Issues of social class are once again all over the media in the debates surrounding the fire at Grenfell Tower where 79 people have so far been confirmed dead, though this number is likely to rise. Before I heard about the fire, like most people outside London I suspect, I knew little about Grenfell Tower.
That all changed on the morning of the 14 June 2017 when I watched images of the 24 storey tower block containing 127 flats going up in flames. My horror was quickly replaced with anger and disgust as the circumstances surrounding the fire came to light. Those circumstances involved age old greed. But it wasn’t just greed that killed the people in Grenfell and devastated the lives of those that did escape but also deregulation and the cutting of public services (including social housing and the fire service).
One thing that did not come as a massive surprise to me as I followed news reports of the tragedy was the massive social divide present in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea where the fire took place. As one of the richest Boroughs in London, the average house price comes in at just under an eye-watering 2 million. Dubbed by some “the richest borough in Europe” statistics from Zoopla state that the current average value in Kensington and Chelsea (Royal Borough) in June 2017 is £2,209,353. This has increased 1.78% from March 2017. Terraced properties sold for a current average value of £3,390,315 and semi-detached properties valued £7,066,348. In the past year property prices in Kensington and Chelsea (Royal Borough) have increased 0.10%.
In this very same borough a fire ravaged a tower block not of wealthy, white Londoners but of working-class BAEM resident. Why? Omnis Exteriors who manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) used in the cladding had been asked to supply Reynobond PE cladding, which is £2 cheaper per square metre than the alternative Reynobond Fire Resistant, to the companies that worked on Grenfell Tower. That’s right, 79 people died because the Borough Council didn’t want to pay £2.00 more the fire resistant gladding. But is the Conservative run Borough Council entirely to blame? The Guardian newspaper reports that the Conservative council has stockpiled £274m of reserves and offered rebates to residents paying the top rate of council tax and that the latest accounts show the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea ran a budget surplus. Last year, housing officials in the borough took about £55m in rent, but invested less than £40m back in council housing. The Guardian article
So yes, greed does seemed to have played a part in this tragedy but so too does social housing policy. The term ‘social housing’ is one that has come to replace what was once known as council housing and even ‘social housing’ is being side-lined for so-called ‘affordable housing’ by the Conservative Government. When politicians talk about affordable housing in London in particular, what do they mean by affordable? Affordable for who? In a 2014 Guardian article, it was explained like this:
“It was a simple idea in which rents were based on a formula that combined local wages and local property values so that, for much of southern England, rents would be set at around 50% of local market rents – even lower in very expensive areas. Social housing rents allowed people to work without being dependent upon housing benefit.”
Then George Osbourne, the then-Chancellor came up with the greedy idea of setting rent at up to 80% of the local market rent. Data on market rents collected by the Valuation Office Agency states that the average market rents for October 2013 show that if councils and housing associations were to charge 80% of market rates for a three-bedroom property in London, tenants would have to pay a staggering £655 a week in Westminster to £198 a week in Havering. That’s right you did read that correctly, that’s £655 A WEEK! How could George Osbourne say, with a straight face, that that was affordable for low-income families?
According to the charity Shelter, “the affordable rent model is not a sustainable solution for people at risk of homelessness or struggling with costs.” With social housing accounting for 17% of all households this number continues to dwindle as social housing is growing ever scarcer and more and more people are forced into renting privately. For example, in London and the South East the demand is much higher for social housing than in most other parts of the country. Shelter estimates that there are more than 1.8 million households waiting for a social home – an increase of 81% since 1997.
It isn’t news to anyone that we simply haven’t been building enough affordable/social housing in this country for years. That coupled with the ‘bedroom tax’ whereby under the size criteria introduced in April 2013, if an individual or family has more bedrooms than the new rules say they need, they are considered to be ‘under-occupying’ their home. As a result, their housing benefit is reduced.
This policy was designed to reduce the housing benefit bill and encourage those with extra rooms to move into smaller properties, freeing up larger homes for families to move into. But it was quickly found that the system work didn’t work and failed to take into account personal circumstances.
On top of this, many local authorities are choosing to move away from prioritising those in greatest housing need giving more weight instead to those who are in work or who have lived in the area for a long time.
Even the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbot blamed the disaster on Conservative attitudes to social housing. “Grenfell House (sic) is not just an accident; Grenfell House is not just an unfortunate incident. Those hundreds of people that died is a direct consequence of Tory attitudes in social housing,” she told a conference of the Labour Progress group. Ms Abbott said the Tories see residents in social housing as “second-class citizens”.
This wasn’t helped either by Theresa May’s decision not to initially visit any of the residents but only the emergency services. It wasn’t until irate residents and protesters stormed Kensington Town Hall demanding answers from council leaders who had so far remained hidden. This sheer lack of compassion shows the low esteem in which not only the working-classes but also BAEM are held in this country.
What I find despicable is that the Tenant Management Organisation threatened legal action against Grenfell Tower residents when they raised similar safety concerns. If this isn’t an attempt by the powerful to silence the weak then I don’t know what is. These people died because they were working-class, it’s as simple as that. Until the issue of the gaping class divide is addressed in this country, then tragedies like Grenfell will continue to happen. Whilst the rich of this country live side by side with the poor but show such little concern for how they live their lives, then no amount of discussion about cladding or social housing policy will matter. When profit is put before people by this Conservative-led government then everyone loses out.
Why does this tragedy make me so angry? Well, I have my own person reasons. I’m familiar with similar tower blocks as my own parents were living in one in Camberwell in the 70’s. Feeling they were unsuitable places for young children they decided to move out of their 1 bedroom flat in Camberwell and moved to Northampton, then one of the new towns offering homes for London families. In 2009 that a similar fire to Grenfell took place in a block of towers in Camberwell, South London at Lakanal House. The fire, caused by an electrical fault in a television inside a ninth-floor flat, spread through the 1958-built block. The fire was the result of botched and unsafe renovation work and the council’s failure to inspect the building, an inquest has concluded.
Before the coroner’s report, in 2011, the Lib Dem DCLG minister Andrew Stunnell told MPs: “It is the chief fire and rescue adviser’s view that it would not be economically viable or practical to fit sprinklers to all existing high-rise residential buildings” and it was up to individual landlords to decide if they were needed. The problem is, left to landlords who also put profit before people, advising them to do something that is going to cost them money is naïve at best and dangerous at worst. Lessons weren’t learnt from that tragedy (don’t you hate it when politicians say lessons will be learnt, it makes me want to punch them in the face) and advice was ignored.
The whole thing is brought home to me by the knowledge that myself or any of my family members could have been in one of those tower blocks had my parents chose not to leave London. Unfortunately, many don’t have that option and I am one of the lucky ones.