Friday, 16 June 2017

A Tale Of Two Cities

In the early hours of Wednesday 14th June, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a high-rise block of flats in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.  Whilst the death toll from the blaze currently stands at 30, fire chiefs have warned that this will almost certainly rise.

There are people taking to social media to say it's unseemly to politicise this tragedy.  That we shouldn't bring politics into the situation.

But many others - myself included - feel that it is a political matter.  For Grenfell Tower has come to symbolise the stark difference between rich and poor in not only our capital city, but the whole of the UK.  And that is a matter that must be addressed.

Just a few streets away from the ruins of the Grenfell Tower, you will find some of London's most expensive homes.  Many stand empty; owned by overseas millionaires.  The reality is that this area truly proves that London is, in many ways, a tale of two cities.

Those living in high-rise blocks all over the country, are frequently amongst the poorest in our society.  The ones for whom austerity measures have hit hardest.  And for too long, it has been these people who have felt abandoned by government, ignored by the state and belittled in the right wing media.

Not far away from the charred remains of Grenfell Tower, you'll find luxury apartment buildings, with penthouse suites.  Each of these gleaming high-rise towers will have sprinkler systems in place - since 2007, any new building above 30m tall must have them.  And yet, when these regulations came into fruition, they were not made retroactive, meaning that the many old tower blocks that dot our city landscapes, did not have them installed.  With many residents of 70s blocks such as Grenfell Tower being placed in their homes by local councils, it's hard not to see how jarring it must have been to watch newer, expensive apartments rising up - homes they could never dream of affording - with all modern safety equipment as standard, whilst they remained in blocks many had long feared were unsafe.

Indeed, just months before the tragedy took place, residents of Grenfell Tower voiced concerns over the safety of the block, warning that only a catastrophic fire, causing loss of life, would make anyone listen to them.

The Grenfell Tower Action Group had repeatedly contacted the Kensington And Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation - the group responsible for Grenfell Tower and other blocks like it - to demand further information as to what to do in a fire, as well as voicing concerns over safety issues with the building itself (including many worries relating to fire).  Each time, they appear to have been left feeling "disempowered" as a result of the KCTMO's inaction.

The KCTMO's failure to react to these legitimate concerns is especially distressing, given that in 2009, when a fire killed six people in South London's Lakanal House high-rise block, the coroner recommended that "providers of housing in high-rise residential buildings containing multiple domestic premises" should "consider the retrofitting of sprinkler systems."

In 2015, a fire at another KCTMO property, Adair Tower, caused London Fire Brigade to issue an Enforcement Order, compelling them to improve fire safety, having found them in breach of health and safety regulations.

It would appear so far that these warnings all went unheeded.  Some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society were instead left at risk.

The cladding used in refurbishments to the Grenfell Tower (which finished only last year) was composed of a material banned in both the US and Germany, due to its fire risk.  We may not currently know what information was given about the cladding used, but we do know that flame-proof cladding for the building would have cost just £5000 more.  And we do know that the cheaper option was chosen.

Imagine that happening at a luxury apartment block.  The fact is, it almost certainly wouldn't.

Too often, the poorer you are, the fewer choices you have, in terms of accommodation.  The reality for far too many people is that housing is a case of getting what you're given, even if that roof over your head comes with a dangerously outdated boiler, faulty electrics, or no fire safety measures.

The state bears a responsibility to help the poorest in society and yet, too often, through austerity and right wing media bias that frequently demonises the worst off as "benefits-cheats" and "chavs," it is those very people who are still suffering the most.

Whilst London - and the UK - have come together as a community to support the many families who have lost everything as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire, there is still much to be done, by those higher up in government.

As residents of tower blocks all over the country begin to ask questions about the safety of their homes, and as the West London community rallies for justice for those lost in Grenfell Tower, it is time we realised just how stark the gulf between the richest and poorest in our society truly is.  And it's time we started refusing to accept anything but the highest safety standards in social housing and indeed all forms of rental property.

Because everyone has a right to feel safe in their homes, regardless of whether they own or rent.  Too many people in Grenfell Tower spoke out about their fears that their high-rise block was a fire risk just waiting to happen.  Tragically, they have been proven right.  Now, we must ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

That means giving the poorest in society the voice that they have too often lacked, in the past.

The time to speak out is now.

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