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14 June 2018

A year on, I am even angrier about Grenfell

The political response to the tragedy has been both shallow and hollow. 

By Stephen Bush

I think about Grenfell almost every day.  Mostly it’s on my way to work: when I reach the bottom of the stairwell in the block of flats where I live, I think of the young mother on the 24th floor who accidentally let go of her daughter’s hand while they were running down the stairs, and never found her again. Occasionally I think about my oldest friend, who grew up in a block of the same design, who I am rubbish about calling, and I feel a pang of guilt about the fact I never call and relief that it wasn’t his block that went up in smoke.

With a handful of exceptions, where either a local council was feeling particularly flush or a young architect was keen to make a mark, most local authority buildings build in that period of intense ambition in public housing from the 1950s – like the tower block I was born in – to the late 1970s – like Grenfell and the block I live in now – are essentially identical inside.

When I look at Grenfell I know where the toilets would have been, even though I was never inside. I know what the rooms are like. I know where the exits were. And I know, too, that in the event of a fire, what is meant to happen is that provided the fire isn’t in your flat, if you stay where you are, and close the doors, everything will be fine.

But of course, Grenfell residents weren’t fine: if you followed the rules and did what you’re supposed to do, you died.

Usually the passage of time means that rage ebbs away, at least in my case. But a year on, I find myself getting angrier and angrier about the Grenfell tower fire and the political response to it.

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Why am I getting crosser? In part it’s because of the hollowness and the shallowness of the political response to the tragedy. The shallowness is self-evident: the delay in both announcing government funding not only for the tragedy but for blocks with similar problems, that the government responded immediately with extra money for Salisbury but had to be cajoled into not making local councils foot the bill for improvements to their own housing, that the majority of the necessary improvements have not yet been made, that Kensington Council’s new leader felt comfortable openly admitting she had never visited any of her borough’s high-rise towers.  

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The hollowness has been particularly evident this week. Theresa May wrote this week that she will “always regret” not meeting the residents and survivors when she visited the sight of the tower. But her apology rung hollow because it was missing the vital component of a sincere apology: an explanation. “I will always regret that by not meeting them that day,” the Prime Minister declared, “it seemed as though I didn’t care”. That’s not an apology, it’s a complaint.

If you don’t see the problem, think of it like this: if I apologise for calling you an idiot by saying it made it “seem as if I thought you were a fool”, but don’t explain what I was actually thinking, it’s not really a proper apology, is it? It’s simply an attempt to make the issue go away.

Elsewhere, it feels as if a full-blown effort is underway to act as if Grenfell was some kind of natural disaster, and not the result of choices made by a variety of people. Grenfell was built to withstand fire, yet due to a series of decisions made over the years, it became a firetrap. That Downing Street has joined organisations across the country in bathing itself in green lights in solidarity with the tower is symbolic of the problem: solidarity with organisations that aren’t ultimately responsible for the condition of people’s housing is wonderful. Downing Street should be offering more than a light show when it has still yet to permanently house two-thirds of the displaced.

That light show seems like part of the broader problem of the way that the political class has responded to the tragedy. At the beginning, as well as the seeming indifference from the Prime Minister, the government seemed to have little idea that a large number of people in this country live in tower blocks and its public pronouncements could have been designed to spread panic and fear. Or the flattening of who the 72 victims were, with continual references to them dying “because they were poor”.  Many of the 72 were not poor – they included in their number a marketing manager, two architects, and a successful painter-decorator among other well-paid people. The survivors, who have also been let down by the government, are not all poor either: they include leaseholders who have bought their flats at the (eyewatering) market rate.

The 72 died because their housing was the subject of snobbery, indifference, and poor management by a variety of people, the scale of which is the subject of an ongoing inquiry. The survivors are being let down for the same reason.  That that problem if anything seems to be growing in intensity is why I find myself even angrier today than I was this time a year ago.