When I saw the photos of the fire at Grenfell Tower, my first thoughts went to 1997 and being nine-years-old, woken up in the middle of the night by a sudden bang outside my bedroom window. A massive gas explosion had ripped through the boiler room at Kerrin Point, one of the local tower blocks across the street from where I lived in Kennington, South London. The explosion had done massive damage to the building, but miraculously nobody died that night. Instead, hundreds of people poured out of their homes and into the streets. The next morning children turned up at local primary schools in their pyjamas, still dazed by what had happened, lacking sleep, and with no idea of what they would return to, or where they would go.
Kerrin Point had been one of four towers built next to a series of low-rise flats as part of the Ethelred Estate in 1969. It was council housing through and through, with a large number of working-class and BAME residents. The explosion occurred less than thirty years after its construction, and was a result of mismanagement by Lambeth Council. After a court case the Council was eventually fined £75,000 for its failure to maintain the gas boiler installation. Most residents who left Kerrin Point that night in 1997 were never able to return. Some were rehoused in the borough quickly, while for others it took years.
As is always the way in London, the site was earmarked for redevelopment, this time as part of the Lambeth Walk/Ethelred Estate Major Development Opportunity. In the initial plans for the redevelopment, the council earmarked 88 of the 214 residential flats for social rent – just over 40 per cent. But as the scheme progressed, the figure went down to just 56 – only 25 per cent social rent. The original Kerrin Point site had primarily housed families who had close links to the Ethelred Estate: their neighbours were also their brothers and sisters, their friends, their lovers.
As time went on, fewer and fewer families were ever able to return to the Ethelred. This wasn’t just a coincidence – the new site was designed with just over 60 per cent one-bed flats. Councillors argued that this would only attract single people with no families. Councillors also questioned the design of the building, its suitability for the local area, as well as the quality of materials used. All these questions were waved aside. Financial considerations, appeared to have outweighed the simple needs of the residents who had been forced out of their homes in fear and confusion one night in 1997. A tragedy had become the site of profit-making.
“A tragedy had become the site of profit-making”
It is still unclear what started the Grenfell Tower fire. The London Fire Brigade (LFB) says it is too early to identify the proximate cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower – it could have been anything from a fault in the building’s gas or electrics, to a forgotten cigarette or an untended oven. Nobody knows what happened, but everybody knows what happened. There are a whole host of remote causes apparent to anybody who watched the fire unfold.
Where a profit can be made, social tenants have been decanted. Where they have proved intransigent, carefully managed decline has been used to force them out. Councils have failed to properly maintain residential properties for decades, while ignoring the outcry from residents. Councillors have become increasingly unaccountable to their constituents, spending more time reflecting on the needs of property developers than the needs of the people who they represent. Nationally, government has failed to heed the warnings of previous disasters, either refusing to pursue necessary reforms, or actively lobbying against them in the name of profitability.
Where estates have been redeveloped, the social rent provision has been laughable, pricing most of us out of the city we call our home. The introduction of Affordable Rents in 2010 has further decimated social housing stock. At 80 per cent of market rate, it is still wildly unaffordable, and has been shown by the housing charity Shelter to have led to a seismic reduction in the number of social rented homes over the last seven years. Each time the justification is offered that profitability comes before the real human needs of Londoners.
So when in an interview with BBC News on Wednesday morning (see above) a young resident of Grenfell Tower said he thought that the fire was a conspiracy, he was right. It was a conspiracy of democratic unaccountability, with Councillors and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) ignoring the desperate and repeated pleas of residents and members of the Grenfell Action Group to pay more attention to the fire safety risks in their block.
“When in an interview with BBC News on Wednesday morning a young resident of Grenfell Tower said he thought that the fire was a conspiracy, he was right”
It was a conspiracy of austerity, so that – as Pilgrim Tucker explained last night on Newsnight – when residents attempted to get legal redress for the council’s failings, they found it impossible because of cuts to Legal Aid. It was a conspiracy of profiteering, so that the refurbishments carried out by Rydon Ltd were done with cheaper materials that contributed to the spread and intensity of the fire. It was a conspiracy of Mayoral mismanagement, with cuts to the LFB budget and the closure of fire stations compromising public safety according to the Fire Brigades Union. And it was a conspiracy of indifference at a national level, with politicians failing to learn lessons from the Lakanal House fire in 2009.
Residents are going to have to fight for justice from day zero. The council were nowhere to be seen in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Theresa May was too afraid to meet victims of the fire, and only made a ‘private visit’ to the scene. It was local Muslims breaking fast who first arrived and helped evacuate. It was local community and faith groups who organised food and shelter for those emerging from a night of terror. It was local residents who first provided clothes, toiletries and other essentials to people who had lost everything. And it will be locals who will have to fight to get answers about how this could have happened; to get guarantees from the local council that every single resident will be able to return home; and to make sure that this tragedy will not be used to extract yet more profit from a housing crisis whose consequences have never looked so awful and so predictable.
Follow Rees Arnott-Davies on Twitter here @darkemblems