Gentrification and a callous disregard for public safety led to the fire that claimed the lives of 17 people.
It's a day after the devastating events of the Grenfell fire, and tales of horror and heroism are starting to emerge—from the children dropped from burning windows to the residents who selflessly ran into danger frantically trying to save their neighbors. But there's also a more complex and intricate story to be told, played out over decades of seemingly disparate events that combined into this terrible cacophony. It's a story of how austerity measures, gentrification, and a callous disregard for public safety have intertwined to create a tragedy—one that was no accident, but almost completely preventable.
Since former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's declaration that "there is no such thing as society," social housing projects—once potent symbols of an egalitarian future—again found themselves at the forefront of an ideological struggle, newly recast as unaffordable symptoms of poverty and despair. Decades of deliberate underfunding allowed buildings to fall into disrepair, providing a pretext for "managed decline" ahead of demolitions celebrated as "regeneration"—criticized as gentrification by many. This situation was only exacerbated by the introduction of further austerity measures in 2010, slashing the social housing budget by 50 percent and cutting local authority funding so steeply that councils are now at a "breaking point"—leaving no money for vital maintenance.
As early as 2005, an independent report warned the landlord, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) and management company, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Mangement Organisation (KCTMO) of major issues with safety-critical fire systems within the building. While this spurred some remedial works, the Grenfell Action Group—an association of residents concerned with the safety of their buildings and the gentrification plans threatened by the RBKC—claimed that many recommendations "appear to have been largely ignored." In 2012, another report into fire safety in the building found the fire appliances to be unserviced, with some in such advanced disrepair as to be marked as "condemned." The Grenfell Action Group declared the report "alarming evidence of serious negligence… that in all likelihood stretches back to 2004"—but the warnings to the landlord wouldn't end there.
In 2015, a fire in a tower similar to Grenfell (and owned by the same landlord) forced the rescue of 50 people, resulting in the local fire department taking legal action over the state of fire-safety systems in the building. Again, the residents would alert RB Kensington & Chelsea to the dangers in Grenfell Tower—highlighting the absence of an effective fire-alarm system or evacuation plans, minimal maintenance of fire-fighting equipment, and inadequate access for emergency vehicles—and again, the residents would be ignored. The Grenfell Action Group would go on to warn its landlord on ten separate occasions of the fire risks in the tower, leading it in awful prescience to conclude in 2016 that "only an incident that results in serious loss of life" would change the practices of the "malign" governance of RBKC.
In 2016, Grenfell was partially renovated, but in spite of an investment of over $10 million, the works were induced by austerity measures—aiming to find spaces for new housing without the expense of finding new sites. The modifications to the building sought to turn spaces within the base of the tower into new apartments—in the process sealing off a fire escape—and re-cladding the structure with new insulated panels.
The residents objected to the planning application on the basis of inadequate consultation. They couldn't understand why their demands for basic fire protections were going unheeded, yet the landlord was willing to spend significant sums on exterior decorations. But as the planning application makes clear, the improved aesthetic appearance of the tower was considered a strategic priority thanks to expensive regeneration schemes on neighboring sites. It's understandable, then, why residents would accuse RB Kensington & Chelsea—one of the country's wealthiest boroughs—of preferring to mask the residents and their perceived poverty instead of addressing concerns about their safety. Questions are now being asked about whether this cheap plastic façade is to blame for accelerating the inferno.
While the speed and scale of the blaze might have been, in the words of the Fire Brigade, "unprecedented," the lethal combination of underinvestment and negligence is not.
In 2009, a fire ripped through Lakanal House in south London, killing six people in an incident with stark similarities to the tragedy at Grenfell. Newly installed fixes to the building ignited, rapidly spreading the fire and overwhelming the inadequate fire protection. Residents quickly found themselves ensnared by smoke and flame, becoming trapped in their apartments until the firefighters could save them. The landlord pleaded guilty of breaching fire regulations, while the coroner examining the deaths called for an urgent review of Part B—the fire regulations buildings must comply with—to prevent further deaths. In the aftermath, it was reported that over half of the UK's tower blocks were unsafe and presented a serious threat to life in the event of a fire. Yet, despite the threat of further catastrophe, no action was taken by anyone in power.
If the indifference and wanton negligence of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea has led to the disaster at Grenfell, the current Conservative government has directly enabled a political culture where the lives of low-income tenants are considered secondary to the financial concerns of developers. Gavin Barwell—previously the housing minister, now Theresa May's chief-of-staff—ignored two separate reports demanding urgent changes to fire safety standards, despite possessing one of them for over four years.
Barwell's predecessor as housing minister, Brandon Lewis, refuted calls for sprinkler systems to be mandatory—despite clear evidence they would save lives—in a fantastical belief that "the market would decide." Eric Pickles, the former communities secretary, resisted calls for the retrofitting of sprinklers to high-rise buildings and dismissed appeals for landlords to provide more information to firefighters. In 2016, 312 Conservative Members of Parliament (MP) voted down a motion to ensure rented homes were "fit for human inhabitation"—unsurprising, given that 126 of those MPs are themselves, landlords. The only meaningful action taken by the Conservatives on the issue of fire safety has been to inflict savage budget cuts on the fire brigade, leading to the loss of 10,000 firefighters, dozens of fire stations, and a 21 percent increase in fatalities.
In the coming days, politicians will talk about "lessons learned"—as if previous tragedies hadn't already made clear the actions required. To call the Grenfell fire an accident is to ignore the context in which it has occurred. It was the negligence of local government in one of the richest parts of the country that ignored the pleas of its low-income tenants, instead choosing to spend $1.9 million subsidizing opera tickets while cutting $17 million from frontline public services. It was the callous indifference of a ruling party concerned only with vested interests that refused to protect the lives of the poorest despite repeated warnings of a "disaster waiting to happen."
The Grenfell fire was no accident, but the consequence of political choices that privileged the rich over the poor—a brutal reminder of the searing inequality that is tearing apart the UK. Those responsible have blood on their hands. They can—and will—be held accountable.