The fire at Grenfell Tower is a turning point with regard to austerity and Britain, although It is being under reported in corporate media or channelled into an emotional outpouring. It was a crime, but how do you bring politicians, some of whom are no longer in office, such as David Cameron, George Osborne, or Tony Blair (not to mention his role with regard to Irak) to court on charges of manslaughter? This is not foreseen in British law – which is intentional. In his article Steve Tombs tries to take stock of the damage done.
Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at The Open University
Cross-posted from the website of the Harm & Evidence Research Collaborative (HERC), the home of criminology reasearch at The Open University
Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone (Creative Commons)
Exactly six months ago, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, west London. Grenfell was and is many things: a tragedy, an outrage, a testimony to the violence of austerity, the biggest fire in Britain for generations, and perhaps a crime of corporate manslaughter. But it is also the site of a whole series of harms, generated both by the fire and its aftermath – albeit some are much more immediately apparent than others.
The most manifest harms associated with the fire are, of course, the immediate deaths which it caused – some 71, so it is officially claimed, although intense controversy about the actual numbers has raged. Moreover, a week after the fire, the clinical director of the major trauma centre at King’s College Hospital, said that : “Many of the people who have survived will go on to make a good recovery, but how many will have life-changing injuries remains to be seen. It may take weeks and months for some patients to recover physically.”
There are other possible physical health effects of the fire which are perhaps less identifiable. It is not fully known what airborne toxins might have been emitted as a result of the fire, and what long-term effects exposures to these might be felt by residents and those in the living in the vicinity. However, we do know that asbestos was present in the building, while hydrogen cyanide was emitted from the burning insulation.
In addition to causing death, injury and illness, various aspects of the aftermath of the fire are likely to have caused detrimental health effects. First, it is likely that anyone with existing problems of alcohol and/or drug dependency at the time of the fire would have experienced heightened dependency as a result of the trauma of the fire. Second, many illnesses associated with deprivation – the residents of Grenfell were amongst the 10% most deprived in England – such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol are likely exacerbated by their having to live in hotel or B&B accommodation where control over diet is more difficult to exercise.
Psychological and Emotional Harms
Surviving the fire in Grenfell Tower is most obviously likely to have produced a whole gamut of searing psychological and emotional problems with which victims will live for years to come. These are likely to be associated with grief at the loss of loved ones, loss, too, of possessions which cannot be replaced, of pets, the recall of the horrors of exiting the building (and of seeing others unable to do so), guilt at survival, as well as horrors and guilt for bystanders and members of the emergency. These have all variously been reported in the aftermath of the fire. None are surprising. None are easily imaginable. None are, one suspects, easily remediable, not least given the parlous state of socially provided mental health services in the UK. In this context, within a month or so of the fire, reports began to circulate about suicide attempts and other manifestations of long term mental health problems, including PTSD, stress, depression and anxiety.
Financial and Economic Harms
There is no way of knowing what financial costs were, and continue to be, incurred by former residents of the Tower, as well as those living in the vicinity (but they would include extra travel costs to work or school, the costs of eating out, of time off to attend meetings, funerals, medical appointments, and so on). Moreover these costs are dwarfed by those to local, regional and national economies which are likely to follow the fire. At the local level, the Council faces heavy financial costs following the fire. Costs to central Government will be significant. The costs of the inquiry itself are likely to run into millions. None of this is to mention the fallout costs for other councils across the country. Numerous councils have tested cladding on high rise tower bloc and other public buildings, notably hospitals, and many are seeking central Government funding for major cladding-replacement programmes.
Thus, these economic effects of Grenfell Tower are not confined to residents, the local community or even the borough – there are ripple effects that are flowing and will continue to flow through communities across the UK. This in turn means that those who are most dependent upon central or local services and facilities – those with the least financial independence – will be hardest hit. The poor, the disabled and the sick, those on various forms of benefits, children in the mainstream school system, and, with no little irony, those in social housing or who lack access to adequate or any accommodation at all, all will be impacted upon. The least hardest-hit will be the most financially independent – the wealthiest.
Cultural and Relational Harms
A further, discrete category of harms I label here as cultural and relational. In terms of cultural harms, it is clear that in their physical relocation from the Tower and area – their dispersal – that many of both the routines and the networks which constitute social life – at school, the local shops, around the flats and so on – have been rent asunder. They have lost their social networks and social supports when they need them most; dispersal does not just mean loss of community, it can mean isolation, desperation or, at best, a state of painful limbo.
More than this, there are relational harms that follow from mis-trust of central and local Government, each of which were absent in the immediate aftermath of the fire, and for which PM May apologised. In terms of central Government, the uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty’ offered to so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ (a harmful term in itself) was one such source of anxiety. Another 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. Exactly six months after the fire, four of out five of the households requiring accommodation have not been permanently rehoused. Also, 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”.
In many senses, there has been a contempt displayed towards the residents after the fire – one which entirely reproduced the attitudes displayed towards local residents prior to it. In fact, some recognised this contempt 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.” As the Inquiry opens this week, the demands that the voices of the residents must be heard and must count seem ever more pressing in the light of the unfolding, complexly interacting and layered harms which many of them continue to endure.