Last June, the nation was haunted by images of plumes of thick, black smoke billowing from a blazing Grenfell Tower, while terrified residents remained trapped inside – 71 tragically dying of smoke inhalation.
Grenfell should never have happened. At the time, the horror unfolding in the capital felt like a watershed moment. Things would change, they would have to. The expectation was that this was a national tragedy, and one that would be met with a national response to make sure such a fire could never happen again.
But eight months on, the survivors of the Grenfell fire are still without permanent homes, and ministers have done too little to prevent a similar tragedy unfolding in the hundreds of tower blocks across the UK.
The grime artist, Stormzy, spoke for many of us at last month’s Brits when, during his performance, he asked: “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?”
This is not the only promise the government has pushed to the wayside. Today, residents in my constituency of Plymouth, and all around the UK, continue to live in buildings with Grenfell-style combustible cladding. Despite assurances that the government would support local authorities in removing this, only seven (4.4 per cent) out of more than one hundred buildings nationwide have had the cladding fully removed and replaced.
Most outrageous of all, is that there was an additional, unused, £1.1bn in the housing budget over the past two years, which the Huffington Post reported as being handed back to the treasury by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – after it was apparently decided that the money wasn’t needed.
A memo from the last financial year alone states: “the department has surrendered £817m of budget that is no longer required in 2017/18”. I can’t help feeling the Grenfell survivors still living in hotels, and those who sleep in homes in tower blocks encased in combustible cladding across the country, would disagree.
Addressing the Commons just after the tragedy at Grenfell, the Prime Minister said “we cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes.”
So when three tower blocks in the constituency I represent – Mount Wise, Devonport – failed safety tests, and were found to have combustible cladding, there was understandable fear among residents, but an expectation that it would be put right.
In a letter to the leader of Plymouth City Council, Sajid Javis pledged “we will ensure that lack of financial resources will not prevent its going ahead” in reference to fire safety work in social housing. So far, so good. It felt as though the government was stepping up to the plate. It seemed the necessary measures were being put in place.
But rather than a tragedy bringing out the best out of the government, we saw the same old story of broken promises and empty soundbites to conceal inaction. Ministers have refused to support Plymouth in recladding its three tower blocks, and refused help to other local councils and housing associations. Money was supposed to be no object, there was even apparently money left over, so why is it not being used?
Can we take a moment to imagine the panic one would feel, as a resident of one of these unsafe tower blocks, if the fire alarm were to suddenly sound as you laid in bed, or cooked for your kids, or took a shower? As David Lammy MP pointed to the House of Commons: “There is very likely no one in this Chamber who lives in a council tower block estate.” He’s probably right.
Instead of the government offering assistance as promised, Plymouth’s non-profit housing association, Plymouth Community Homes, is faced with footing the estimated £13m bill. Despite our current housing crisis, it will have to suspend building new homes or refurbishing current ones in order to afford this.
It is strange that when there is a need for tax cuts, to bail out the banks, a one-billion-pound bung for the DUP, or to pay for a royal wedding, the government can find the cash. But it can’t hand over funds to protect the poorest in our society.
For the Ministry of Housing to return £1.1bn to the Treasury is either senseless or heartless – whichever the answer, it is a disgrace. I want to see this money being allocated to pay for recladding immediately. There should no need for a debate about affordability.
If we cannot show we have learnt from the past, we will be doomed to repeat it. Inaction is a dirty stain on this government and stands as an insult to the 71 people who lost their lives last summer.
I have no doubt that the government does not want another tragedy like Grenfell, but fear such an even is a risk as long as it continues to refuse to help councils, housing associations, and those who purchased their home unaware of the risk.
A lack of funding means ministers are playing with fire, just as the Grenfell Action Group warned in 2016. We will have learnt nothing from Grenfell if we do not act now.
Luke Pollard is the Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport.