THE GRENFELL FIRE SEEMED TO ENCAPSULATE a broken system. The tragedy will, like Hillsborough, resonate for generations. “Tragedy” is an ambivalent term here – it wasn’t a tragedy in that it was entirely predictable and predicted - yet it was also a personal tragedy for so many people.
Our speakers told the story of Grenfell from their perspective, but also the wider story - of years of stigmatising council housing, cutting corners on health and safety, stark class divisions and privatisation and fragmentation. Each speaker linked neo-liberalism to the fire.
Chris Williamson MP, then Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services, told the inside story of how austerity had added to the causes of the fire and then affected the response. How, for example, the aerial platform took 30 minutes after fire engines attended to arrive from Surrey. How there were neither sprinklers nor fire partitions. Deregulation, privatisation and cuts had undermined fire safety, reduced fire service personnel and weakened safety enforcement. Forty years of neo-liberalism meant Grenfell Tower was not fit for purpose.
Sarah Glynn, an architect, academic and housing activist, spelled out what Grenfell tells us about the deliberate implementation of policies that led up to the fire:
- rampant property speculation, attacks on social housing and tenants, the privatisation of public assets, cuts in regulation, increasing commercialisation and subcontracting;
- neo-liberalism prioritising the freedom of the market to exploit and then portraying it as natural; » the jettisoning of any concept of housing as a human right.
None of this is inevitable. Clive Lewis MP reminded the audience of a century of decent quality council housing in Norwich until it was stopped dead by Thatcher. Nearly half the city’s homes were council-owned.
Richard Allday, a member of Unite’s National Executive, said, “There is something rotten in the system when housing is seen as a source of profit. Grenfell residents were consciously ignored. It was as if they didn’t count. I am no longer interested in living in a world where the scum rises to the top.”
But Richard also highlighted how the Grenfell residents, though written off by a Tory council, were part of a strong community. That community rallied immediately - doctors went straight to the site and chapels and mosques provided shelter, food, drink and clothing. Support workers, some fresh out of college, stayed until they were no longer needed. Unite had 25 members in Grenfell. Five died. Unite sent £200,000 immediately. Legal services were brought in to represent members.
What should the response of Labour and the left be?
Chris said that Labour would build council homes again - unlike the Blair governments. Labour will regulate the private rented sector - where £10 billion of public money goes to private landlords in housing benefit.
A Labour government will build quality eco-homes, boost the new nationalised building industry and, using the new National Investment Bank, regional funding will be rolled out. Fire and building regulations will be upgraded.
Legislation is already being prepared, but Chris called for ideas to contribute to this - architects, students, environmentalists, activists and others are all contributing. This is bottom-up democracy in action! Sarah reminded us that we need to build large amounts of public housing quickly, but also build well - to design for the environment, with democratic community involvement, maximum tenant participation and management.
We have to level the economic playing field between different tenures. The tax system should not be subsidising home ownership and homes shouldn’t be tax havens. Inheritance and wealth need to be taxed and a land value tax introduced.
Significant house building will be a huge stimulus to the economy, with savings in other parts of the public sector, as well as massive social dividends.
A meeting like this wouldn’t have happened three years ago had the fire occurred then. There was a new confidence that a rotten system could be changed and that talking about socialism was no longer a fringe activity. In the immediate aftermath it felt that Grenfell was a turning point - and politicians started to talk about a housing crisis and accountability where tenants had a voice and were heard.
What now? Meetings, however successful, can leave you with a question mark. Small steps can be important locally - North Norfolk Labour Party produced a leaflet on housing following the meeting and have used it in campaigns. What about Labour nationally?
Labour has started to develop more radical housing policies but they are not nearly radical enough. How can new council housing be part of genuine mixed communities? How can we reverse the domination of the market? As Glyn Robbins highlighted in the last issue of Briefing, there is still ambiguity in Labour’s housing proposals. When some Labour politicians, including the shadow housing minister, talk about social housing they mean continuing with the private developer-friendly agenda that underlies the housing crisis.
The audience at this meeting wanted real change, not just building some extra council homes or tinkering with the private rented sector. Chris Williamson is right - the establishment will do whatever they can to stop radical transformation, but without that the failed system will continue to destroy lives and weaken our economy.
Chris told us how fire service workers risked their lives entering Grenfell Tower up to four times as there weren’t enough of them, risking heart attacks. They wrote their names on their helmets as they were not sure of getting out.
Grenfell was a personal disaster but also a symbol of a society where fire personnel have been put at risk because of ideological cuts and neo-liberal principles. Chris ended with a battle cry and a warning: the establishment will close ranks once Labour are in power. We must collectively organise to continue the conversation, share ideas and oppose a system that is wrong. We have to build a movement from the bottom up where homes are not a commodity. And that means shaking the elite and breaking the economic consensus of the last 40 years.
- Thanks to Mandy McKenna for the use of her notes from the meeting
reporting from an open meeting organised by Norwich LRC members