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6 June 2018

Grenfell’s long shadow: how the fatal fire became an ethical tipping point for Britain

The centralised, neoliberal housing system first introduced by Thatcher failed to provide decent homes for low-waged people.

By Will Self

On the evening of 13 June last year, my friend Simon went to bed early in the flat he’s lived in for the past 30-odd years on an estate that’s still managed by the north London borough of Barnet. Simon’s flat is on the second floor of a 12-storey point block; but being such a long-term resident – and something of an antinomian – he’s long had access to the roof.

Waking at around 5am, Simon had a strange presentiment, and went up to the roof. It was a brilliantly clear and sunny morning and gazing out over the wide quadrant of the capital he could see facing south, Simon noticed a thick plume of dirty grey-black smoke rising from what he assumed to be the area around White City. Thinking of the haulage and scrap businesses there used to be along the Western Avenue (and yet, at the same time, knowing these have been supplanted in recent years as land values have risen astronomically), Simon attributed the plume to some dodgy character burning car tyres before anyone environmentally aware was up – and with that, he returned downstairs and got on with his day.

Simon doesn’t have a radio or a television. Indeed, for the most part he recuses himself from our wired and judgemental world; which was why, I think, when he realised later in the day that what he’d seen was a fire in a council block like his own, one that had definitely claimed scores of lives, and quite possibly hundreds (the final figure was later confirmed as 72), he went into what can only be described as a sort of paranoid depression. This is a mental state that he’s endured for the entire subsequent year – and I’m aware that as we reach the Grenfell Tower fire’s first anniversary, Simon, and thousands of others who’ve been affected, will be revisiting this traumatic conflagration. Of course, Simon’s situation isn’t comparable to that of the direct victims – those who perished or were injured, their immediate relatives and friends – but nonetheless, his problems perfectly exemplify why Grenfell Tower represents an ethical tipping point for British society.

Grenfell Tower’s burnt out shell still looms over the Latimer Road area, to the west of Notting Hill. Out of sight might well have been conveniently out of mind – however, this remains a crime scene, and in order for the police and the public inquiry to do their slow and circumlocutory work, the grisly hecatomb has had to be exhaustively and forensically picked over. Another friend, Nick, lives half a mile away on the other side of Ladbroke Grove. A psychotherapist, together with like-minded colleagues he’s been working with one of the therapy groups that volunteers have set up for the fire’s survivors. I asked him how things were for them a year on; and he replied that the worst-affected found it very hard to be in any therapeutic context at all; that they were severely traumatised – many having daily flashbacks, especially those who were living at the foot of the tower and saw people trapped at the windows of the upper storeys.

Nick told me that although psychological help and support has been made available through the NHS and other public agencies, many of the survivors are wary of any involvement with the state: “They remain angry at the slowness with which the authorities responded initially, and are continuing to respond,” he told me. “Those who’ve had to move – either from the tower, or the surrounding Lancaster West Estate – are still worried for their future; they suspect the council’s planned redevelopment will be a pretext for their ‘class-cleansing’.”

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There’s also, Nick said, a sense of disappointment after the local elections in early May: “The gains for Labour have been purely geographical – they only picked up a few votes in those wards directly in the shadow of the tower.” And he went on to reflect that, a year on, it’s only those who confront the tower’s blackened and scarred façade on a daily basis who maintain their anger and commitment to change… Well, to change what exactly?

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The local council – that ugly-sounding conjunction, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – has appointed a consultation group for the proposed redevelopment, and I spoke to one of its members, Richard. A local resident and built environment professional, Richard began looking at issues affecting the so-called walkways (the low-rise blocks surrounding Grenfell) last summer. Since then, there’s been a commitment of £15m in central government funding for the work – and the council has promised to match this. Richard spoke of consultations on acoustic and insulation improvements, and that pre-financial crash buzzword, sustainability. There was, he said, an “ideas book” for the residents, in which they expressed their dissatisfaction with broken down boilers (a communal one was destroyed in the fire), too-small rooms, and other well-established defects.

Richard conceded that the social housing situation in the borough has for a number of years been “pretty poor”. Given this, I asked him why he believed the council would really follow through on whatever plans he and the residents came up with – after all, £30m is nugatory when it comes to redevelopment on this scale. He told me that in fact this sum has been agreed by all parties to be inadequate – and that this is, at best, half of what’s needed to deliver on the council’s promise of creating “a model for social housing in the 21st century”. The new leader of the council, Elizabeth Campbell, has stated for the record that there will be refurbishment, not redevelopment, and that it will be done “collaboratively and sensitively”.

But if the Grenfell Tower fire does indeed represent some sort of climacteric in the long and painful death of the British social housing ideal – then come the hour, come the woman. Emma Dent Coad took the Kensington parliamentary seat for Labour four days before the fire; a local woman, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn with a background in political and social activism, she’s also been an academic and a writer on architectural history. On the phone from her Westminster office, Dent Coad sounded pressured, but still angry: “I lived two blocks from the fire and I know people who passed – my kids were at school with children who were victims.”

She was a councillor for 12 years in the area before entering parliament, and even sat on the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) that stands accused of the cost-cutting – especially on the tower’s cladding – which, it’s argued, spread the fire. Dent Coad has been at pains to distance herself from those decisions (she left the organisation in 2012, before they were made) but she remains in no doubt that, “The fire was a result of the culture there, and at Kensington and Chelsea generally – and I was aware of the culture in both organisations, one of managed decline. At root it was a good building, but it’d been neglected for a long time; then the council decided to pimp it – it was all about appearances.”

In the first few shocked days and weeks following the fire, much was made of the extreme disparities in wealth and advantage between the socially housed victims, and those owner-occupiers living in the 19th-century terraces that mount up from Ladbroke Grove to Notting Hill Gate – and of the rich-and-secure’s efforts to give to the poor-and-vulnerable. Often this took the ludicrously unsuitable form of bags of designer clothing being left at emergency shelters.

In search of justice: Grenfell residents and supporters outside the Houses of Parliament while MPs debate the disaster, May 2018

Aaron, another friend of mine who lives in a Notting Hill house worth north of £4m, told me that his privately educated teenage daughters were “radicalised” by the fire, and during last year’s Notting Hill Carnival, instead of joining neighbours in their private garden square for Bollinger and Bob Marley records, they’d handed out incendiary leaflets they’d written themselves – ones calling for immediate and far-reaching wealth redistribution.

But while there may have been some re-evaluation of values, according to Dent Coad, “The culture which neglected the tower is the culture that’s prevailed since the fire – it’s a culture that still treats the tenants as the other.” I put it to her that even as that thick smoke was still billowing up into clear skies on the morning of 14 June last year, an astute police commander at the Met might have considered it worthwhile applying for warrants and conducting searches for certain relevant documents – ones that, as Martin Moore-Bick’s public inquiry at last gets ponderously under way, are probably long-since shredded. “It’s true,” Dent Coad conceded, “that the police would need to obtain the minutes of certain meetings – ones of a sub-group of the Tenant Management Organisation, which would’ve reported in 2014, giving the prices agreed on – including the spec for the cladding. But I’ve no idea if anyone would conceal information.”

In Andrew O’Hagan’s lengthy exposé on the fire, published in the 7 June issue of the London Review of Books, he does indeed detail some of the emails exchanged between council officers and the TMO at Grenfell. These – as does the evidence he has scrupulously amassed – strongly suggest the disaster was the result of cock-ups by the London Fire Service, and a conspiracy – if that’s the right word for something so long-term, tacit and embedded – between the manufacturers of the cladding used in the refurbishment of towers such as Grenfell, and a lax inspections regime. It was the victim, like so much else, of successive governments’ cost-cutting, allied to their relentless mantra of: “Privatisation good, public services bad.” This may well be true, but Grenfell was a cock-up covered in highly flammable rather than flame-retardant cladding.

Oh, the cladding – that disgusting cladding. We’ve seen it going up on high-rises all over the country – both private and public buildings. It’s always looked dodgy to me: as synthetic in appearance as a condom, and like that, a prophylactic, although one intended to provide insulation rather than prevent insemination. At least, that’s what those landlords who install the stuff have claimed – many, though, take Dent Coad’s line, which is that cladding has largely been installed in social housing blocks to make them look better. Not, of course, to the tenants – who mostly peer out from, rather than gaze at them – but to the better class of private tenants and potential Tory voters in the environs, who must, perforce, be protected from the realities of contemporary inequality.

The flammability or otherwise of the Grenfell Tower cladding has been the subject of the most agonised speculation in the past year – with campaigners’ and victims’ hopes being finally dashed when Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations relating to high-rise construction failed to recommend its outright ban.

A few weeks after the fire, I visited yet another friend, Susan, who lives about a quarter-mile from the tower. She showed me chunks of the cladding that had rained down on her back garden, and which she’d preserved, under cling film, in Tupperware containers. The stuff was completely blackened and burnt-through – fragments of a latter-day and plastic Pompeii.

Up in Barnet, the council had moved fairly fast to remove the cladding from Simon’s block. He assumed it was the same type as was used for Grenfell – and had grisly confirmation, when, passing by a stacked pile of the old panels, he absentmindedly chucked a fag end away, it landed on one, and this immediately began to smoke then char. Barnet’s alacrity may have been less due to conscientiousness, and more because Simon’s estate was already undergoing what the tenants of Lancaster West suspect is coming their way: extensive redevelopment, including huge infill (construction on scraps of land) and other densification, leading to lost open space, and far fewer social housing tenancies.


Yes, Grenfell Tower may prove to be a climacteric for our social housing ideals – but the change occurring is simply the burning of whatever illusion we once had that under conditions of centralised and neoliberal governance it was still possible to provide decent homes for working people on low incomes.

The situation for the tenants displaced by the fire is simply a more acute form of the one faced by social tenants all over Britain in recent years, who’ve been forced to “choose” between becoming housing association tenants (with higher rents and less security) or remaining in un-refurbished council accommodation. According to Dent Coad, “There’s a war of attrition between the tenants’ representatives and the council; people want to be listened to – but they don’t want platitudes.”

Yet platitudes are mostly what have been on offer. Even the Prime Minister’s decision to allow two community-nominated members to join Moore-Bick’s inquiry panel, which had to be shamed out of her, by the likes of the Labour MP David Lammy and the grime star Stormzy, can be seen both as a platitude – an opening of the stable door, long after the horses have bashed their heads trying to get out – and also as typical of the hysterical and media-driven “narrative” that has characterised the fire’s aftermath.

The inquiry’s first phase has seen the relatives of victims and victims themselves giving testimony – and welcome and cathartic an exercise as this may well be, it goes nowhere towards naming the guilty men and women, or indeed rehousing those wholly innocent ones who remain homeless.

Dent Coad is trenchant on this matter: “All their resources should be dedicated to finding suitable homes, what’s being offered isn’t right for their needs.

“It’s being said that people are ‘greedy’ – not so: they want a viable home in a neighbourhood – not the flats they’ve been offered on Warwick Road, which is a busy road and backed by a railway line. There’s no community for them there.” Wearily, she summed up her perception of what’s transpired in the past 12 months: “People have been spending more time saying there’s been a cultural change than making that cultural change.”

I’m inclined to agree – great disasters tend to bring out the gestural in people, and in the year since the Grenfell tragedy those more proficient at making gestures have seen their stock rise: step forward the royal family. The Queen and Prince Philip, nonagenarians both, went to meet survivors long before Theresa May. She has been exposed in recent weeks as the home secretary who presided over the hounding of the Windrush generation; they’ve stepped out boldly as the first family of racial integration, by welcoming a mixed-race granddaughter-in-law into their storied home(s). And only last month, Prince William donned hard hat and hi-vis to join volunteers helping fit out a new home for a boxing club that was destroyed by the fire. But really, these royal touches are hardly likely to heal Britain’s scrofulous social housing – and when they leave, they take their vast entitlement and riches with them.

We should keep on following the money if we want to understand why the Grenfell Tower fire happened – and how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. There are said to be more than 300 blocks still covered with the same sort of flammable cladding, and while wholesale reform of building regulations is to be welcomed, they’ll only be fit for purpose when the regulators and the regulated stop playing on the same team.

Dominated by central government and deprived anyway of the ability to build new social housing, British councils are stacked with property developers, and are inclined to offer their colleagues generous opportunities to effectively “class-cleanse” in return for cash to pay for other public services. Dent Coad spoke to me darkly of, “Some people [who] are being ‘played’ by the government – and some ministers [who] are playing a very long game.” But really, this “long game” has been going on since Margaret Thatcher adventitiously adopted a policy called Right to Buy.

We don’t really “do” crude financial corruption in Britain – we don’t need to have one hand wash the other, because all too often the hand signing off on building permits is the same one that’s trousering the development profits.

As for Simon, his sense of survivor guilt remains – as does his anxiety. He tells me he can’t see a residential high-rise without imagining it in flames – and can’t enter one without scoping out all the fire exits. “Simon” isn’t his real name – any more than “Nick”, “Richard”, “Aaron” and “Susan” are their real names. Curiously enough, no one I spoke to for this article – apart from the Member for Kensington – wished to go on the record. They all had different reasons for this – but my sense is that they’re all still suffering from the effects of the Grenfell fire. Burning an illusion can be a very toxic business indeed.

This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family