Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: June, 2017

Grenfell Tower: The mighty may fall

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





Signs of hope and despair in a baffling election

Do not come here looking for incisive political analysis. I have been as bemused as everyone else since Big Ben struck ten on election night and the exit poll announced  that the Tories might not get a majority. Here are the moments that have stood out for me, and the first is  from retired school teachers in Canada.

 Christine Archibald was a 30 year old  social worker from British Columbia  who worked with homeless people. She was visiting her fiancé in London when she had the ultimate misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was killed in the terrorist outrage on London Bridge.

Within 24 hours, the Archibald  family issued an extraordinary statement. Their daughter and sister, they said, had room in her heart for everyone and believed strongly that every person was to be valued and respected. She would have had no understanding of the callous cruelty that caused her death.   Please honour her, they asked us, by making your community a better place. Volunteer your time and labour or donate  to a homeless shelter. “Tell them Chrissy sent you.”

A week after the horrifying events at London Bridge, I am still moved to tears  by  the compassion of a grieving family on the other side of the world who told us so clearly how to start putting this terrible world to rights. If we want to do something to stop people becoming marginalised, dehumanised and radicalised, we need to get out there and build stronger communities.

Tearing up the human rights laws is not the answer. They were designed to protect our way of life. Putting more police on the streets may help redress  austerity has cut too deep  in every  part of our public life ( but can you remember a brave  Home Secretary  taking on overmanning in the police in 2010? ). The real answer is to reach out and welcome strangers even if will take years of effort and may not stop other acts of terrorism in the meantime .

My other stark memory from  the final week of electioneering was during the hustings in my church in  Prudhoe. We were asked whether we wanted another vote on the terms of leaving the European Union.  The audience was not selected for political balance – though bear in mind that Prudhoe had for the first time in living memory elected two Conservative  County Councillors. ( Sorry Conservative and Unionist as they are now known).  I knew most of the people in the room. On a show of hands, they were split down the middle. I realised that Brexit still deeply divides us.

Despite a referendum and now a general election called to seek our views on leaving Europe, nothing is resolved. I doubt that many of us would claim to fully understand the issues or the nuances of negotiation that lie ahead of us.  In less than a year, the reputations of two Prime Ministers have been trashed. There is an overwhelming case for pausing  for a summer holiday, perhaps walking in Wales again, accepting Ruth Davidson’s plea to “ look again”  and considering Yvette Cooper’s suggestion of a cross party negotiating team, before more damage is done.

I was then intrigued by late developments in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. You may have switched off the television set before the last election result was declared there on Friday evening. After two recounts, Emma Dent Coad was elected by 20 votes making her the first Labour MP ever elected in  a constituency which boasts  the richest street in the country, just along from Kensington Palace, where the average house price  is around £20m.

Kensington is home to the trans global elite, moving in from the Middle Est Asia and Eastern Europe, and also to international investors who buy fabulous  properties and then leave them empty on purpose. Since the constituency was redrawn in 2010, it also includes the tower blocks  in Ladbroke Grove  and the multi racial communities in Notting Hill.

The economics of neo liberalism may have benefitted the few oligarchs and hedge fund managers  but it has failed the many watchers on. In this cameo of political life in Kensington, the poor edged it by 20 votes , thanks  to the resurgence of a Labour party promising to end austerity through increased taxation on the very wealthy. I admit to a moment of excitement.

Finally, spare a thought for apparatchiks, of whatever political persuasion, who are sacrificed to save their leaders heads. By all accounts, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill rode rough shod over their colleagues but it is despicable that the servants fall on their swords whilst the mistress stays in post, for now at least.

It is as if nothing has changed. The same top team are around the Cabinet table. The same gang head off to Brussels next Monday, shaken but still in charge. How long can this last? The lessons I draw from a tumultuous  time are that we need to get out more, be friendly in Europe  and deal urgently with excesses of  inequality. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly as the Prophet Micah once said.

published in Newcastle Journal 13th June 2017