London awoke this morning to the news that a blaze had ripped through Grenfell Tower in Notting Hill late last night, leaving at least twelve people dead and several hundreds homeless. The extent of the destruction is shocking, and everything must be done — indeed is being done it seems — to provide for the needs of all those that have been hurt or dislocated.
As what remains of the block continues to burn, we who watch it do so cannot afford to shirk the difficult issues at the heart of this disaster. We cannot reasonably give in to pleas not to ‘politicise’ what occurred, for it was nothing if not fundamentally ‘political’. For example, residents of the property had repeatedly told the local council — controlled by Tories — that living conditions inside the building were ‘dangerous’ and that it was not up to standard as far as fire safety was concerned, but of course being poor people and people of colour their suspicions were simply not listened to. Nor could central government — Tory also — have been relied upon to tackle such suspicions, as evidenced by its callous and long-standing inaction on the matter of fire regulations in tower blocks; the refusal in January 2016 of Conservative MPs to back a law that would have obliged landlords like them to ensure their rental properties were ‘fit for human habitation’; and the former housing minister Brandon Lewis’s Pilatian declaration that ‘it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation’. (It would of course be wrong to expect any less from the favoured enforcers of capital in Britain. Tories, like Eliza Gant in Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, regard the unpropertied masses as ‘shiftless and improvident’ leeches — in short, as unpeople. But at the same time they can’t abase themselves enough before the truly parasitic, a rentier class whose colossal revenue costs it ‘neither labour nor care’ and so ‘comes to [it], as it were, of its own accord, and independent of any plan or project’ of the rentiers’ own.)
Then there is the company which manages Grenfell Tower, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which has form on fire safety and was blasted for its ‘ineptitude and incompetence’ by the Grenfell Action Group just half a year ago. Instead of investing in the sprinklers, fire alarms and fire exits that ought to be required in all high-rise blocks by law, and instead of laying down an appropriate evacuation procedure, the KCTMO chose to piss away endless millions on the very insulation cladding which, highly flammable as it was, helped to turn the 24-storey building into a charnel-house last night. Thus in the view of this ‘evil, unprincipled mini-mafia’, superficial aesthetic considerations outweighed the welfare of tenants, whose existence is, after all, neither here nor there to anyone with power.
So it was that in the middle of the richest borough in the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world stood a block of apartments, home to hundreds of families, that was essentially a death-trap, waiting for a disaster of just the kind that has transpired to engulf it. The conflagration, which has yet to be finally stilled, is therefore a direct effect of what has correctly been called ‘negligence-by-design’. And it will, in a suitably sick twist of fate, serve to assist the gentrifiers as they continue in their quest to socially cleanse the capital of its most vulnerable natives — to realise their vitalising fantasy of ‘a bourgeoisie without a proletariat’.
We would struggle to avoid the conclusion, then, enounced by the MC and activist Akala, that in the present case a good amount of blood stains the hands of central government, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the KCTMO and rapacious property developers alike. Each has been striving, in its own way, ‘to get rid of this overwhelmingly poor, multicultural community for years’. Their collective efforts have now bore terrible fruit. Clearly they and they alone are responsible for the death and dispossession caused by last night’s blaze. They must be held to account for what they have allowed to happen, though that is reason enough to believe they won’t.
Tory cuts to council spending are certain to have played a part in the failure of the RBKC to address residents’ concerns regarding fire safety at Grenfell Tower. But let us not forget either that the response of the emergency services to yesterday’s tragedy might well have been hampered by punishing cuts to London Fire Brigade, as well as the continuing assault on ambulance services and accident and emergency departments. Yet again we are given occasion to remember that austerity can kill.
In spite of all this — or rather because of it — one suspects that we shan’t be holding a minute’s silence tomorrow to commemorate these victims. Then again, the whiff of blowback that surrounded the Manchester attack did not stop the last Tory government from sanctioning such a silence in May. . .