Words are loaded with portent. How best to describe the terrible events at Grenfell Tower? The fire that killed at least 79 people has been variously described as a tragedy, a disaster, a scandal and a crime. In the heat of a Sunday afternoon at Glastonbury, John McDonnell spoke controversially of the victims “being murdered by political decisions”.
When the evidence has been examined, we may eventually know how to attribute responsibility between the contractors, the building inspectors, the housing management company, the local authority and the government but we may never know the extent that sweeping public spending cuts led safety to be compromised in one particular fire.
The social significance of Grenfell Tower is another matter altogether. The fire and its extensive aftermath, in which every cladding tile tested so far has failed a fire safety test, is likely to be a transformational event. Anything less would be utterly shameful.
The current problems of a minority government have been compared to the similar situation in the 1970s but the events of Grenfell Tower remind me of the Profumo Scandal in 1961, when a government minister lied to the House of Commons about a fleeting affair that allegedly compromised national security. There was a judicial inquiry; the Prime Minister eventually resigned and within a few years the Conservative government fell. The implications were far wider than the sordid event . The establishment never recovered and gentlemen were never held in the same regard again.
There are equally widespread implications now. Firstly, social housing has been shown to be a public disgrace. Two days after the fire, I visited the housing estate where I had lived and worked 40 years ago and was dismayed to see how the early brave ambitions of local authority architects to design and build a futurist town in a coherent style, with open space and community facilities , had given way to a hotchpotch of new private houses crammed into every possible space.
Council housing after the second world war was intended, in Nye Bevan’s words, to be the place “where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived on the same street” and this aspiration remained, in my recollection, into the eighties, until council housing was removed from local authority control, arms length management was set up and Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right to buy’. Council housing is now the preserve of the poor and the events at Grenfell Tower has brought the lamentable conditions into the open.
Homeowners, like myself these days, turn a blind eye when the housing crisis is mentioned. Shelter predicts a million homeless people by 2020 as lack of social housing drives the poorest into private accommodation that they cannot afford due to rising rents and frozen benefits.
Secondly, the economic zeitgeist of the times has been challenged. In order to grow the economy and create prosperity, regulations have been abandoned so that free enterprise may thrive. David Cameron pledged to “kill off the safety culture for good” with “a bonfire of red tape”. Boris Johnson claimed “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people”. One of the lamentable omissions in the Grenfell Tower saga will surely be the failure of the coalition government to consider the recommendations after the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009 which warned against using inflammable cladding and argued for sprinklers to be installed. It was not a high priority for successive government ministers.
Funding for Health and Safety Executive has been cut by half but elf’n’safety is making the most unlikely of comebacks. At a seminar last week on the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation, which the presenter said would send most of the audience to sleep, my spirits rose at the thought that what would have been dismissed as unnecessary red tape only two weeks ago may now be taken seriously. Devised in Brussels and backed in Whitehall, the Regulation will place far more stringent conditions on obtaining personal data and impose fines of up to E10 million on those who flout it. The events at Grenfell Tower may just stop the rampant profiteering of neo liberalism and bring back sensible regulation to create a more civilised society.
Finally, Grenfell Tower is part of a community where some of the poorest in London live alongside the most wealthy including Roman Abramovich, Prince William and David Beckham and where houses are left empty on purpose. It is fitting that some of the families from Grenfell Tower will be rehoused in luxury apartments just along the road which come complete with concierge security, underground garage and a swimming pool.
UK income inequality is among the highest in the developed world and evidence shows that this is bad for almost everyone. Ever since Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published ‘The Spirit Level’ in 2009, we know that societies with higher rates of inequality come off worse for jobs, health, education and crime and that even the wealthy live better and longer when inequality is tackled.
The Grenfell Tower story may soon slip out of the headlines. The promised inquiry may take forever. But dramatic events can sometimes change history. Will neo liberalism be cast aside, will a government fall and social attitudes change because a fridge freezer failed in the middle of the night?
Published in Newcastle Journal 27th June 2017