People saying the tragedy should not be "politicised" must remember how the Tories have indulged landlords while cutting fire servicesby Maya Goodfellow / June 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
Before dawn had broken on the Grenfell Tower block yesterday, the chorus of voices had already begun: don’t politicise what’s happened. But housing is deeply political and Grenfell encapsulates how.
The death toll from yesterday’s tragedy is still rising, people are still searching for the missing relatives and friends and residents who survived lost everything they owned—all because of a fire that could likely have been prevented.
The deadly Grenfell fire broke out in Kensington, one of the richest boroughs in the country. But it wasn’t one of the area’s many million pound luxury properties that was eaten up by flames; nor was it wealthy residents who were forced to throw themselves from burning windows. This was a block of social housing and many of the people living there were on low pay. And they were wise to what could happen in their home.
Time and again they pleaded with the council and with Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the company that manages social housing in the borough, to deal with their severe safety concerns. Reporting problems over issues from wiring to boilers, they were ignored persistently.
David Collins from the tower’s resident’s association said 90% of residents signed an independent petition asking for there to be an investigation into the organisation that runs the building “because they were so incompetent.” The council turned it down. Their dissent, Collins says, was stifled through intimidation and bullying.
Instead, residents were left with no option other than to live in danger: they warned in a 2016 blog that “a serious fire in the tower block” would be the only way to bring KCMTO “to justice.” One resident said this was part of an effort to force them out of the area in a callous act of social cleansing—and many now worry they won’t be rehoused in a borough authorities are rapidly gentrifying.
Before the rest of the world knew about Grenfell resident’s battle for safe housing, this was already political.
A microcosm of inequality
What happened in Grenfell is in many ways a microcosm of the UK’s deep-seated inequality. In January last year, the Conservatives voted down a rule that would have required private landlords to make their homes “fit for human habitation.” Seventy-two of the Tories who voted against it were landlords; the rest were looking out for rentiers.
The Conservatives have repeatedly shown themselves to be on the side of wealthy landlords. This isn’t by accident. As landlords—aided by the government—leave tenants to live in dangerous, rotting accommodation, the Tories artificially create a housing crisis. They push up property prices and rents, sell off social housing, build luxury houses that are left empty and force the masses of people who can’t keep up with the market to live in squalor or in unsafe, cramped Kensington towers like Grenfell. It’s a political strategy, which increases inequality and gives profit priority over peoples’ lives.
While Tory MPs dedicated their energies to voting against laws that would make homes fit to live in, they were sitting on a report that warned high-rise blocks like Grenfell Tower were vulnerable to fire.
After the 2009 Lakanal House fire (where six people were killed and the Southwark council was fined £570,000 for safety failings) a coroner’s report recommended a review of building regulations. It still hasn’t materialised. Successive ministers, including Gavin Barwell, former Housing Minister and Theresa May’s newly-appointed chief of staff, have sat on the report—which warned warning high-rise blocks like Grenfell Tower were vulnerable to fire.
Fire service cuts
Meanwhile, fire deaths have been rising. Last year chief fire officers sent out an alarm bell, much like the Grenfell residents’; there had been the biggest increase in fire deaths for a decade. They warned that could rise thanks to Tory cuts. Over the past five years, 7,000 firefighters have lost their jobs and there has been a 25% reduction in the number of fire prevention visits to homes.
The firefighters that are left have had their salary cut to the bone. The Conservatives might be quick to thank the emergency services in the wake of tragedies like Grenfell but they’ve presiding over cuts in their pay and reductions in staffing—making their jobs more dangerous and leaving the public abandoned.
To claim this tragedy wasn’t political is to engage in an active work of depoliticisation. It means ignoring the way the Conservative government has cosied up to landlords at the expense of tenant safety; it means disregarding the politically-orchestrated housing crisis that forces people to live in dangerous, cramped housing blocks. It amounts to saying no action could be taken to stop a needless incident where people burned to death in their own homes.
Theresa May said she was “deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life” but after seven years in government, actively working to protect wealthy landlords, her words mean nothing. This was a tragedy but not one that came into existence on its own: it was preventable and it is political.