2017 in Review: Grenfell Tower, the invisible citizens
The event of 2017 that impacted upon me the most was the Grenfell Tower fire. 71 lives lost; including 18 children and one unborn baby. Another 70 with physical injuries; many more who suffered psychological harm.
All Grenfell victims were Londoners – No discrimination in humanitarian response
A horror of such immense proportions, that it united the country in a mixture of grief and outrage. The fire illustrated the best and worst of people. We saw the community rally, with Londoners of all ages, colours and faiths providing shelter, food and clothing for the victims without hesitation. So immense was the humanitarian response that in the days after the tragedy the public was asked to stop donations as the infrastructure was not in place to manage the influx. Over £20 million was raised by the public to support the victims.
Resident’s fears became reality
However, what the Grenfell Tower fire exposed was how endemic the appalling treatment of those in social housing is. The residents of Grenfell Tower had themselves identified and clearly expressed their concerns over their dangerous living conditions and the tower’s safety to the Kensington and Chelsea Council tenant management organisation just months before the fire. In November 2016 the Grenfell Action Group (GAG) said “it is a truly terrifying thought, but the GAG firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord the KCTMO”. How right they were.
The Council and Government response in the immediate aftermath was pitiful. It has not improved significantly, with 103 families, including 23 children, still in temporary accommodation 6 months on.
When social housing residents are not a priority
The fire at Grenfell Tower was by no means an anomaly. The Lakanal House fire in 2009 saw 6 people die in a similar housing block. The inquest that followed set out a series of recommendations, including consideration being given to the fitting of sprinkler systems and visits by the fire service to determine their layout and exit routes. One of the recommendations was that residents should be given proper fire safety information. None of this was implemented at Grenfell. Indeed the fire was exacerbated by the fitting of cladding in a recent refurbishment; designed to do little more than make the tower more aesthetically pleasing to its wealthy neighbours.
Hope for 2018 or more of the same?
As the formal inquiry gets under way it is questionable whether the victims of Grenfell Tower will ever get the answers and the recompense that they so badly need. The Government seems intent on limiting the scope of the inquiry to deal with the technical failings that led the fire. But it is clear that the survivors and the families of the deceased will need much more than this. They need to know why their loved ones died; why their homes were lost; and who is to blame. Who made the decisions that consigned so many to their graves?
The recent announcement from the Equality and Human Rights Commission that they will undertake their own inquiry is a positive one. Their objective is to consider the extent to which the state’s duty to protect its citizens has been neglected. Hopefully they will be the ones to truly hold the Government to account.