June 14th marked the second anniversary of the Grenfell tower fire, which killed 72 people. Many of the survivors are struggling with mental health issues and a score of households remain stuck in temporary accommodation, despite the prime minister‘s promise that they would be re-housed within weeks.
Grenfell Inquiry Judge Martin Moore-Bick has now stated that his much-awaited Phase 1 report - originally to be published this spring - will be delayed several months. Phase 2 of the Inquiry will begin after a year of delay, with no likelihood of criminal prosecutions until it has concluded. Despite earlier promises, no diverse members have yet been appointed to the Panel.
High levels of toxic chemicals have been found in soil in a wide radius around the fire, at 160 times the level of the average London street. Kensington Council has done little to clean up the area and Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has had to take the unusual step of demanding it take action to do so. The authority’s shocking attitude was recently highlighted by local MP Emma Dent Coad, who revealed that council officers had described the area near Grenfell Tower as “little Africa” and “full of people from the Tropics.”
A rise in respiratory ailments has accompanied the mental suffering of survivors. Local schools have a higher than average exclusion rate, as children struggle to cope with the trauma of their experiences.
Nationally, 40,000 people live in tower blocks with Grenfell-style cladding. But two years on from the disaster, FBU leaders accuse the government of “utter complacency” in failing to adequately prepare fire and rescue services for an emergency in similar blocks.
Labour has called for owners of high-rise blocks covered in such cladding to have their buildings seized by local councils if they fail to replace it by the end of the year. More than 90% of private blocks with the same cladding as Grenfell Tower have still not had it replaced.
The snail’s pace of both the Inquiry and the government’s response indicate an almost wilful refusal to learn any lessons. As with Hillsborough, the British state has adopted a classic defensive posture of institutional caution and lack of transparency.
Amid the delays and inaction, there is a real danger that the fundamental reason that Grenfell happened will be ignored. This is that a low-income, ethnically diverse community was systematically marginalised and neglected by its own local authority and government policies that ensured that communities housed in the public sector do not benefit from the same standards that apply to more prosperous sections of society.
Since the disaster, Kensington Council has claimed that legal restrictions meant it could use only rental income from local authority housing to pay for renovation works. But a new investigation debunks that claim. A report by HuffPost UK, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service found - and the government has confirmed - that councils are free to use money from the sale of property to fund improvements in housing stock.
Kensington Council made £129m from selling property in the years leading up to the Grenfell fire. Despite these vast sums, cuts were made in 2014 to the budget for building work by the tenant management organisation in charge of the project, including saving £300,000 by using cheaper, more combustible cladding.
Grenfell residents are not prepared to wait years for justice. Lessons need to be learned fast and incorporated into wide-ranging legislation so that such an avoidable tragedy is never allowed to happen again.