Grenfell Tower tragedy is neoliberalism’s ‘collateral damage’

June 22, 2017

It is too early yet to write about the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower on June 14 without being overcome by a mixture of sorrow and anger. This not just could, but should have been avoided.

The residents, including through the Grenfell Action Group, have been raising concerns about the safety of the block and the refurbishment for several years. In October, the London Fire Brigade wrote to Kensington and Chelsea Council expressing concerns about the insulation used at Grenfell. They were all ignored.

The building regulations were amended in 1984 with detailed guidance on fire safety regulations issued in 2006. The amended guidance allowed cladding with “limited combustibility”. Since then, cladding has been a factor in fires at Knowsley Heights in Liverpool and Lakanal House in Southwark, as well as in several other countries.

But successive governments have failed to heed warnings from fire safety experts, the Building Research Establishment and even the parliamentary group on fire safety that have said the regulations need updating. After the 2009 Lakanal House fire, the Coroner recommended retrofitting of sprinklers in tower blocks. The government rejected this as too great a burden on developers.

Eight years on, despite promises from government ministers — including Gavin Barwell, recently appointed Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff — no action has been taken to review building regulations.

The problem is not tower blocks, or even the use of insulating cladding to reduce heat loss. The rich live safely in billion pound tower blocks with safe materials, multiple fire exits, alarms and sprinklers.

The problem is cost-cutting and penny-pinching at the cost of people’s lives.

It is not just the austerity imposed since the financial crash in 2008 that has led to this dereliction of safety and cutting of costs, although this has exacerbated the failings. It is more structural.

It is the neoliberalism that underpins austerity that has been the guiding economic orthodoxy of all governments and major parties Tory or Labour since Margaret Thatcher (which the new Corbyn-led Labour Manifesto partly breaks with).

In the early 1980s, Thatcher’s government capped the amount local councils could borrow or use from rents to build new council housing and refurbish existing blocks. Later, management of public housing was outsourced.

Requirements were introduced to privatise building and maintenance to private contractors (and their sub-contractors) who would tender for work on the basis of the lowest cost. The private sector was supposed to replace the public sector in building new housing.

Anything that would cut their profits, such as upgrading building safety requirements, was rejected as “red tape” that would hinder the private market in providing the needed housing supply. Building control functions were privatised.

The market nonetheless failed to build enough housing. What this deregulation, privatisation, and race-to-the-bottom with costs achieved is sub-standard and unsafe public housing.

The contractor initially approached for Grenfell Tower came in with a tender £1.6 million over budget, so the tender went to Rydon, which submitted a lower price. We now know this undercutting included using flammable cladding rather than inflammable panels, for a “saving” (read increased profit) of only £5000. This from a council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), that has offered its richer residents council tax refunds.

There is also a democratic deficit. Residents raised concerns, wrote letters and complained about the dangers and sub-standard refurbishment and maintenance. But they were ignored by the council, let alone given any say in the design of their homes.

The misnamed Tenant Management Organisation, their landlord, refused their requests to form a Tenants and Residents Association. The council and the law gave them no power in the process.

Even now, when survivors take their demands to the street and council offices, they are called a “mob”.

The immediate demands of Grenfell Tower should be met. These include:  

  • An independent inquest and a public inquiry to investigate what led to this horrific event, and so tenants have a voice.
  • For public authorities to be held to account and criminal proceedings brought against all those responsible.
  • For all Grenfell residents to be offered long-term and affordable housing in their local area. To meet this need, RBKC should buy local private property and turn it into council housing.
  • That Grenfell Tower is fully rebuilt and not one unit of social housing is lost — this must not be a chance to privatise homes or for developers to profit.

If any residents take over empty local properties as temporary housing, they should be allowed to remain there until decent permanent housing is found.

It is time to overturn the relationship between people and profit. This is a debate that goes beyond housing to how we create a fairer society that meets everyone’s needs.

But in the intermediate term we can start with:

  • A mass program of council/public house building and refurbishment to the safest modern safety and environmental standards.
  • An end to restrictions on council borrowing for building housing, and the right-to-buy that depletes those public housing resources.
  • A public, unionised building corporation to carry out public building works.
  • Real democratic involvement by residents' associations in the design, management, and control of their homes, including refurbishment.
  • Vacant buildings to be taken into public control.

Let us use the energy from the anger of the Grenfell deaths to bring about a permanent change to the rotten system that has allowed this to happen.

[Abridged from Left Unity. Doug Thorpe is a member of Haringey Left Unity.]

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