A political (un)willingness: The Grenfell story

By Jaya Pathak

"The fact that, tonight, there will still be people going to sleep in high-rise tower blocks with similar cladding to Grenfell, worrying that what happened over three years ago will happen to them too, is a stain on our country."

Growing up in West London, it has always been the sense of community and diversity that makes it my home. Whether it was seeing the tube full on a Saturday evening, passing a corner shop full of excitable school kids in their uniform, or seeing bustling town centres full of people from every corner of the world - these are the things that make London, London. The greatest city in the world for me. Being a Londoner is a unique experience, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve lived there your whole life or if you’ve just moved in, for it will feel like your home too. Seeing high-rise tower blocks in pretty much every major town you pass through is part of this experience. These buildings represent many things to me but two things particularly stand out. The first is the communal feel, and the second is the poignant reminder of the divide between society and the politicisation of real lives by the government that has sadly, and by choice, existed for many decades.

In the early hours of the 14th June 2017, I was up late studying for my summer exams. I remember hearing is my family calling me into the living room, everyone sat in front of the TV. All I could see was a building up in flames on the news whilst hearing a lot of noise and sirens. No one knew what was happening and as I was trying to find out anything on my phone, I remember seeing a Twitter user on my news feed live-streaming from inside of Grenfell. I scrolled past it quickly, but the few seconds I saw are something I will never forget for the rest of my life. We stayed up for hours into the next day, watching and waiting to find out the cause of this devastation. The last time I saw Grenfell Tower, before the early morning of June 14th 2017, was only a week before the tragedy struck. Grenfell was one of the tall infrastructures next to the Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, and it would have been impossible to ignore it on the journey to White City. On the same journey thereafter, Grenfell existed as a burnt tower and has now been boarded up and adorned with ‘Grenfell forever’ at the top of it.

Never would I have imagined that this fire occurred because of active, avoidable choices by official organisations and people who were paid to do this job. The realisation that years of neglect manifested into the loss of 72 lives, 70+ injuries and over 220 escaping from burning flames, leaves us with a pleading desire to do something to help. Leading these efforts should not just be those personally affected but the very people who are elected, paid and trusted to represent our communities. Our political representatives have a duty to do all that they can to support the fight for justice for the Grenfell victims and other victims of similar, preventable tragedies. This is why the 318 votes, 317 of them by Conservative MPs, against Labour’s amendment to the Fire Safety Bill on the 7th September 2020 should be ashamed of their abdication of responsibility and refusal to go beyond party politics.

Labour’s “New Clause 1” would have ensured that the recommendations from the first phase of the Grenfell Inquiry were put in place. With 170 of the 186 votes for coming from Labour MPs, it is evident that the current polarised nature of British politics does nothing but undermine issues that should not be partisan. There was outrage from all corners of society, but it is the disappointment and grief of those directly affected by Grenfell which adds further shame to this decision. Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick had the following justifications for the Conservative’s decision to vote against this amendment:

  1. The measures will be put into law anyway after a consultation.

  1. The government wanted to finish hearing the views of “residents of social housing and the industry”.

  1. It would be “irresponsible” to put measures in place “before we even finish listening to the sector as to how is the best possible way to do this so it actually works”.

Yet it is easy to dispute these claims made by Jenrick in an attempt to excuse what should have been an easy moral decision, if anything, to vote in support for. To begin with, the fire safety consultation is due to close on the 12th October 2020, which is only one month after this vote was due to take place and almost an entire year since the Grenfell Inquiry phase one report was published in October 2019. Surely, from the work the government has been doing to understand the “views of residents of social housing and the industry” during this consultation period would provide a general direction of consensus, at the very least, about what social housing residents and those in the industry feel. Was one more month of discussions really going to bring about drastically different conclusions that would deem the passing of this amendment to the Fire Safety Bill futile?

"Our political representatives have a duty to do all that they can to support the fight for justice for the Grenfell victims and other victims of similar, preventable tragedies."

Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, Paul Scully, accused the Liberal Democrats of “politicising the tragedy at Grenfell and in Worcester Park” and claimed that the amendment “risked undermining the work to implement these recommendations”, which would further delay the process. However, this too does not make sense and is easily disputable yet again. Many Conservative MPs have accused Labour and others in opposition of politicising Grenfell, when the truth is that by voting against an amendment, which would have simply provided a level of reassurance, solidarity and respect to the Grenfell victims, was, by all means, a political decision more than anything. It would not have made a negative difference to the implementation of recommendations to the Fire Safety Bill, since according to the Conservative government, it would not have made any impact anyway. A vote in support for this would have been a moral commitment from those in politics to do what is right.

The journey to seek justice for Grenfell has been a painful and exhausting one. Various acts of complacency and disingenuousness from the Conservative government throughout this journey prove that the slow progress of the launch of the Grenfell Inquiry, in addition to the lack of urgency shown, surpasses any level of disappointment that one could have presumed to have had. Whether we discuss the impact from cuts at the top decided when new cladding was being planned, to warnings and recommendations from the local community that had been ignored prior to the fire, to Grenfell survivors still waiting for permanent housing despite the Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, promising all would be offered housing within three weeks, it is clear that the priorities of our policymakers are in the wrong place. Kensington and Chelsea council’s usable reserves of £274 million would have been more than enough to afford the estimated £200,000 cost of fitting Grenfell Tower with a sprinkler system that was urged on by residents for many years before the fire broke out.

The very fact that we have to ask whether there would be a difference to the level of urgency from the government when dealing with resident concerns pre and post-fire, had the residents of Grenfell and other high-rise blocks not been from multicultural backgrounds, weren’t immigrants or were all high-income earners, is further confirmation of the broken system. The lack of amnesty shown for migrants and undocumented people who were victims of the Grenfell tragedy and the “tale of two Kensingtons”, in which the divide between the rich and poor in one of the wealthiest boroughs of the city has been made even more obvious; the raw story of Grenfell has become one in which social tension could not be higher. More recently, news has emerged in the past couple of weeks that some emails, documents and design drawings relating to Grenfell Tower refurbishment were wiped from a laptop and “lost forever”. This adds more salt to the wounds of those still suffering, grieving and fighting for change.

Kensington street sign
'A Tale of Two Kensingtons'

There are many lessons for the government to learn from the Grenfell Tragedy. One is that they must always listen to the experiences of others, especially those that they represent. They will not be able to relate to all of us, nor will they be able to understand the generational impact tragedies like this have on those in communities different to their own. Many of our MPs do not understand this lived experience. However, listening and not pretending to know everything even when they don’t will only serve to help heal these cracks in society and rebuild trust between their constituents and themselves. Taking the time to get to know all of the communities that they represent, getting to learn what their constituency is all about is crucial, for it is not just a ticket to Westminster, but a home for those who live there. Secondly, dealing with certain issues cannot be delayed at the unjustified mercy or the convenience of the government. Had the government treated the Grenfell Inquiry with the urgency that it deserved, then a lot more would have been achieved by now. This would have meant that issues such as Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, would not steal from the energy required in seeking justice for Grenfell and ensuring that this does not happen again.

I have heard others say that it is upsetting to think that many of the Grenfell victims had spent years giving back to society through their jobs and their hard work, and this is whole-heartedly true. However, it is also important to remember that any home is meant to be a safe space for those who live there. The right to adequate housing is a human right. It does not matter what colour skin you have, where you are from or where you were born. It does not matter whether you have a job, what your job is or how much you earn. The fact that tonight, there will still be many more people going to sleep in high-rise tower blocks with similar cladding to Grenfell, worrying that what happened over three years ago will happen to them too, is a stain on our country - one of the richest economies and supposedly progressive societies in the world. The fact that many of these residents will fall asleep not trusting our political representatives, our government or our Prime Minister and lack the faith to believe that these elected officials will actually do something to help is incredibly heart-breaking.

To our government, we must ask this: if you were to trade your home for a night with someone living in a high-rise tower that has Grenfell-like cladding, would you feel safe falling asleep at night?

I think it is safe to say we all know the answer to that.

Jaya Pathak's experiences as a British Indian led to her developing an interest in the use of education to combat racism, discrimination and prejudice. Alongside human rights activism, she also works with a Holocaust education charity and is the co-founder/deputy editor of the youth-led initiative Yet Again UK.


Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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