Grenfell Fire: The fight for justice must intensify

grenfell silent march feb 2018
Grenfell silent march, 14 February 2018

Over seven months on from the Grenfell Tower fire, there is still an appalling lack of progress in achieving justice for its survivors, and in addressing the vital questions the disaster raises. The vast majority of households made homeless by the fire are still yet to be rehoused in permanent accommodation. No criminal charges have been brought against the local council, the Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) board, or Rydon, the contractor awarded £8.7m to carry out the lethal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. The Public Inquiry has been delayed again, its legitimacy in tatters. Jack Lukacs reports.

Council turns the screw

Each week, a newsletter is sent to residents of the community around Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk from the Grenfell Fire Response Team, which is led by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC). The newsletter purports to offer reassurance and advice, with support lines to call and promotions for the new NHS Grenfell app. The updates of the housing situation for survivors of the fire are, however, far from reassuring: the first edition this year (5 January 2018) reports that of 208 households made homeless, 97 remain in emergency accommodation, with 58 in temporary accommodation and just 53 in what the council deems ‘suitable permanent accommodation’. By 12 January, the number of households in emergency accommodation had risen to 100, with 55 in temporary accommodation – the rehousing process has not just stalled, it is going backwards.

The newsletter also announced that the council will resume collecting rent and service charges from local residents from 29 January ‘whether you are living in your home on the estate or in emergency or temporary accommodation’. Even those who were not forced to move out from unsafe homes are living with building work only half completed and gas pipes still dangerously exposed. All efforts made by the community of North Kensington to rebuild shattered lives are being hampered, including the council’s failure to deliver promised Christmas allowances to 18 Grenfell families and its recent decision to get rid of the team of volunteer therapists working with survivors.

And it is to this shambolic, callous, shameful excuse for a council that responsibility for housing has been returned. The news was slipped out over the Christmas period that – against the explicit wishes of residents – management of housing in the borough has been handed back to RBKC by KCTMO. Many fear that this will allow the KCTMO board to avoid criminal charges over the fire. On 18 January, Joe Delaney of the Grenfell Action Group, who is a co-opted member of the committee scrutinising the recovery process, was blocked from moving a motion of no confidence in RBKC’s ability to manage its housing stock. 23 local faith and business leaders have written an open letter to the council, accusing it of multiple failures in the wake of the fire, and a group of councillors from the Notting Dale ward have accused it of excessive bureaucracy, inflexibility and refusing to listen to the local community. Yet the Labour chair of the scrutiny committee, Robert Thompson, dared to complain that the council was being ‘humiliated’ at public meetings by ‘deliberately targeted resident anger’ (The Independent, 19 January 2018). It is clear that it is only that justifiably ‘targeted anger’ that has forced these charlatans, who have so abjectly failed the people of North Kensington, to do anything at all.

‘Public inquiry’ – a mockery of justice

In December, Prime Minister Theresa May rejected a petition created by bereaved family members calling for her to appoint more representative panel members with decision-making powers to the Grenfell fire Inquiry, ‘to secure trust in an establishment we feel has been distant and unresponsive, and to avoid a collapse of confidence in the Inquiry’s ability to discover the truth’. Instead, May fobbed them off, saying that speed was of the essence and that the Inquiry chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, was ‘considering’ establishing a ‘community advisory panel’: such a panel would have no decision-making powers. May’s apparent wish to hurry matters along was rather undermined by the continual rescheduling of Inquiry sessions – most recently from 30 January to some time at the end of February 2018. In reality, the ruling class is happy to drag proceedings out as long as possible, hoping to sap the anger and determination of Grenfell residents and their supporters to get at the truth.

The fact that the Inquiry was always intended to be a stitch-up was thrown into relief by the revelation that it had hired the auditing firm KPMG to provide project management and planning support, despite striking conflicts of interest. KPMG’s rogues’ gallery of clients includes: Rydon, the company that carried out the Grenfell refurbishment, transforming the tower into a death trap; Saint-Gobain, which supplied the flammable and toxic Celotex insulation material used in the ‘refurbishment’ (which does not stop its technical director, Mark Allen, from advising the Communities and Local Government secretary on building regulations) and RBKC itself, from which it has earned close to £1m over the last six years. This is the nepotism and systemic corruption inherent in the network of interests that poses as ‘democracy’. It was only in January 2018, following a public outcry and an open letter signed by campaigners, public figures and MPs that KPMG was removed from its role. It is the latest example of the ‘collapse of confidence’ in an Inquiry that was deeply flawed from its inception, with inadequate terms of reference, led by a judge with a history of denying homes to members of the working class, backed up by assessors from the private housing and construction sector.

Working class anger, ruling class fear

It is no coincidence that on the day the Inquiry’s procedural hearing opened on 11 December 2017, The Times launched a vicious attack on political groups organising in solidarity with Grenfell survivors and supporters. It claimed that families of the fire’s victims were ‘being exploited by unrepresentative and extremist campaigners who are parasitic on tragedy and suffering’, singling out the SWP-led Justice4Grenfell and the RCG for particular opprobrium. Next day the Daily Mail parroted the attack, in an article titled ‘Far-left activists in bid to hijack Grenfell’, publishing photos and names of campaigners with labels such as ‘The Rabble Rouser’ and ‘The Antisemite’. Among the RCG’s crimes, apparently, was to protest outside the resumption of the Public Inquiry with placards denouncing the privatisation of social housing.

This attack is the latest in the tried and tested ruling class tactic of seeking to intimidate and silence activists, and attempting to drive a wedge between victims of the fire and those who support their political battle for justice. The ruling class is terrified of political organisation amongst the working class in west London and the alliances forming between community activists and any class-conscious, committed socialists who help give expression and solidarity to their demands. The RCG has been active on the streets of North Kensington for many months now: the simmering anger of those who have been failed over and over again by the state is palpable. It cannot be silenced and contained indefinitely. But where, as the months roll by, is the ‘official’ protest movement? Where are Justice4Grenfell, Momentum, the unions? Why are the residents of North Kensington being left for the most part to fight alone?

Across the area, community groups are organising the support and services that the council still cannot get its act together to provide and the RCG and some other political organisations will continue to support them in whatever way we can. In December – in response to a call by community activists at a local meeting – we organised a protest through the streets around Latimer Road, targeting the homes of the RBKC councillors who continue to ignore and humiliate Grenfell residents. Every weekend we hold a speak-out in Ladbroke Grove, with an open mic for all those who want to express their anger, and every month we are outside Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, as well as continuing to participate in the monthly Silent March. At the council meeting on 24 January, we joined community activists from the Grenfell Wall of Truth for a protest outside the town hall. Some of us also entered the council chamber and demanded to present a petition, signed by more than 1,500 local people, calling for the basic demands for justice to be met, including for criminal charges against the councillors implicated in the fire. (see our report - Seven months on: No justice for Grenfell survivors)

It is precisely this kind of ‘targeted anger’ against the council by survivors and residents that is needed, on a mass scale. The ruling class hopes to exhaust, humiliate, fob off and divide those fighting for justice. Only a real movement built amongst the working class on the streets of North Kensington will prevent them from getting away with murder.

No lessons learned

Despite the promises made in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell fire, across England, more than 100 social housing towers have not had their combustible cladding re­moved. Despite the London Fire Brigade reiterating the importance of retrofitting sprinklers in all tall buildings, this has not happened. Of the 4,000 or so tower blocks across Britain owned by councils and housing authorities, just 2% have sprinklers. In November, then housing and planning minister Alok Sharma refused to provide councils with any financial support to fit sprinklers, dismissing them as not ‘essential’, and stating ‘It is the responsibility of the landlord to make these towers safe’. Yet the government was happy to earmark £118m to fit sprinklers in the House of Commons. The recommendation to retrofit all tower blocks with sprinklers was first made at the inquest into the Lakanal fire in south London in 2009, in which six people died. At least 71 people died at Grenfell. But to the government, working class lives are cheap.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018

 

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