What should replace Grenfell Tower? The families must be the ones to decide

Living under the shadow of the tower. 

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If you haven’t seen the carcass of the Grenfell Tower first hand, it’s hard to appreciate its impact. It's chilling and desperately sad. Our Shelter staff working nearby tell me they make detours to and from work to escape its shadow. For the local community it is nothing less than a symbol of death, and – still, despite all their efforts – a reminder that for so long they have not been heard by those with power over their lives. 

On the terrible night of the fire I, like so many others, watched helplessly from my home as the tower burned. The next day my daughter came home from school and told me of her schoolmates from Grenfell who astonishingly had been in school that same day to sit their GCSEs. Just last week I walked past the tower to collect my daughter from the sports centre and yet again I was shaken by the sight of it.

I shut my door at night and I don't have to think about it again. But there are many people in that community who cannot forget for a second, who don't need to see the tower to know the true and lasting impact of the fire.

At Shelter we've been aware from early on, through our support staff on the ground in North Kensington, that it wouldn't only be the residents of Grenfell Tower itself that needed help to recover. To assume this would be to misunderstand both the effect on the wider community and the grave housing problems that pre-date the fire. 

Increasingly, our advisers are helping local residents who simply cannot bear to live under the shadow of the tower any longer. They witnessed horrific events first-hand as friends and family died in front of their eyes. The tower now stands between them and any chance of recovery from trauma. 

Kensington and Chelsea council has accepted that people in the vicinity have good grounds for moving. But to do so, they are being asked to make homeless applications and this will plunge them into insecurity. 

What they will face is weeks, if not months, in bed and breakfast accommodation. And with nearly three-quarters of families in temporary accommodation already out of borough, many stand a good chance of being moved far away from their friends and support networks. On top of this, the wait for a new social home could well stretch into years. If the council decided they had to accept an expensive short-term private let, they would be powerless. These are people living with the effects of trauma, don't forget.

It is true that the council is in a difficult position. Ultimate priority has been given to the residents displaced by the fire, but a lack of available affordable homes means that rehousing, even for them, is painfully slow. The council was already struggling to find homes for its homeless families; and they must now wait until the job of rehousing Grenfell residents is complete before they can even bid for a home. The additional pressures from residents too traumatised to stay in the shadow of the tower risk pushing the system over the edge. I would say to breaking point, but frankly it's been at that point for some time. Yet to abandon people is unthinkable. 

So many questions hang in the air. The tower will remain standing until investigations are complete. But then what? What should replace it? If homes are built, who should live there? 

One option is for the council to turn the land over to a community land trust to give residents far greater say over what sort of building replaces the tower. They must have some choice. They may not want a building, or anything more imposing than a community garden.

The only thing that is certain is that these longer-term questions around what replaces Grenfell Tower can only be answered by the people who once called it their home. Difficult decisions will still have to be made, but it is far better for them to be made by residents than imposed on a community which already feels fatally let down.

Nobody expects magic wands to be waved. What people do expect, though, is to be heard and understood. How many times do they need to say so?

This is part of a series by Shelter on Grenfell Tower. To read the previous blog posts, click here.

Polly Neate is the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter. 

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