The Grenfell Tower disaster is both a symbol and a result of misplaced priorities.
By Alexander H. Maurice.
Late at night on June 14, a small fire in an apartment in a tower block in West London began to spread and quickly engulfed the entire 24-floor building. The fire burned all throughout the night and the next day. Some people escaped the flames by leaping to their deaths; others suffocated or burned alive in their homes. So far, 80 deaths have been confirmed, but members of the local community as well as Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott say the true number is likely in the hundreds, including unaccounted-for friends and relatives who were at Grenfell Tower that night. The actual toll may not be known until the end of the year, as police officers complete their searches of the destroyed tower and the heartrending, complex task of identifying the dead.
Many questions are now being asked about how this could have happened. On the purely physical level, it has been established that the cladding on the exterior of the building was not fire-proof and therefore spread the flames from apartment to apartment. Ensuring that it was fire-resistant would have cost the local council the grand total of an additional £5,000; instead, in the name of economy, it used a type of cladding that was already banned in the United Kingdom. Some people maintain that the main reason the cladding was installed in the first place was to disguise the building’s dereliction from its wealthy neighbors. Although it is the cladding that has filled media reports, there were many other fire safety issues with the tower. There were no sprinklers in the building, and the main gas pipe went up the central staircase. Nor was there a fire escape. Local residents had raised these issues with the council multiple times, but were ignored, and some were even threatened with legal suits if they continued their campaign for improved safety. The spread of the fire, from one apartment to the next, up the entire building, was entirely preventable. Many analysts are calling this tragedy the tangible result of contractors and inspectors ignoring the so-called “red-tape” of important government fire and safety regulations.
The building was owned by Kensington and Chelsea Council, and many of the tenants had been housed there by the council as part of social housing. The people living in the building were among the poorest in what is otherwise one of the wealthiest boroughs in London. Many families who escaped the inferno are now homeless. Some have been offered temporary accommodation by the borough, but others have been asked to leave their temporary accommodation. Some have been left sleeping in cars and parks. With their home a burned-out shell, these families don’t know where they will be able to live.
The leader of the official opposition party, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, has called for the now homeless survivors to be housed in vacant dwellings in the borough. According to the Independent, there are 1,399 vacant dwellings nearby. These are luxury flats bought mainly by foreign millionaires, not to be lived in, but as investments. As property prices continue to soar in a massive bubble in London, the investment properties gain value just by sitting empty. Most of these buildings are registered to firms based in the British Virgin Islands or Bermuda, allowing their owners to avoid paying taxes, according to Private Eye.
The council must now rehouse many families made homeless by the fire, and housing them in the available stock of empty homes in the borough is a sound option. In fact, according to U.K. Government YouGov poll, it is supported by 59 percent of the British public. The U.K. has a long history of making use of empty properties. During World War Two, large parts of London were destroyed by German bombing, so many U.K. soldiers returned homeless. Some housed themselves in empty homes or deserted military bases.
After the fire, tests have been carried out on tower blocks around the U.K. So far, all of the more than 60 high-rises inspected have been found to violate health and safety guidelines. On the orders of the Fire Department, Camden council in North London had to immediately evacuate 5,000 residents in the middle of the night over fears that what happened at Grenfell could happen there. For years, in the name of austerity, the U.K. government has cut funding to the councils, imposing drastic reductions in funding to services for the most vulnerable, and the social housing properties they own have been neglected as a result. Many are not up to fire code. As councils around the country scramble to test and strip flammable cladding off the tower blocks, the question of what will happen to their residents remains. One thing is clear: to house the poor in fire traps is a moral monstrosity. Buildings must adhere to fire and safety regulations, and if residents are currently at risk, they should be temporarily re-housed in the thousands of vacant investment properties owned by off-shore firms. The burned out skeleton of Grenfell Tower stands over the city as a stark reminder of what happens when greed is prioritized over human life.
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Alexander H. Maurice is the London Correspondent of The Global Intelligence.