On Thursday (14 June 2018) Leeds residents will assemble at 5pm in Victoria Gardens (in front of the art gallery on the Headrow) to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower in West London. We will remember the dead and express our solidarity with the survivors and those supporting them and demanding the truth about the conditions which caused this to happen.
The event is hosted by social housing campaign group Hands Off Our Homes, and Little London Tenants and Residents Association. We hope that tenants and residents from all areas of Leeds will join us!
Grenfell Tower was a 24-storey council block, home to over 400, mostly poor, tenants. On that dreadful day, 72 people lost their lives, over 70 suffered terrible injuries, and hundreds were left homeless, bereaved and traumatised. Tenants had repeatedly raised fire-safety concerns with the Tenant Management Organisation (an arms-length body managing on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council) – but their warnings fell on deaf ears.
If tenants concerns had been heard and taken seriously, 72 people would not have lost their lives. Did these people not matter enough to listen to?
If the local authority had not been penny pinching and trying to save money, the building would not have been clad with a material known to be a potential source of catastrophic fire-spread – and those 72 people would still be alive. Do the lives of council tenants count for so little?
The current inquiry into the causes of the fire have highlighted numerous issues with the construction of the building, the faulty “stay put” advice that was based on a faulty assumption that the flats were all sealed against fire-spread, and the horrendous difficulties facing fire-fighters when they arrived at the scene. What the inquiry is less likely to confront is the years of government policies of underfunding, outsourcing and privatisation, and the weakening of regulations which have contributed to this situation.
Since the early 80s council housing has been systematically starved of cash by successive governments who would really rather have seen it disappear. The Right to Buy has meant the loss of around two million units, depriving councils of rental income sorely needed to keep up with refurbishments and build new homes. The rents paid by tenants have now far exceeded the capital costs of the homes they live in – yet much of this cash goes not into new homes, but straight back to the Treasury. In the meantime, caps on borrowing mean that councils are unable to invest in the homes we need. Council houses are still, on average, better and safer than homes in the private-rented sector, yet the signs of neglect are everywhere as councils struggle to balance the need for repairs and upgrading with the need to build for the thousand languishing on waiting lists.
It is in this context that – in one of the richest boroughs in the country – a regime of cost-cutting and a purely cosmetic regeneration carried out on the cheap could result in this catastrophy. It is also not hard to see also how the negative stereotypes about council tenants and the nonsensical view that acquiring wealth and striving to own ones own home is a badge of merit, have contributed to this neglect.
So it is that, one year after the disaster, half the survivors and displaced families are still in short-term emergency accommodation. 300 tower blocks around the country are still covered in the dangerous cladding used on Grenfell Tower (including several private-sector high-rise buildings in Leeds). Building and safety regulations are still not fit for purpose.
In Leeds, although brief daily inspections are made by cleaners (eg to report any combustible items left in communal areas and stairways) and more detailed inspections also happen at intervals, cut-backs in spending mean that cleaners are rushed and unable to do their work as thoroughly, whilst the loss of resident caretakers and cutbacks in housing office hours also pose problems for tenants in getting problems dealt with.
We say, a disaster like Grenfell can never be allowed to happen again. Never again must profit be placed before the lives of tenants. Tenants’ concerns must be heard and acted on; those responsible for neglect and dangerous cost-cutting must be held to account. All those who suffered must be re-housed in their own chosen communities.
On 14 June, please join us as we gather in solidarity with Grenfell survivors and campaigners.
There must be Justice for Grenfell.
This post was written by Ellen Robottom using our Create an article for South Leeds Life page.