Doug Thorpe from Haringey Left Unity writes:
It is too early yet to write about the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower without being overcome by a mixture of gut wrenching sorrow, and biting anger. This was not only an avoidable disaster, but one that should have been avoided.
The residents, including through the Grenfell Action Group, have been raising concerns about the safety of the block and the refurbishment for several years. Last October the London Fire Brigade wrote to Kensington & Chelsea Council saying it had concerns about the insulation used at Grenfell. Neither were listened to.
The building regulations were amended in 1984 with detailed guidance on fire safety regulations issued in 2006. The amended guidance allowed cladding with “limited combustibility”.Since then cladding has been a factor in fires at Knowsley Heights in Liverpool,Lakanal House in Southwark, and in several other countries. But, successive governments have failed to heed warnings from fire safety experts, the Building Research Establishment, and even the parliamentary group on fire safety that have said the regulations needed to be updated. The Coroner after the 2009 Lakanal house fire recommended retrofitting of sprinklers in tower blocks. The government rejected this as too great a burden on developers. Eight years on, despite promises from the government ministers (including Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s adviser) no action has been taken to review building regulations.
The problem is not tower blocks, or even the use of insulating cladding to reduce heat loss. The rich live safely in billion pound tower blocks with safe materials, multiple fire exits, alarms and sprinklers. The problem is cost cutting and penny pinching at the cost of people’s lives.
It is not just austerity since the financial crash in 2008 that has led to this dereliction of safety, and cutting of costs, although this has exacerbated the failings. It is more structural. It is the neoliberalism that underpins austerity that has been the guiding economic orthodoxy of all governments and major parties Tory or Labour since Thatcher, through Blair to date(until partly broken with in the 2017 Corbyn led Labour manifesto).
The Thatcher government in the early 1980s capped the amount Councils could borrow or use from rents to build new Council housing and refurbish existing blocks. Later, management of public housing was outsourced. And requirements introduced to privatise building and maintenance to private contractors (and their sub-contractors) who would tender for work on the basis of the lowest cost. The private sector was supposed to replace the public sector in building new housing. Anything that would reduce their profits, such as upgrading building safety requirements,was rejected as red-tape that would hinder the private market in providing the necessary housing supply. Building control functions were privatised. Even under these deregulated conditions the market has failed to build enough housing. But that is for another article. What this deregulation, privatisation of functions, and race to the bottom with costs has done is lead to sub-standard and unsafe refurbishment of public housing. The contractor initially approached for Grenfell House came in with a tender 1.6million over budget, so the tender went to Rydon who submitted a lower price. We now know that this undercutting included using flammable cladding rather than inflammable panels, for a ‘saving’ (read increased profit) of only £5000.This from a Council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, that has offered its richer residents Council Tax refunds!
There is also a democratic deficit. Residents were not voiceless. They raised concerns, wrote letters and complained about the dangers and sub-standard refurbishment and maintenance. But they were ignored by the Council, let alone given any say in the design of their homes. The misnamed Tenant Management Organisation, their landlord, refused their requests to form a Tenants and Residents Association. The Council and the law gave them no power in the process. Even now when survivors take their demands on the street, and directly to the Council offices, they are called a ‘mob’. This cannot be allowed go on.
In the immediate term the demands of the residents of Grenfell Tower should be met, for
If any residents take over empty local properties as temporary housing, and squat them, they should be allowed to remain there until decent permanent housing is found.
More than this, it is now time to overturn the relationship between people and profit. This is a debate that goes well beyond the provision of housing, to how we create a fairer alternative society that meets everyone’s needs. Butin the intermediate term we can start with:
The deaths at Grenfell Tower must be mourned and grieved for, but never forgotten. Yes we are angry, we should be very angry. But let us use the energy from that anger to bring about a permanent change to the rotten system that has allowed this to happen.
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