Hard News by Russell Brown


Grenfell: a signal moment

When I left London in 1991, it was with mixed feelings. Five years there on my own cognisance had been good for me. I'd grown, and had some of the best nights and days of my life. But we had a new baby and it felt like the Frontline in Brixton wasn't the place to have that adventure. Moreover, in the back of my mind was the feeling that Britain was coming apart at the seams.

One night in 1987, 31 people had died in a terrible fire underground at King's Cross Station. Senior transport chiefs resigned after an inquiry and Oppostion MPs accused the Conservative government of sacrificing the safety of travellers by cutting budgets. Only two days before the fire, Margaret Thatcher had delivered a speech – apparently aimed at US lawmakers considering their own budgets – about the importance of "prudent finance and living within your means".

The following year, a signal failure subsequent  to a wiring upgrade caused a crowded passenger train to plough into the back of another at Clapham Junction, killing 35 people. An inquiry found that the electrician responsible was on his 13th consecutive seven-day work week and that his work had never been inspected. British Rail was fined £250,000.

The Hillsborough Stadium disaster was the year after. Police fed false stories defaming the football fans to compliant media: most notably The Sun. It was only last year that a second coroner's inquest finally found that the crush had been caused by gross negligence on the part of the police and that supporters were not to blame at all. Ninety six people had died.

There were others, including the Marchionesse disaster  in 1989, which took the lives of 51 people at a party on a riverboat on the Thames (some Marchioness families, unusually, won civil compensation, a success which was almost entirely a matter of social class). An inquiry recommended that the government improve river safety. And, in 1987, the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, when 193 people (many of them working-class readers of The Sun, who had taken up a promotion by the paper) died after the British-registered Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsized. A charge of corporate manslaughter was thrown out of court, but 11 years later Tony Blair's new government made good on a pledge to introduce a corporate whistleblower law that Labour MPs had long campaigned for under the Conservatives.

I thought of all this yesterday, watching the achingly awful unfolding of the fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. More even than the tragedies I've listed above, this one seemed enmeshed with the politics of its day. Grenfell was one of around 10,000 properties managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which was established in 1996 under the then-Conservative government's "Right to Manage" regulations and subsequently took over the council's entire housing stock.

I lived, squatting, in several council flats and I wouldn't want to claim they were lovely places. But it appears already that the prettification of Grenfell is behind the disaster. It quickly emerged that a residents' organisation called the Grenfell Action Group had repeatedly warned of the fire risk in the building. As far back as 2013 the group was writing of "an ongoing culture of negligence at the TMO" with respect to fire risks.

Ironically, it appears that it may have been a much-trumpeted refurbishment that helped make the Grenfell fire so deadly. The building's exterior was given a cladding similar to that which caught fire on Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009. The expert who represented Lakanal families has said this to The Guardian:

“A disaster waiting to happen,” is how the architect and fire expert Sam Webb describes hundreds of tower blocks across the UK, after the fire at Grenfell Tower in Kensington that has left at least six people dead. “We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.”

The technical director of the Fire Protection Association added this:

“We really are forgetting the lessons of the past,” he adds. “I think the inexcusable element here is that with cladding or insulation there are choices. There will be a perfectly good non-combustible choice that can be made, but somebody is not making those calls. It’s a tragedy that long-awaited changes to regulations usually only happen after significant loss of life.”

While the residents were trying in vain to get their council interested, the FPA was begging the government for changes to building regulations to address the issue. But ministers and officials – including Theresa May's new chief of staff –  "sat on" a report warning of the fire danger in blocks like Grenfell for years. A former Housing minister declared that sprinkler systems were a matter for the "fire industry", not government, and noted the Conservative government's pledge to eliminate two regulations for every one it introduced.

As Labour leader last year, Jeremy Corbyn pushed for an amendment to the government's new housing bill to require private landlords to make their homes safe and “fit for human habitation”. Seventy two of the MPs who voted down the amendment were themselves private landlords. Perhaps the amendment wouldn't have helped in the case, but its fate seems hugely symbolic.

I watched a number of video interviews with residents yesterday and they seemed such good, decent people. There is a solid Morrocan community in the neighbourhood and it appears that the fact that it was Ramadan and many Muslims were still awake breaking their fast saved many lives, as they ran door-to-door waking neighbours, even as the corridors filled with smoke.

One resident told the BBC that the community had been strengthened as it came together to oppose council "regeneration" plans which would essentially mean the demolition of the whole area. Had the authorities, as he implied and other residents said out loud to camera crews, been craving just such a tragedy to better advance their plans? I cant believe that, but you can't blame them for thinking so.

He also noted the "euphoria" in the neighbourhood at the startling election of a Labour MP in Kensington last week: "We felt we were having our voice heard, at last."

I was stopped cold by another tweet observing that the residents least likely to have escaped the fire were those with disabilities. The same people whose lives have been most ravaged by "austerity" policies.

There's an inevitable politics, too, in the fact that the services that converged on Grenfell as anyone who could was fleeing are the same services that have had their budgets slashed. Not only the fire services, but nurses like this woman:

I shared that video on Twitter last night and woke up today to find that the nurse, Simone Williams, had replied: "I'm just a nurse guys nothing special my heart is to serve my community no matter what it takes x"

Kensington wasn't my manor when I lived in London, but I still love the city. Part of who I am still lies there. I'd have voted Labour had I still been living there last week, even though I haven't been entirely on board with elements of the Corbyn project. That doesn't seem to matter now, and the people whining this morning about Corbyn "politicising" the tragedy should just shut up. It is fucking political.

This feels like a signal moment in the history of a country. I realise the Queen's not going to go over to Downing Street and relieve Theresa May of the keys to the nation. But Britain can not and must not go on like this.

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