Created: Friday, 04 August 2017 13:13
Written by Cat Wiener
The fire that devastated Grenfell Tower on 14 June, leaving a yet unknown number of people dead and hundreds homeless, was not some terrible accident, but rather the culmination of a housing policy marked by decades of deliberate degradation of social housing. It could have happened on almost any council estate in the country, where what is left of publicly-owned housing is systematically sold off by Conservative and Labour councils alike, or left to rot as a prelude to demolition and ‘regeneration’ as profitable private assets. Successive governments have turned their backs on the housing needs of the working class. The residents of Grenfell Tower were murdered by a barbaric and crisis-ridden capitalist system that carelessly sacrifices human need to its relentless drive for profits. The Grenfell fire was what Aditya Chakraborrty, writing in The Guardian (20 June 2017) and citing Engels, rightly describes as social murder. CAT WIENER reports.
The utter contempt and distrust the ruling class has for the working class was in evidence in Kensington and Chelsea on 19 July, as the council formally endorsed its new leader, the Conservative Elizabeth Campbell. Council leader Nick Paget Brown and deputy leader Rock Fielding-Mellen had eventually resigned (while remaining as councillors) after weeks of pressure over not just their culpability for the Grenfell Tower fire, but the abject failure of the council to provide any support for survivors following the disaster. The council’s first public meeting after the fire was a stitch-up. A handful of survivors, relatives and campaigners were allowed to speak, with the remainder corralled in a locked gallery above them; everyone else was kept out of the chamber altogether and, amidst heavy security, permitted to watch proceedings on a screen. As survivors spoke eloquently of being treated like cattle or cockroaches, brushed under the carpet and systematically ignored, councillors yawned and rolled their eyes, or looked away. Their attitude was exemplified by one councillor who could be seen desperately mouthing: ‘Don’t let them in!’ as angry survivors and supporters – working class, predominantly black, many of them migrants – demanded to be allowed into the council chamber. The council will not meet again until 25 October.
No accident, no excuses
A small electrical fire in a fridge started in a fourth-floor flat in Grenfell Tower shortly after midnight on 14 June. Many residents followed official advice and remained within their flats. The original fire was quickly extinguished, yet within 15 minutes the building’s 24 storeys were ablaze, burning at temperatures of up to 1,0007C; it took 20 fire crews more than 24 hours to douse the flames. A combination of cheap, unsafe cladding and insulation and shoddy internal work during Grenfell Tower’s recent £8.6m ‘refurbishment’ had turned the entire building into a tinderbox. There was no central fire alarm – the majority of those who escaped were alerted to the danger by their neighbours, mainly Muslims up breaking their Ramadan fast, banging on doors; no sprinklers, no emergency lighting, no fire escape. Firebreaks between floors appear to have been removed during renovations and never replaced; work on boxing in pipes and boilers with non-flammable protection had not happened by the time the fire occurred.
The dangers of the type of cladding used had been flagged up for more than a decade. A timeline compiled by Buzzfeed News (30 June 2017) shows that for more than 25 years official warnings were repeatedly issued to national and local government about the urgent need to review fire safety in high-rise blocks.
• In 1991, a fire in Knowsley Heights in Liverpool swept up the building through the gap between external cladding and the concrete walls. The inquiry led to the 2006 ruling that not only must cladding of ‘limited combustibility’ be used on tall buildings but external fire breaks must be used between floors. 2006 was the last year fire safety regulations were updated.
• In Ayrshire, Scotland, in 1999, fire destroyed a block clad in panels with a combustible plastic core, killing one person and injuring many more. Social landlords were told to get fire experts to review all cladding, and combustible cladding was banned in Scotland.
• In 2009, six people, including three children, were killed in a fire at Lakanal House, south London. Those who died were advised to stay in their flats as flames spread through the building. The aluminium-composite cladding did not have the required safety rating and the compartmentalisation of flats against fire had been compromised by modernisation works. At the inquest the coroner called for the retro-fitting of sprinklers in high-rise housing and an urgent review of fire safety regulations, as well as of advice to residents to remain in their flats in case of fire. Mbet Udoaka, whose wife and baby were killed in the fire, said after the inquest verdict: ‘Nearly four years later and after a long inquest, no authority, organisation or body has said sorry to us or accepted the blame. We fear very much that lessons have not been learned and that it could happen again.’
• In 2012, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) repealed 23 local building laws relating to high-rise council blocks, deciding that over 35 years £357,000 per building could be saved by not installing or maintaining sprinklers and £600,000 by not installing smoke extractors. The repeal was signed off by Coalition DCLG minister Andrew Stunell – now LibDem spokesman for construction in the House of Lords – who described it as ‘an appropriate deregulatory measure that reduces procedural and financial burdens on the construction industry’. The measures also allowed for less rigorous fire safety checks on tall buildings.
• In October 2016, following a serious fire at Shepherd’s Court tower block in west London, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell promised a review of fire safety legislation as a ‘government priority’, but did nothing.
• In March 2017, fire experts again warned government ministers about the risks of flammable cladding. Concerns were so high that in May 2017 London Fire Brigade wrote to every council in the capital urging them to review the risks of external fire spread in tall buildings. None did so. Of 260 samples of cladding from public buildings across the country submitted since the Grenfell fire, 259 have failed fire tests.
Kensington and Chelsea: greed, neglect and contempt
Despite the warnings, in 2016 the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), the richest borough in Britain with £274m in usable reserves and £15m surplus from its housing budget, chose to save £293,368 by opting for the cheapest and least flame-resistant cladding possible for Grenfell Tower. Part of the Lancaster West estate, it lies in the fifth poorest ward in the country. Documents seen by The Times show that deciding whether the ‘champagne’ or ‘natural brushed aluminium’ panels would be more in keeping with the aesthetics of the surrounding luxury flats was a higher priority for the council than the safety of its working class tenants.
In 1996 the council had already hived off its entire housing stock to KCTMO, a private management company. KCTMO currently manages 9,459 properties, the majority tenant-occupied, collecting £44m in rent and £10m in service charges every year. On its board, alongside representatives of major housing associations, sit Conservative councillor Maighread Condon-Simmonds, the Lady Mayor of the RBKC until May 2017 and Labour councillor Judith Blakeman, who sits on the council’s Housing and Property scrutiny committee, and who in December 2015 dismissed calls by the Grenfell Action Group to investigate KCTMO (Architects for Social Housing, 21 July 2017).
The residents of Grenfell Tower knew they were living in a death trap. In November 2016 Edward Daffarn, one of the co-ordinators of the Grenfell Action Group (who only narrowly escaped dying in the fire), wrote on the group’s blog: ‘It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.’
For four years Grenfell Action Group raised residents’ concerns about the dangerous and slum-like conditions they were being forced to live in as a result of 40 years without any significant investment in housing infrastructure. Homes were neglected and the whole estate had been allowed to slide into a state of dangerous disrepair, with rotting door frames, the spread of vermin and a heating system no longer fit for purpose. In response, the council threatened the group with legal action.
Grenfell Action Group described this as part of a deliberate policy by the council to allow housing to deteriorate beyond repair in order to socially cleanse the Lancaster West estate under the guise of ‘regeneration’. In other words, it was part of the ‘managed decline’ of social housing that has been promoted by national and local government, both Conservative and Labour, for the best part of the last 50 years.
The decline of social housing
In 1979, 42% of the British population lived in publicly-funded housing; today the figure is less than 7%. The decimation of council housing over the last 50 years has forced the poorer sections of the working class back into the insecure, substandard and overcrowded privately-owned accommodation which generally characterises its living conditions under capitalism. The brief post-war period when it escaped these conditions was exceptional.*
Following the Second World War, with the mass destruction of housing in Britain and growing social unrest, there was an urgent need to provide some kind of solution to the housing crisis. The cheapest and most efficient way to do so was for the state to take over. So the 1945 Labour government gave local councils new powers to build houses for working class people to rent. An average of 130,000 publicly-owned homes were built each year from the 1950s to the 1970s, under both Conservative and Labour governments. 47% of these homes were in tower blocks. But by the time Grenfell Tower was built in 1974 to the comparatively high standards of the day, the dream of large-scale public ownership of housing was ending as the capitalist crisis began to reassert itself. While in the early days of post-war reconstruction, Labour’s housing minister Aneurin Bevan had envisaged council housing as housing for general needs, where ‘the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity to each other’, by the 1950s, under a Conservative government, there was a deliberate move to promote private housing, and designate what was increasingly being described as ‘social’ housing as housing of last resort. This trend was massively accelerated by the extension, under Margaret Thatcher in 1981, of the Right to Buy – the largest government privatisation in history. Between 1980 and 1992, 2.2m council homes were sold; only one in ten would be replaced. Council housing was consigned to being basic accommodation for the very poorest and most vulnerable, those whom the state had a statutory duty to house. It was deliberately neglected, starved of investment and allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.
By the time Labour came to power in 1997, it faced a repair bill for social housing of £19bn. Its response was more privatisation, more stock transfer, more private finance initiatives. Half a million more council homes were sold off; just 13% of the 2.5m new homes built between 1997 and 2010 were for social rent. Investment in social housing plunged to its lowest level in decades. Alongside this went the denigration of council estates, described as ‘crime-ridden’, full of ‘people on benefits or drug dealers’. Later it would be David Cameron’s ‘sink estates’, ripe for demolition.
No government since the end of the post-war boom has had any interest in building homes for the working class. Since 2015, more than 12,000 council houses have been sold off, while only 4,309 have been built. The solution to the housing crisis has been left to ‘the market’; as commentator Paul Mason has pointed out, ‘a massive monetary stimulus into the housing market, and very generous handouts of government land to private builders’, results inevitably only in ‘a glut of luxury apartments and a shortage of homes for working people’.
For British capitalism, now deep in crisis, the soaring value of land, particularly in London and the south east, makes it the perfect receptacle for parasitic investment, especially in areas like Kensington and Chelsea where land values have in the 20 years to the end of 2015 increased property prices by 456% – a better investment than gold (Financial Times, February 2016). The 2016 Housing and Planning Act has allowed public land to be handed over for private development at a vertiginous pace, with London’s 3,500 working class housing estates seen as nothing more than ‘brownfield land’ waiting for lucrative development. So council estates are deliberately run down, all the better to fuel the process of so-called ‘regeneration’ – the decanting of the poorest residents and the replacement of their homes with hugely profitable luxury flats. Labour councils have embraced the process as greedily as their Conservative counterparts, making a mockery of those who call for a Labour vote to solve the housing crisis. In London, at least 50 former Labour council-run housing estates have been torn down, or are threatened with demolition, through ‘regeneration’. The majority of working class residents can never afford to return.
Developers routinely sidestep their obligations – known as Section 106 (of the 1990 Town & Country Planning Act) – to provide even ‘affordable’ housing at 80% of market rent. Since 2011, for example, RBKC has received £59.7m in Section 106 payments from developers – yet just 336 units of ‘affordable’ housing have been built in the borough. Of £21m specifically earmarked for affordable housing, nearly £10m remains unspent. As land values rise, Kensington and Chelsea, home to some of the most expensive property on the planet, has no intention of allowing potential profits to be frittered away by allowing the working class to live cheaply on public land. Where it used to stash those whom it had a duty to house – those with mental health issues, families with children, elderly people, disabled people, refugees – in the crumbling and neglected enclave of north Kensington, now even areas like Lancaster West are seen as ripe for regeneration and the few who qualify for social housing are shunted off to other, less desirable boroughs on the outskirts of London or beyond.
Justice for Grenfell, housing justice for all
Small wonder, then, that RBKC intended to do the same with the survivors of Grenfell. More than a month after the fire, they continue to be failed by the council, by the government, by support services and by national agencies. Only a handful of families have so far been offered adequate, safe accommodation in the borough; many are still being moved around from hotel to hotel. Those who have refused temporary accommodation are told they will be classified as ‘intentionally homeless’. This in a borough which has – according to a Freedom of Information request made by Who Owns England? – 1,857 homes standing empty, the majority owned by offshore companies and by the wealthy Cadogan Estate. They are in the main ‘buy to leave’ properties bought as assets and left unoccupied to appreciate in price, some for 15 years. It is time these ‘ghost towns of the super-rich’ were opened up to those who need them.
The anger on the streets of north Kensington against those in power who have failed them time after time remains palpable. It is clear that it is only that anger and determination that has won the few concessions wrung out of the council and government to date. The occupation of the town hall by protesters two days after the fire forced RBKC to back down and say that everyone would be rehoused within the borough – a promise that has yet to materialise. The furious accusations of local residents at the council meeting in July pressurised new leader Elizabeth Campbell to commit to permanently rehousing all those made homeless by the fire in Kensington and Chelsea within 12 months, with no rent or utility bills due for a year; to writing to the prime minister to demand an immigration amnesty for survivors of the fire; to giving Grenfell residents a say in what happens at the site of the fire, and to building 400 new homes for social rent in the next five years. Under pressure, police say they are considering bringing corporate manslaughter charges against the council and KCTMO.
Only constant pressure and organisation by the residents and their supporters will ensure that these limited promises are met. Only a campaign which refuses to compromise with those in power, and in particular with the government’s public inquiry, will ensure that criminal charges are brought against all those involved in the decisions that led to the catastrophic fire. No public inquiry will do this: already Martin Moore-Bick, a judge best known for his support for social cleansing in the borough of Westminster, has defined his terms of reference so narrowly as to ensure the guilty are exonerated. It is, as with all such inquiries, an exercise designed to drag out over years, exhaust the participants, and kick the whole issue of a failed and criminal housing policy into the long grass. What is needed is a people’s inquiry, that calls the guilty to account and exposes the whole rotten edifice of what housing for the working class really means in Britain today.
Across the country, the working class is facing a vital struggle for decent, safe and affordable housing. The appalling disaster at Grenfell needs to be a wake-up call to all of us to step up our fight against this toxic system. Capitalism kills.
*See ‘Housing crisis – social housing not social cleansing’ FRFI 238, April/May 2014 and ‘Who will build homes for the working class?’ FRFI 253 October/November 2016.
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