Inequality and the Grenfell Tower fire
Kensington and Chelsea has the largest gap between rich and poor of any local authority district in the country. MFL activist Tom McDonagh visited the Lancaster West estate and talked to some of the people trying to help. Here he writes about the fire, the response to the fire, and inequality.
Bonfire of the voiceless
The blaze that killed at least 79 people in Grenfell Tower has drawn national attention to the evils of extreme inequality. Maybe it will also come to be seen as an era-defining moment when politicians and press were forced to reconsider their anti-poor policies and attitudes.
The immediate cause of the fire is reportedly a faulty Hot Point fridge on the fourth floor of the 24-storey tower block, but former residents of the building are in no doubt that the cause of the disaster was the hostility of K&C council and its contractors to them as low-income people. One resident even told a Guardian journalist that she thought the fire had been started deliberately ‘to get rid of us all.’ Gentrification, austerity, neo-liberalism and official indifference have been blamed by residents and commentators alike, in the aftermath of a disaster seen as political since the day it unfolded.
Attitudes that inequality creates
Inequality fosters a culture in which low income people are regarded as being of less value than other, wealthier people. This sets the context in which the concerns of the Grenfell Action Group were so steadfastly ignored in the months and years before the fire. The association repeatedly told the council that the tower block was a fire hazard but no remedial actions were taken. There is no indication that their concerns were taken seriously. In one of the Group’s blogs before the fire they wrote: “Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”
In ‘The Equality Effect’ Professor Danny Dorling argues that the dehumanisation of low-income groups is one of the consequences of inequality. “In the UK the poor are a different class, definitely ‘not like us’,” he writes, “economic inequality creates disdain for others and creates labels where people define themselves as not being part of the other groups.”
It may seem extreme to suggest that just for being poor people might be demonised and denigrated in a supposedly civilised nation like the UK, but our newspapers, television programmes and politicians regularly spew out bile against our least affluent fellow citizens. The Tory party declared open season on out-of-work people in 2010: poor people had made ‘a lifestyle choice’ to be dependent on benefits, they were ‘feckless’ and deserved to be economically punished. George Osborne described jobless people as ‘idlers’ who preferred to stay at home with the blinds drawn, while ‘grafters’ set off for work in the early morning. One of the cruellest of all was Iain Duncan Smith’s claim, in his letter of resignation, that by taking away people’s benefits he was helping them to better themselves and find the motivation to climb out of poverty. TV programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ and ‘Dogs on the Dole’ seek out people frittering away their benefit payments and refusing to turn up to job interviews.
This cultural denigration of poor people sets some of the context within which individual decisions about social housing, fire regulations, the price of cladding, welfare payments and council budgets are made. The less that people are seen as equals the easier it is to ignore them and make decisions that hurt them.
Nathalie Hickson, a Lambeth resident who had travelled to Grenfell to show solidarity with the victims, told me: “From what I’ve seen they (Grenfell residents) were raising awareness about fire but they weren’t listened to. They knew there was a risk. It was the same with the Kerrin Point gas explosion. And then there’s Lakanal House in Southwark, where people lost their lives in a fire. How many lives have to be lost before they listen?”
Inequality also affects levels of trust in society. In ‘The Spirit Level’, Wilkinson and Pickett showed that the proportion of people who believe ‘most people can be trusted’ is six times higher in the most equal rich countries compared to the least equal ones. They point out that a devastating lack of trust seemed to underpin the American response to Hurricane Katrina. After that disaster the New Orleans police focussed more on punishing local poor people, especially black people, than on trying to help them.
In Kensington the feeling of distrust between the Grenfell residents, K&C council and government in general is palpable. Residents say that the council never listened to them before the fire and left them to fend for themselves after it. Perhaps the starkest illustration of the disconnect between low-income residents of North Kensington and people in leading positions of authority were Theresa May’s two visits to the area in the days following the deadly blaze. In her first visit, May decided to not meet any local people at all, citing security concerns. Stung by subsequent criticism, the Prime Minister returned some days later, but made a hasty exit after angry locals vocalised their rage.
There is also chronic distrust of the media and the information being disseminated about the fire. Visitors to the various pop-up Grenfell shrines say they feel the authorities aren’t being honest about the numbers of people killed in the fire. At the main shrine on Bramley road, next to the Latymer Christian Church, one local man in a wheel-chair asked: “Where are all the survivors at? Just look at the flowers and cards here, there’s no way that’s for 79 people, more like 200 at least.” Another man, visiting from a different part of West London, suggested the fire was started on purpose. “One man had his bags all packed when they came to tell him about the fire. What does that tell you?” he said.
Since 1979 Britain and America have followed the path of neoliberalism: a robust private sector, populated with plucky entrepreneurs, fuels the economy while the state is pared back to the minimum. Low-income people, driven by the fear of poverty, either claw their way up or face deserved economic punishment. People get what their talent or hard work merits and the state should not intervene to level the playing field or run vital services. It can only be your own fault if you don’t do so well. For nearly 40 years this baseless ideology has encouraged attacks on regulation, cuts to spending on social protection, privatised services and generally undermined the state.
The links between these policies and the Grenfell tragedy are clear. At the most basic level when a building as large as Grenfell Tower burns out of control, plainly it is not the inhabitants fault. Cuts to the emergency services may have meant fewer fire fighters were available to battle the blaze. Cuts will have meant fewer housing officers and safety inspectors doing their jobs prior to the fire. It seems plausible that the austerity mindset will have played a role in the decision to save a bit of money by cladding the building with cheaper and, as far as we know, more flammable material.
For decades Government has encouraged local councils to seek private investment in house building while cutting state spending on housing. The shortage of social housing in London is now so acute it that only a fortunate few get a council house. Others, unable to afford private rents or qualify for social housing, stay with family, squat in empty buildings, live like students in shared houses or abandon London altogether. Meanwhile, multimillion pound apartments, well beyond the means of average or low income earners, are springing up all over central London. Varying percentages (13% in 2014/15) of the new apartment blocks are ‘affordable’ housing, but in reality these homes are not affordable for people on low incomes, with rents set at up to 80% of the market rents. And shared ownership flats require deposits way above average salaries. In a sign of the times, some new apartment buildings even have separate ‘poor doors’ so rich residents don’t have to actually meet people on lower incomes. The Grenfell Action Group has said that it believes cladding was added to the Tower merely to ‘pimp it up’ so it didn’t scar the landscape in its newly redeveloped neighbourhood. With housing then, as with welfare and council services, lower income people have been pushed to the margins under the regime of neoliberalism as Government has cut spending and courted big business.
Only the most extreme free market ideologues would deny the state has any role at all to protect its citizens. But the pervasive culture of contempt for regulations and ‘red tape’ (‘health and safety gone mad’) must surely also have helped create to conditions for the Grenfell blaze? Ronnie King, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on fire safety, said that urgent requests for action to tighten fire rules were stonewalled in the years prior to the disaster. Prime Minister Cameron called for a ‘bonfire of regulations.’ Inspectors trying to enforce standards in this environment will feel undermined, even where they haven’t themselves been privatized or the task ‘contracted out’.
The last of the ingredients of neoliberalism that looks likely to have contributed to the disaster is privatisation. Rather than liaising with elected councillors over their concerns about Grenfell Tower, residents had to deal with a private management company: Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO). Residents have described with fury how this profit-seeking organisation didn’t listen to their concerns and could not be held to account in the same way council officials could.
The Grenfell Tower fire is a tragedy of such magnitude that we must all hope that major changes will follow. It will be difficult from this moment on for anyone in authority to adopt a glib attitude to protecting the lives of the poor. The fire lays bare the many, connected failings of unfettered capitalism and marketised public services. The Grenfell community’s strength and unity in the aftermath of the tragedy and its willingness to challenge the authorities also offers hope that we may have reached a turning point. Maybe the response from the community shows us that people are deciding that ‘enough is enough’; that extreme inequality can be challenged and that ordinary people can be powerful advocates for change.