenfell Action Group was at the heart of warning that a catastrophe with loss of life would take place – yet instead of being listened to, they were actively threatened by the local council. A legal threat was made to the group due to the material it was publishing, which included warnings over fire safety. 

Grenfell tower, and its specific circumstance as poorly supported social housing within a borough of London with great wealth and luxury accommodation, has put a focus on issues of inequality, housing, and social class.

“The people who died and lost their homes, this happened to them because they are poor,” Akala, a Hip Hop Artist who has become a high-profile political activist, explained. 

Political demands are growing – but political leadership from the Tory Government has been absent. Prime Minister Theresa May did not meet victims of the fire for “security reasons”, while her chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, refused to answer questions from the media – including on allegations he ‘sat on’ a warning of tower block safety dangers. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for empty flats in North Kensington to be “requisitioned if necessary” for people left homeless by the Grenfell Tower fire. “It cannot be acceptable that in London you have luxury buildings and luxury flats kept as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,” he said.

Jack Bernhardt, a London resident, explained how the anger at the political injustice of the blaze took hold of him: “This is horror. This is shame. That black husk is a monument to our apathy to inequality, our othering of poor people.”

Seventy sixpeople are currently reported missing, with the casualty count currently confirmed at a least 30. The London-wide Radical Housing Network said the deaths were caused by a “combination of government cuts, local authority mismanagement, and sheer contempt for council tenants and the homes they live in.”

The fire has been a wake up call across the nations of the UK, with questions asked about the safety of public housing, and wider questions of social inequality. In Scotland some, like rapper and writer Darren McGarvey – aka Loki – insisted that the political nature of Grenfell had to be understood. 

On a practical level, Edinburgh and Aberdeen councils confirmed a review of evacuation procedures and safety inspections across its social housing stock. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that regulations will be reviewed by a ministerial group to ensure that “lessons are learned” from the fire, especially in regards to material used on buildings. 

Yet beyond the procedural check-up many of the same political conflicts – of disempowerment, of a lack of tenant rights, of obscure management groups, of gentrification – are happening in Scotland’s cities. 

Tenants union Living Rent have been at the forefront of the campaign for change. Just last week the group, campaigning over the behaviour of Whiteinch and Scotstoun Housing Association which has been accussed of unnecessarily closing communal spaces for tenants, said: “Decent housing doesn’t just mean a roof over your head – we all have the right to a proper home. The decision to shut down these communal spaces could push some of the residents at Primrose and Northinch Court into social isolation, and it must be reversed immediately.”

Residents gathered outside the associations offices to demand that their rights to quality housing was maintained in the age of austerity. 

Tonight [Friday 16 June] the Grenfell community will come together. The crisis of confidence in the political establishment, epitomised by the surge in support for Corbyn’s socialist leadership in the capital this June, now has a new anger. In the summer of 2011, following the police shooting of Mark Dugan, it led to riots across England.

Six years on, without political action, we can expect new disturbances. Though this time, there is a new anger at a time of unprecedented political instability. 

Picture courtesy of sarflondondunc

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