The unspeakable horror of the Grenfell Tower disaster has had a deep impact on the whole country and beyond. Many of us have cried. Then we raged – justifiably – that this may have been an avoidable tragedy, bitterly noting the fire might have been indirectly due to lack of care, even criminal negligence for those living in social housing in one of the wealthiest areas in the UK.
There are important issues raised by this shameful tragedy, especially for local government. But while there is no doubt the Grenfell disaster is political, it is not party political. I am wary of simplistically looking for scapegoats.
Regardless of any culpability for the fire itself, politicians have rightly been castigated for their response. It is not because she didn’t hug enough survivors, it is because Theresa May, the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) and Kensington & Chelsea RLBC all stand rightly indicted for their failure to lead assuredly in this crisis. The local council’s shocking abdication of organisational assistance on the ground stands in stark contrast with the magnificent, spontaneous response from the community.
It is complacent and dishonest to suggest these failures are due to caricatured heartless, cost-cutting Tories. Instead, we should admit that too often council policies are little more than technocratic paper exercises. Effective local government must go beyond spouting fashionable ‘resilient city’ jargon, risk assessment exercises or conferences on emergency planning scenarios. Compare the effectiveness of ‘civilian’ volunteers who stepped up to man makeshift rescue centres with the procedure-following jobsworths noted for their incompetence.
Disgracefully, even days after the disaster, some residents were still walking around in pyjamas, desperate for clarity about what would happen next, yet there was no one from the council or KCTMO to give information, let alone practical help. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. As the pages of The MJ testify, councils increasingly seem to think communication means running tightly- managed, slick PR departments as a substitute for genuinely talking to ‘the public’. Real-life engagement is more important than carefully vetting press releases.
There are legitimate questions about why the Grenfell Action Group’s desperate and chilling warnings about fire safety were ignored. But, sadly, the treatment of low-income tenants as second-class citizens, a nuisance to be contained, is far from exceptional.
One shameful revelation last week: residents in the flats opposite the Grenfell block received a letter dated the day of the fire warning parents to stop their children from playing ball games in the area or face legal costs for damages. According to ITV political correspondent Paul Brand, the letter was hand delivered by KCTMO while bodies were still being recovered from the neighbouring tower.
Such insensitivity is symptomatic of a general contempt of councils for sections of their own constituency. Anti-social behaviour clauses are a regular feature of tenancy agreements. Those living in social housing are constantly subject to endless official condescension, discussed as ‘problem families’ and patronised by public health nannies. They are told what is in their best interest because no-one seems to believe they should be trusted to make decisions about their own lifestyle choices, let alone deemed capable enough to assess the safety of their own council blocks.
Many have concluded the main culprit for Grenfell is deregulation. Inevitably, Polly Toynbee blames Brexiteers for arguing against red tape. But councils do not have too few regulatory powers. Indeed, they have greedily gathered up bureaucratic safeguarding powers over ever-greater areas of tenants’ lives. From Labour’s infamous ASBOs, to today’s ubiquitous PSPOs, an obsession with micro-managing residents’ lives has distorted priorities, making little distinction between the importance of policing kids playing football and life-saving safety measures.
Proper regulation of fire risks are crucial, but when health and safety culture becomes procedural box-ticking it can distract from making common sense judgements and provide cover for avoiding responsibility.
As many firefighters ran towards danger (while council officials either ran the other way or at best stood paralysed), they were often breaking official risk assessment advice. Thankfully, they bravely tried to rescue those in an inferno, regardless of their own safety.
One clear lesson from Grenfell – both the fire itself but also the inability to quickly rehouse those made homeless by the tragedy: there is just not enough housing.
Cross-party policies seem more preoccupied with restricting where we build than building more and better homes. Labour’s Urban Task Force at the end of the nineties argued all new buildings should be on brownfield sites, instead of more rationally outward growth or building on the Green Belt, regardless of regulations.
The problem isn’t tower blocks per se – after all, high-rise luxury apartments are premium accommodation for the rich – but they are not enough. As a tribute to those who have died at Grenfell, we should embark on well-constructed, good standard, mass housebuilding for all.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas.