Felipe Araujo
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The Gardeners of Grenfell

"We have had no kind of big infrastructure, we just got on with it."

The makeshift memorial outside Notting Hill Methodist Church began with someone who had very little to give. “One guy arrived with his dog,” Cathy Long, one of the volunteers, says. “And he said ‘I’m homeless, I sell the Big Issue, I’ve no donations to give, but I brought this bouquet of flowers.’”

Alan and his dog, Lexi, were never seen again, but four weeks ago they unknowingly started something which has helped the bereft community. 

Shock has, for many, given way to sadness and grief. This place will continue to mourn the people who perished — at least 80 of them - and here outside the church that is expressed with flowers, football shirts with messages of condolences, postcards, and drawings by the local children.

“This is not just a nice display,” Cathy says while watering the flowers. “A lot of people come because they need somebody to talk to, they might need some counselling or they might need some help. Lots of them don’t want to walk into a church but they will always speak to a woman who is tending flowers.” 

At 8am on a hot Tuesday morning, Cathy and her friend, Miranda Boyer, are already hard at work outside the church. The two didn’t know each other before that tragic night, but watching them coordinate efforts, you get the impression they have been doing this for a long time, working tirelessly in the midst of a crisis, trying to help as many people as possible in any way they can.

Cathy (left) outside the church. Picture: Felipe Araujo 

"We are fine,” the pair say almost in unison when asked about their state of mind. “It’s our job to be here and to be OK, because everybody else has had such a terrible time. That’s what’s been amazing about this community: everybody has just got on with it.”

The void left by the state in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies to hit this country since the Second World War, has made this tight-knit community rally together. 

Miranda has lived in the area for 56 years. A former local teacher, she knew many of the children and parents in Grenfell. Cathy, a scouser who runs a football consultancy firm, has lived in the neighbourhood for three years. For the past month, the two have found themselves playing the role of social workers, councillors, and cooks. Services that the local council — one the richest in Britain, — should be providing, but somehow cant. 

“We have had no kind of big infrastructure, we just got on with it,” Miranda tells me. “We are providing clothes, we do the cash donations, we shop for them, anything they need.  “One of the families that I support told me I’m now their PA. They are so traumatised, so distressed and they are made to go from one person to another, one centre to another and it’s too much.”

Throughout the day, people from all walks of life — many of them survivors of the fire —, stop by to pay their respects, lay flowers, or simply offer a helping hand.

For the past four weeks, Cathy and Miranda have heard harrowing stories: mothers who weren't able to save their kids; elderly people trapped on the top floors; immigrants who arrived in this country with nothing, many of them fleeing war, and now will have to once again start from scratch.

For the two volunteers, however, the first day was the hardest: “After hours of working on the recovering operation, the firefighters would come here and look at the pictures of the missing people,” Cathy says. “It felt like they were trying to reconnect with the people that have been lost. They would leave flowers and say ‘We are sorry, we really tried.’ That really stayed with me.”

As residents try to piece their lives back together, the burnt-out tower looms over the surrounding streets.

In an eerily prescient blog post published last November, one of the members of the resident’s association wrote: “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... and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

People on the ground feel the country is run by institutions specifically designed to keep those in power free from any sort of accountability, regardless of political affiliation. 

“This not about particular politics but about the role of government in general, which has eroded the power of local government over many, many years,” Mike Long, the Minister at the Notting Hill Methodist Church says. “Social housing is now deemed to be second-class and second best.”

Many of the residents in Grenfell say they fell just that: second-class citizens. Sid-Ali Atmani is a father from Algeria who escaped with his daughter from the tower’s 15th floor. Last week, he stopped by the church to pay his respects to the neighbours he lost. He comes from a country where tragedies like this are more common than not, but did he ever think something like this would ever happen to him right here, in Britain? “We came to this country because we know there is a law, there is a system that will protect us,” he says. “But in this case where was the law, where was the protection?” 

As the inquiry is set to begin in September, those affected want two things to come out of it: a complete overhaul in public housing policy, and for the people responsible for the decisions that led to this tragedy to face the full force of justice. 

For Miranda, there is no question, what happened in Grenfell was criminal. “Oh, I’m extremely angry,” she says. "This was a needless fire, it was crime by neglect.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.