On 14 June 2017, at 12.54 am, residents on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, London were awoken by their neighbour shouting and banging on doors, and the first calls to 999 were recorded. There was fire and smoke coming from the flat, and the owner had run out to alert people.
Locals from the tower and the estate joined in the attempt to evacuate people from the building, but the official advice from the emergency services was for residents to remain in their flats and block the doors with towels. This was standard operating procedure, as the concrete block had been designed to contain fires inside a single flat, and the deadly smoke that would fill the single stairwell as soon as the door was breached would make it impossible to see or remain conscious for long.
As the fire started climbing the newly-installed cladding on the outside of the building, which has been identified as the primary cause of the severity of the fire, it was finally realised that the advice to remain indoors was wrong. Firefighters, unable to climb the 24 storeys of smoke-filled stairs on a tank of oxygen, to reach higher windows with ladders, or to contain the now blazing inferno, were joined by colleagues whose engines could not reach the tower owing to the estate’s cramped road layout, compounded by the presence of a newly-built academy that blocked off the north side of the tower. Trapped, the remaining residents called friends and family, tried to throw their children to people below, and eventually waited to die, while those below watched helpless as flaming debris rained down upon the estate.
With 24 floors, 127 flats, and an estimated 600 residents, locals, as well as friends and families of Grenfell tenants, have been greatly distressed by the figures released by the authorities. Only 79 dead have been reported so far which, with an unreported number of survivors, means hundreds are still ‘missing’ (see Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, ‘Grenfell survivors tell me the death toll is far higher than police say. I believe them’, i-News, 20 June 2017).
The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in London, which has killed so many working-class people, demonstrates the terrible reality of housing in Britain today. In the wealthiest area in Britain, and one of the most desirable property markets in the world, scores of working-class people in social housing have died, and many more have been made homeless, in the deadliest fire in Britain since accurate records began at the start of the 20th century.
The disaster, and the government’s response to it, show the complete disregard for working class lives held by the ruling class of Britain, and reveals how the concessions and quality of life afforded to workers in imperialist nations are no longer sustainable within the deepening global crisis of capitalism. The cause of the fire, and what enabled it to spread so quickly, is inherently tied to policies pursued and laws passed in the interests of the bourgeoisie.
As Engels put it in The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845: “When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual…”
As imperialism struggles to find new markets to sate the need for unsustainable growth, finding the shattered remnants of Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (to name but a few) unsatisfying, it looks inwards to its own heartlands. The concessions made out of fear of the organised wrath of the working class, such as secure housing, universal healthcare, and safe jobs, also prove to be barriers to extracting profits from the populations that enjoy them. When the Soviet Union provided a shining example for the working class to look to and ask “well, if they can have it, why can’t we?” the concessions remained in order to stop workers from asking that very question. Instead of pursuing the revolutionary goal of overthrowing capitalism, workers were led down the path of reformism and living with their exploitation, content that conditions were improving slightly. After the onset of revisionism and the destruction of the USSR, when the bourgeoisie triumphantly declared ‘the end of history’, i.e., that there was no social system higher than capitalism, the concessions became no longer necessary. The ‘red tape’, so hated by capitalist privateers, was set to be dismantled.
Previous fires, similar to Grenfell, affected Garnock Court in Irvine, a 14-storey block that had a fire race up cladding on one side of the building in 1999 with one fatality, and Lakanal House in south London, which killed six people in 2009. An inquest found that the fire at Lakanal house was due to poorly executed renovations, the council’s failure to inspect the building, and confusion during the firefighting operation. Neither Southwark Council nor the building contractor Apollo considered the fire resistance of the exterior panels to be their responsibility (see Gene Robertson, ‘Lakanal House: the verdict’, Inside Housing, 13 April 2013).
The fire at Garnock Court prompted an immediate review of building standards and regulations, with a parliamentary select committee determining that “the evidence we have received during this inquiry does not suggest that the majority of the external cladding systems currently in use in the UK poses a serious threat to life or property in the event of fire” and “Notwithstanding what we have said [above], we do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks” (‘How 1999 Scottish tower block fire led to regulation change’, BBC, 26 June 2017). While new regulations were introduced in 2005 in Scotland, no such regulations were introduced in England. In fact, subsequent governments set about further deregulation.
The Labour government, elected in 1997, found itself running low on public services it could feed to the jackals through privatisation. Instead, it focused on deregulation, which led to the 2006 Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act, which grants government ministers the power to introduce, repeal, or amend ‘outdated, unnecessary or over-complicated’ legislation without having to pass it through parliament for scrutiny or a vote. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, introduced in 2005, ended the requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings had met fire regulations, and shifted instead to a system of self-policing.
Brandon Lewis, the Tory housing minister in 2014, rejected calls to require construction companies to fit sprinklers in the homes they built, arguing: “In our commitment to be the first Government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation … Under that rule, when the Government introduces a regulation, we will identify two existing ones to be removed. The Department for Communities and Local Government has gone further and removed an even higher proportion of regulations. In that context, Members will understand why we want to exhaust all non-regulatory options before we introduce any new regulations” (quoted by George Monbiot, ‘With Grenfell Tower, we’ve seen what “ripping up red tape” really looks like’, The Guardian, 15 June 2017).
In tandem with this deregulation, in 2014 ten London fire stations were closed, 27 fire engines removed and 552 fire crew axed from the service, with £23.5 million in additional cuts scheduled by 2019 (see ‘Protest as 10 London fire stations shut down’, BBC, 9 January 2014). Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, incredibly claimed the cuts were actually improving fire cover and reducing fire-related deaths (‘Boris Johnson tells London Assembly’s Andrew Dismore to "get stuffed"’, ODN, 12 September 2013).
By the time of the fire, Grenfell, along with 23 other towers in the borough, had not had a fire risk assessment for over 18 months, and it was reported by residents that the alarm system did not go off during the fire (see Luke Barratt, ‘FOI: Grenfell Tower had not been risk assessed for 18 months’, Inside Housing, 14 June 2017). Furthermore, only one third of the newly-fitted gas pipes were covered by fire-retardant boxing, despite concerns from residents and instructions from a council fire safety consultant. The works were started by the National Grid’s gas distribution division, but in March the gas distribution business was sold to investors, renamed Cadent Gas (see Booth, Gentleman and Khalili, ‘Grenfell Tower gas pipes left exposed, despite fire safety expert’s orders’, The Guardian, 27 June 2017).
‘Regeneration’, or social cleansing
Grenfell must be seen in the context of ongoing social cleansing in London, which has already seen thousands of families conned out of or evicted from their homes in order for property developers to create investment opportunities for the super-wealthy. Around 1,400 homes in Kensington and Chelsea borough remain empty year-round, having a combined value of £664m. Across London that number reaches almost 20,000, collectively worth £9.4bn (see Toby Mayjes, ‘Map reveals shocking number of empty homes across London’, Metro, 11 May 2017).
Kensington and Chelsea borough, at the time of the Grenfell refurbishment in 2014, gave its richest residents a £100 rebate on their council tax on the basis of ‘careful management and efficiency improvements to meet council spending reduction targets’. The council’s projected reserves by the end of 2016-17 rose to £209m, with a £42m surplus (see Letters, ‘My council tax rebate from Kensington and Chelsea is blood money’, The Guardian, 16 June 2017). Despite the type of cladding put on Grenfell being marketed as unsafe and banned by building regulations for use in buildings higher than a few storeys in the US and Europe, Reynobond PE was still chosen over the fire retardant version to cover the 24-storey building; the flammable cladding, cost the borough and construction companies a mere £5,000 less in the £10.3m refurbishment (see Kirkpatrick, Hakim and Glanz, ‘Why Grenfell Tower burned: regulators put cost before safety’, New York Times, 24 June 2017).
The largely unnecessary cladding, which would have made residents’ fuel bills marginally cheaper, but exceeded sustainability targets, also had the effect of prettifying the tower for the surrounding neighbourhood of luxury properties, and raising the value of nearby council-owned land. In the borough, house prices already reach 38.5 times the average annual salary. With London homes making up 26% of Britain’s £5.75 trillion property market in 2015, and house prices in Kensington and Chelsea tripling in the past 20 years, it’s a mouthwatering investment opportunity for an international host of billionaire capitalists who need to stash their wealth (see Lucian Cook, ‘UK housing stock rises to £5.75 trillion’, Savills, 15 January 2015).
It is no stretch of the imagination to say then, in the wake of estate demolitions across London, that the residents of the Lancaster West estate would not have been particularly valued by the super-wealthy residents of the borough, nor the council that was supposed to serve them. The Grenfell Action Group comprehensively documented problems and complaints made to the council over the years, including numerous concerns over fire safety, and the 2009 ‘Memoli Investigation’ showed longstanding problems with the actions and attitude of the Tenant Management Organisation towards the estate’s residents (see Maria Memoli, ‘Investigation Report on Kensington and Chelsea TMO’, Local Governance Limited, 10th April 2009).
The Grenfell Action Group, after sustained complaints about the danger of a fire in the tower, wrote a chillingly prophetic article on 20 November 2016: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the everyday management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.
“… The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.”
Although £10.3m spent on refurbishment seems like a generous improvement to the tower block, the reality is that Kensington and Chelsea Council were consistently looking for the cheapest option to deal with residents in social housing: “… if Grenfell Tower had been demolished, even without demolition costs, paying disturbance allowances and re-providing 120 homes would cost the Council more than £24 million. By spending £11 million on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment, residents were helping RBKC to save at least £15 million.” Residents were kept inside their homes throughout the noisy and disruptive works, causing significant stress and other health risks (see ‘Grenfell Tower residents pleas fall on deaf Tory ears’, Grenfell Action Group, 15 December 2015). The Grenfell Tower Residents Association conducted a survey which indicated that 90% of residents were dissatisfied with the way the TMO had conducted the ‘improvement works’ and that 68% of residents believed they had been lied to, threatened, pressurised or harassed by the TMO.
Initially Nicholas Paget-Brown, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, claimed that residents did not want a sprinkler system fitted as it might prolong the refurbishment, but it was revealed that residents were never even asked about a potential installation during the consultations, although they did, again, raise concerns about fire safety (see Jon Austin, ‘Grenfell Tower residents NOT offered sprinklers like council chief said’, Express, 23 June 2017). A sprinkler system for the block would have cost a paltry £200,000, fire retardant cladding a further £5,000. In contrast, Robert Bond, Chief Executive of Rydon Group, the company undertaking the refurbishment, was paid £424,000 last year and gained dividends of £734,000.
Originally a safe and secure place to live, through decades of negligence, cuts to vital services, the discarding of inconvenient regulations, and a profit-driven refurbishment, Grenfell was transformed into a deathtrap.
The survivors of the fire, residents of the estate, and tenants of social housing across London have rightly been outraged by both the deaths caused and the response of the government and council. They have expressed, on social media and on mainstream media now that they are finally being listened to (although not invited onto prime-time discussion panels), that the deadly fire was no accident, but a result of the conditions under which they are forced to live. Angry residents and locals stormed Kensington town hall demanding answers, justice, and help on Friday 16 June, but little has been forthcoming. They are also concerned that the government and media may be deliberately concealing the extent of the deaths in order to manage the outrage and avoid more civil unrest.
The response of ordinary people, both on the night and in the aftermath, has been commendable, trying to save the residents, collecting and arranging food, bedding, toiletries, emergency accommodation, and other necessities for the survivors. On the other hand, the response of businesses, the council, and the government shows their complete callousness towards workers, even in the wake of such a tragedy. Volunteers arriving to help found themselves managing everything, with no information or help from the council, if not outright obstruction in some cases (see Emma Graham-Harrison, ‘“It feels like our lives don’t matter”: Grenfell victims’ anger and frustration’, The Guardian, 17 June 2017).
Some residents have been sleeping rough, while others have been evicted from emergency accommodation at a local Holiday Inn as rooms were already booked. Despite initial assurances that they would be found places in the borough, near friends, family, work, and schools, residents said they were being pressured to accept rehousing of poor quality, or much further away, or they would be considered to have made themselves ‘voluntarily homeless’ (see Sophia Akram, ‘A Grenfell survivor tells The Canary how he fears the council will make him homeless’, The Canary, 19 June 2017).
Recently the government announced that 68 new homes in a luxury £2bn Kensington development have been purchased by the City of London Corporation, and would be leased to the surviving families. It was not mentioned that the flats in the development were specifically built as social housing and would have eventually been made available as such anyway. St Edward, the developer, comes across as generously providing luxury flats at cost price only, despite that being the norm for social housing, and the City has kindly dipped into its billions to help out, ultimately making an investment in valuable property that could potentially be worth millions more in future. Meanwhile, the borough has lost 68 more properties for social housing that may not be replaced any time soon (see Ben Chu, ‘Is the Government really providing luxury Kensington flats for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster?’, The Independent, 22 June 2017).
In a scramble that is far too little, far too late, local authorities are frantically checking tower blocks up and down the country, with 95 being identified as at high risk of fire. Camden council has forced out more than 3,000 residents from the Chalcots estate on short notice, while the cladding is stripped and fire doors are fitted to tower blocks (see Dunne, O’Mahony and Razaq, ‘Evacuated Camden residents: We are being treated as “second-class citizens” at hotel’, Evening Standard, 27 June 2017).
Once the attention on the state of social housing generated by the Grenfell Tower disaster fades, it is only a matter of time before estates are plunged back into managed decline, if the programme of social cleansing has really slowed down at all.
Imperialism, moribund capitalism
This disaster is revealing the extent of the destruction of not just social provision in Britain, but basic services, resources, and facilities to prevent catastrophes or deal with crises. The relatively quiet decades of privatisation and deregulation are coming to a brutal head, for the simple reason that our current ruling class, the imperialists, currently have the upper hand in the class struggle. The reality that super-exploited workers in the majority of the world face on a daily basis is being brought home as economic growth inevitably falters, and Britain is returning its working class to the squalid and oppressive conditions of the pre-imperialist days described by Marx and Engels.
The housing crisis, which in reality is a crisis of capitalism, threatens an estimated 1 million privately renting households with homelessness in Britain by 2020 (see Toby Helm, ‘Housing crisis threatens a million families with eviction by 2020’, The Observer, 24 June 2017). Meanwhile, over 200,000 homes sit empty across the country. It is this kind of contradiction that plays out in every aspect of life under imperialism to make the lives of the working class short and brutal, while an ever decreasing number of billionaires accumulate more and more wealth.
No inquest or inquiry into Grenfell will provide justice for the dead or security for the survivors, or the tens of thousands of residents of social housing, or the millions of private renters across the country. While some companies, CEOs and public officials may receive fines and jail time, the system as a whole will continue, and the working class in Britain will never have safe, affordable and secure housing while imperialism remains. The absurdity of imperialism must be brought to an end, with social ownership of not just housing, but everything, taken into the hands of the proletariat.
LALKAR supports the following demands:
• The immediate scrapping of the 2016-17 housing bill, which threatens hundreds of thousands with poverty and homelessness.
• The end of the ‘right to buy’ and the scrapping of all other schemes that fuel prices, create shortages and offer subsidies to landlords and developers.
• The return of housing association and ‘non-profit’ properties to council ownership, the abolition of housing charities and the reintroduction of the legal right to decent, secure housing for all; slums, overcrowding and homelessness are an indictment on capitalism and a crime against humanity.
• The confiscation of all empty homes and unfinished developments and their transformation into council housing.
• The provision of at least 300,000 new council houses per year to end the crisis.
• Guaranteed, secure and well-maintained social housing for all who want it, close to people’s work and families, and the abolition of divisive allocation criteria.
• The introduction of a rent cap at 20 percent of minimum wage for all privately rented accommodation, and the scrapping of housing benefit (a subsidy to landlords that has helped to fuel rent rises).
• The establishment of residents’ management committees to oversee planning and maintenance and ensure that all workers have access to adequate space, necessary amenities and decent facilities, including having usable and pleasant outdoor spaces and community halls.
LALKAR believes that the welfare of workers can only be safeguarded by a socialist system of economy, controlled and administered by the working people themselves.
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