Seventy-two lives were taken by the flames that engulfed Grenfell Tower in the early hours of June 14th 2017. Three years on, survivors and bereaved still await answers and results to guarantee safer housing. Remembering the victims of Grenfell Tower in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests has reaffirmed the importance of raising issues of inequality and safety at the forefront of debates.
Back in 2017, days after the fire, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan told the press about the anger of the North Kensington community at the “poor response” to the disaster and “years of neglect from the council and successive governments”. Today this statement still resonates, and not much has fundamentally changed. 27 families are still in temporary accommodation waiting to be rehomed.
On the 14th of every month, the survivors’ group Grenfell United remembers the tragedy with a silent walk. Since March, the commemoration has been remote in line with the pandemic’s guidelines. This weekend, churches around London will join them and ring their bells 72 times in honour of the victims. Light green light, the colour associated with Grenfell, will be displayed around the city for its third anniversary, as people come together virtually to remember and demand meaningful change.
Negligence and oversight revelations
The Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry launched three months after the inferno has been remarkably slow in putting measures in place to prevent future tragedies of this kind. Phase 2 of the Inquiry started in late January this year and was soon after delayed due to witness demands and evidence concerns. The coronavirus outbreak then suspended hearings until July 6th. The repeated postponement is a source of frustration for many, especially in the face of a lack of accountability for the conditions that led to the fire: was it a technical failure or is there a politically-charged explanation to uncover?
So far, the Inquiry has revealed a lax attitude towards safety norms from those involved in the refurbishment works completed just a year before. Evidence came to light that Exova, the fire engineer company, and Rydon, the main contractor, knew that the cladding would fail in the event of a fire. At the same time, the architecture firm Studio E lacked relevant experience and knowledge of fire regulations. Besides, the fireproof zinc cladding approved for the refurbishment was later swapped to a cheaper aluminium option, based on appearance and cost instead of safety, saving the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation £300,000 but making the building a firetrap.
The role of structural racism
As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected in times of hardship. The fire of June 14th 2017 was no exception. It is thus not surprising that the Black Lives Matter protests two weekends ago ended their march at the foot of Grenfell Tower’s ruins, a vivid reminder of the fight against the idea that certain lives are more expendable than others.
Grenfell Tower forms part of a council estate owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in the country. The gentrification of the area in recent years has deepened the gap between social classes. With 19 nationalities represented amongst the 72 victims and only 7 Britons, residents of Grenfell Tower lived mostly on low wages or government benefits, a reflection of such divide. The Justice4Grenfell organisation even called for the Inquiry to investigate the role of racism in the catastrophe and recovery of victims.
Before the accident, residents repeatedly expressed their concerns about fire risks in their building to the council, which took no action to address them. Such neglect cost 72 lives and homes of hundreds. “Because we weren’t white, no one cared when they said their homes were dangerous,” a Grenfell resident told The New York Times. This suggests that had the tenants not been from ethnic minority backgrounds, a more effective response could have prevented the disaster.
Delays in replacing unsafe cladding
The lesson of such a deadly tragedy is to do everything to avoid another occurrence. Nevertheless, efficiency has not been the government’s strong suit recently, as is evident from the delayed response to the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. Despite the cladding scandal that the Grenfell fire unleashed, numerous buildings are still covered in flammable cladding facades, exposing residents to constant risk. In July 2019, then-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire announced that resources were provided for the “remediation of buildings with unsafe ACM cladding” in a statement. It noted that “given the £600 million of funding this Government has made available, there is no further excuse for delay”. With another £200 million allocated for the private sector, “building owners should complete remediation within six months of agreeing a plan – by June 2020”.
The deadline will be missed this month. Additionally, in March 2020, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said £1 billion of 2020 budget “will go beyond dealing with ACM to make sure that all unsafe combustible cladding will be removed from every private and social residential building above 18 metres high.” The problem is not financial, as the government has poured a lot of tax-payers’ money in fixing flammable cladding issues. Resources are available and time has passed, so what is still delaying the implementation of projects of cladding-removal? The drag of bureaucracy and the backdrop of local politics seem to be impeding imminent action. Yet, making housing safer is a vital long-term investment in its residents and generations to come.
Furthermore, the risk for those living in buildings enveloped with flammable cladding increased dramatically with the lockdown measures implemented to control the spread of the coronavirus. This has heightened the feeling of entrapment for residents, forced to remain indoors, on top of the financial burden of additional costs to cladding and fire safety defects. Of those living in buildings with cladding, 23% felt suicidal or desired to self-harm, and 67% said their mental health had further deteriorated since the 2019 survey revealed a thorough UK Cladding Action Group’s report. Many others are concerned that with the pandemic, solving the building’s unsafety would be delayed or forgotten despite the urgent need for action.
Justice4Grenfell’s recent campaign asks people to write to their MPs and demand a deadline and detailed timetable to remove flammable cladding from buildings. “Not enough has been done to make the 23,000 households with Grenfell style ACM cladding, and up to 500,000 people living with other non-ACM flammable cladding, safe from fire” states the press release. The government’s public information campaign for the pandemic is rephrased to “Safe Homes > Protect Residents > Save Lives”. Catastrophes such as Grenfell are even more tragic when they are entirely avoidable. Preventing further accidents sooner rather than later is a collective responsibility and should be high priority.
What are we waiting on to remove the cladding of existing buildings and avert imminent disasters? To fix housing issues before they become a hazard? In the face of unsatisfactory pursuit of justice and slow progress, pain and healing are very raw for the Grenfell community. But more than attributing blame, what they want is the guarantee that another preventable accident will not happen again, and disproportionately claim more lives and homes, especially those of minorities.
Words by Elena Vardon.