- Created: Tuesday, 16 October 2018 13:35
- Written by Cat Allison
On 1 October, survivors of the 14 June 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower and the relatives of the 72 people who died will begin to give evidence to the public inquiry. It will be their first opportunity to take centre stage in a sham inquiry in which they have been continuously sidelined. Despite repeated requests that the inquiry be moved nearer west London, the head of the inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has insisted that the plush and intimidating surroundings of Holborn Bars in central London – seven miles from north Kensington – are the only acceptable venue. In August, the families’ lawyers were rebuffed when they complained that only 5% of the more than 300,000 documents relating to the case had been released to them. They have also been prevented from questioning witnesses directly – as Leslie Thomas QC, who represents a number of survivors and bereaved, put it: ‘Why must they be made to feel like bystanders in an investigation of their own tragedy?’
This contempt for the people of Grenfell Tower and the surrounding area is par for the course. In September, around 80 former residents of the low-rise buildings connected to Grenfell Tower who fled the fire received letters from Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC) telling them that unless they returned to their homes by the end of the month their tenancies would be terminated and they would be charged much higher rents for the temporary accommodation where they are currently living. Meanwhile, despite all the promises of the council, 83 households made homeless by the fire have still not been offered adequate alternative council accommodation and remain living in temporary housing.
It is that same contempt and indifference for the lives of ordinary working class people that typifies the attitude of the ruling class to working class housing more generally. Across Britain, 159 social housing buildings have been identified as being coated in flammable cladding; in 2009, the Lakanal House fire in south London, in which six people died, had exposed to what extent ‘compartamentalisation’ – where buildings are designed so that fire cannot spread beyond a single flat – had been compromised by shoddy repairs and general degradation. Yet nothing was done. In September 2018, ITV News gained access to unpublished documents showing that Kensington and Chelsea Tenants’ Management Organisation, which was responsible for all of RBKC’s social housing, had been instructed to resolve fire safety failures at Grenfell Tower in June 2016 after an independent fire assessor strongly recommended action on more than 40 ‘high risk issues’ – including the failure of fire doors, smoke ventilation systems and the operation of the fire lift – within two weeks. In October, the assessor wrote to KCTMO to ask why no action had been taken. In November, the KCTMO was served a fire deficiency note from the London fire and emergency planning authority, saying urgent action must be taken by May 2017. A month later, the tower was engulfed in an inferno that claimed 72 working class lives, a death toll recognised to have been exacerbated by the failure of fire doors, the smoke ventilation system, low water pressure on the higher floors and the inoperation of the fire lift – flaws reiterated at the inquiry by chartered fire engineer Barbara Lane. The consequences of KCTMO’s failure to take action were starkly outlined by firefighters, who attended the blaze and were completely overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, and have been giving their evidence over the last few months. Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, Andrew O’Loughlin, was the most senior officer present when advice for residents to stay put was changed to evacuate. He said no one had been able to comprehend how fire safety measures could have failed so catastrophically: ‘The building was so horrendous… that I think no one should have lived in it.’
There is pressure now on residents to accept various architect plans to turn Grenfell Tower – only just released by police as a crime scene, and handed over to the government after an outcry at proposals to return it to RBKC – into some kind of memorial. As media interest fades and the monthly remembrance marches dwindle, Toyin Agbetu of Grenfell Media Watch summed it up: it is all about the state saying ‘It’s time to move on, to establish legacy through a memorial’ – rather than through justice. It’s all very well, he says, having a boxing gym and community centre springing up in the area – but meanwhile more than 80 families are still in temporary accommodation, survivors have been reduced to the role of passive spectators, and no criminal charges have been brought against any of those with blood on their hands for what he describes as the massacre of 14 June. Justice for Grenfell has been kicked into the long grass.
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018