18th June 2017
Local protestors converge on Whitehall to demand justice
It is always the poor who pay. It can be a poorly designed sweatshop building in Bangladesh, collapsing and killing many. It can be the unemployed and underpaid black community in the United States of America suffering shootings and police brutality. It can be the working people of the UK suffering the slow torture of austerity year after year, as they struggle to feed the kids and pay the rent. It can be the residents of a high rise housing block in North Kensington who, through no fault of their own, become victims of an approach to housing and an emphasis upon profits which ultimately costs them their lives.
The disastrous events at Grenfell Tower this week once again exposed the weakness and inhumanity of the Tories, personified in their leader Theresa May’s failure to meet victims until prompted to do so by enraged residents and an astonished media. Citing security reasons for her actions, the beleaguered Prime Minister’s thin excuse was hopelessly undermined by the visits of the Queen and other Royal Family cohorts, clearly less concerned about security than Theresa May.
The final irony came when May did deign to visit, only to be greeted by protests, boos and jeers from the local community now feeling the shock of events turn to rage.
Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was not only in amongst the community hearing directly the stories of grieving friends and relatives, but has been quick to call for the widest ranging inquiry possible into the causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster.
In a letter to Theresa May (16th June 2017), welcoming the decision to hold a full and independent public inquiry, Corbyn states that the inquiry,
“…must be empowered to consider all the steps that were, or were not, taken leading up to and contributing to this most terrible incident. It must also identify the urgent steps that need to be taken in relation to fire safety standards for other buildings of this nature.
In addition to finding facts, the inquiry must be empowered to make recommendations for the avoidance of any similar future disaster – and in doing so, to consider recommendations arising from previous similar fire-related deaths.”
What happened this week in Grenfell Tower was a tragedy but, more importantly, it was a crime.
Social housing, or Council housing as it was mostly, was one of the cornerstones of the post war Labour government’s drive to rebuild Britain after the Second World War. Pre-war slums were cleared and a massive programme of house building, under the ownership and control of Councils across the country, gave access to decent modern houses for millions. Combined with a National Health Service free at the point of use and a comprehensive education system, the opportunity for working class people to improve their situation had never been better.
Since the 1980’s those building blocks have been systematically dismantled as the ruling class in the UK, through the Conservative Party, have sought to reduce the engagement of the State to support working class people and sharpen its capacity to oppress them. This has inevitably been presented by the Tories as its opposite, proclaiming such changes as empowering working class communities, giving them the opportunity to get on and improve.
The selling of Council housing was dressed up as the ‘right to buy’, giving everyone the right to own property. This was linked to the de-nationalisation of key industries and the opportunity to be a part of the ‘share owning democracy’, another branding ploy perpetrated by capitalism under the Thatcher government. The dismemberment of local education authorities started with the process of local management of schools. The wanton destruction of comprehensive education is culminating in the academy process, making secondary education little more than a market place. The real drive behind all of these Tory policies was to eradicate local democratic control, open up opportunities for the private sector and reduce the influence of the state.
Whatever the shortcomings of the Council house system there was at least a clear line of accountability back to locally elected representatives. Much Council housing is now with external landlords, as at Grenfell Tower, whom the Council will monitor as part of a service level agreement. They will in turn engage a myriad of contractors to carry out repairs and maintenance work, often with a lack of clarity in terms of oversight and management.
As Thomas Lane, editor of trade journal Building Design, pointed out,
“There was a time when local authorities had their own architecture departments, some of them quite famous. Nowadays its all done externally. You’ve got disparate people, design teams, surveyors, project managers, a whole army of people.”
It is also widely acknowledged that the privatisation of the building inspection regime leads to a race to the bottom, in order to reduce fees and limit the number of safety inspections carried out.
There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that the external cladding applied to Grenfell Tower was a key factor in the rapid spread of the fire. It is also the sad culmination of many years of local government underfunding and successive governments settling for cheap accommodation for poor people.
The contrast between the stacked Grenfell Tower block and the empty properties owned by the rich in South Kensington, as part of their property portfolio, should not be overlooked. It is a symbol of the class differentiation across the UK, brought into sharp relief in one community. Corbyn has asked for these properties to be requisitioned in order to house those who have lost their homes in Grenfell Tower. It is a demand that will only grow as the crisis for bereaved families deepens.
In his letter to Theresa May, Corbyn goes on to say,
“It is important that justice is served in as comprehensive and timely way possible. This must include, of course, ensuring that legal funding is available to support those involved in the inquiry and any inquests. I would also like to support the request of the Mayor of London for an interim report to be produced which I believe is important for the community to feel as if justice is being done in a timely manner.”
In short, moving swiftly to avoid a cover up is essential. Working class communities across the country will be watching the government response closely. When the next election comes, as it will soon, there is no doubt that their voices will be heard.