Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the Grenfell disaster. What is coming to light is that the causes were all elements of austerity Britain: profit, racism, class war, arrogance, contempt. That is not the end of the story: Similar aluminium composite cladding, a key factor for the disaster, was found on nearly 300 other apartment blocks, of which hardly any have been replaced.
Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University
Almost a year on from the most devastating fire in the UK for a century, the Public Inquiry began, following advocacy by INQUEST and others, with “commemoration hearings” dedicated to the memories of the 72 victims who lost their lives. It was an unremittingly painful, yet wholly just and necessary, process.
So much more is to be said and learnt about the circumstances leading up to the fire. But one thing we already know – and a fact to which anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower can surely never be reconciled – is that this mass killing followed a conscious decision by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This is surely the apogee in the contempt displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC) and the Tenants Management Organisation Grenfell residents which had “endured … for years” – what local MP Emma Dent Coad described as “a real disdain for people lower down the social order” – and must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that the residents in and around the area will never shake off. But what is perhaps more surprising – and disgusting – is that this contempt has persisted in the aftermath of the fire, further generating what Majid Yar has labelled harms of misrecognition– in essence, disrespect. It is with this mis-trust and contempt that this short comment is concerned, as we approach the one year anniversary of the fire.
One aspect of this contempt was the apparent in the complete lack of effective immediate response or leadership in the aftermath of the disaster – what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the “”failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most”. This is the context of the observation that “absence of clear strategies breeds lack of trust in authority, loss of confidence and a fear of the future that, sadly, is often well founded.” These failures on the part of authority persisted and continue to this day – as documented, for example, in the Initial and then the Second Report of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which have documented the continuing failings of RKCBC and the “severe trust deficit” between it and the local community. Then, more recently, the charity Muslim Aid has documented the void left by local and central Government, one filled “particularly in the first few weeks” by the community itself and a vast array of local organisations.
The continuing contempt on the part of central and local Government has also been repeatedly evidenced in the series of lies, half-truths and broken promises made to the affected households in the aftermath of the fire.
One area of mis-trust was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently “clarified” as meaning temporary accommodation. In November 2017, RBKCC “promised that every survivor would have the opportunity to move into a new home before Christmas”, while weeks later the Minister for Housing and Planning estimated it would take RBKCC “up to 12 months” to rehome families. Moreover, the promise of being offered like-for-like tenancies was repeatedly broken. As the Chair of Grenfell United noted, “For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another.” By late May 2018, almost one year after the fire, only a third of the 210 families who had lived in the tower were in new, permanent accommodation, with another 72 neither in permanent nor temporary, but emergency, accommodation.
A further area of mis-trust was the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to undocumented residents – originally stated at one year, then extended for 3 further months, followed by a policy announcement that “survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain, building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency”. A less well-documented condition of the offer set a deadline of 31 January to apply for the amnesty.
A further focus of contempt is to be found in the struggles between survivors and residents on the one hand and central government on the other around the Inquiry. First, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry, in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this “further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust in the official response to this disaster” – and had they been consulted would likely have objected to the appointment. Following this was the protracted process in which the limited initial Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were challenged and then largely confirmed, itself followed by the Inquiry’s formal December 2017 opening, at which the lack of direct or indirect representation of residents was the key point of contention. Only on the virtual eve of its opening did Teresa May confirm that there would be a Phase 2 of the Inquiry what which two panel members would be appointed. Of this partial, last-minute concession, Deborah Coles of INQUEST stated, “at every stage, bereaved and traumatised families have had to fight to be at the centre of the inquiry”.
This sense of constantly being of constant struggle to be heard, of being treated without sensitivity, being at worst lied to or at best told half-truths, must surely exacerbate feelings of mistrust, of being treated as worthless, as contemptible – exactly the same characteristics which defined many of the ways in which residents felt they were treated prior to the fire (notably by the TMO and RKBCC), and, more, exactly the ways in which their concerns about safety in the tower were dismissed.
In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire was maintained and reproduced after the fire. It was popularly recognised as a cause of the fire per se. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count”. The struggle of survivors of the fire, the bereaved, and the residents of the Lancaster West estate to count – to be heard – continues.