Red flames ravaging the blackening tower. Neighbours banging on doors as families slept through fire alarms. People jumping out of windows for their lives. The images and reports of Wednesday’s fire at Grenfell Tower, west London were harrowing: a waking nightmare. Seventeen people have now been confirmed dead but police expect the number to rise.
The cause of the fire will take time to establish and it's important not to speculate. But these are the things we do know.
The tower was covered in flammable cladding – installed in 2016 as part of a £10m renovation of Grenfell – and is thought to have contributed to the rapid spread of the fire. Planning documents show the cladding – a low-cost way of improving the front of the building – was chosen in part so that the tower would look better when seen from the luxury flats that surround north Kensington.
We also know that Grenfell residents repeatedly complained about the safety of the block over a number of years and again during the £10m refurbishment last year, but were ignored. As one member of the Grenfell action group wrote in a blog seen by The Guardian: “ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.”
In the hours following the blaze on social media, as people began to feel anger as the news unfolded, a common retort emerged: “Don't politicise the tragedy.” I understand why it would make some people uncomfortable: as families still search for their loved ones, it can seem "too soon" or in bad taste. But there is something very dangerous about pretending residents dying in social housing should not be seen as a matter for the state. What happened at Grenfell Tower is the definition of political.
Grenfell Tower sits in one of the country's richest boroughs in a city undergoing a scandal in housing inequality: low-income families housed in dire conditions as the area is "regenerated" for investors. That the cladding thought to have helped cause the death of Grenfell Tower residents was chosen in order to make the tower more attractive for the rich who had to look at it from their luxury apartments is almost too horrific in its symbolism.
Statements of 'never again' are comforting during these times but mean little without addressing the safety of the homes we expect some people to live in
The safety of social housing tenants, meanwhile, is apparently a cost not always worth paying. “A disaster waiting to happen,” is how one architect and fire expert describes hundreds of tower blocks across the UK. In 2015 – on the sixth anniversary of the last deadly tower block fire in which six people, three of them children, died – Freedom of Information requests by Inside Housing found still barely one per cent of council blocks had sprinklers in flats despite coroners' warnings following the fatal fires. Earlier in the year, the government delayed a review into fire safety in tower blocks across Britain, with Theresa May's own chief of staff "sitting on" a report warning high-rise blocks like Grenfell Tower were vulnerable to fire.
This is in the context of a government that has repeatedly rejected improved housing regulation as "unnecessary red tape" and even voted against a law requiring landlords to make homes fit for human habitation. (72 of the MPs who voted against the measure are landlords.)
When Grenfell Tower residents repeatedly pointed out their concerns, no one in power listened to them. The poor, it seems, are easily ignored. It’s hard to imagine this being the case if, rather than social housing tenants, they were barristers and bankers. It’s been reported people in Grenfell Tower wanted to take on the landlords over their fears of the building’s fire risk but they couldn’t afford it and – due to government cuts – there's now no legal aid to help them.
Statements of "never again" are comforting during these times but mean little without addressing the safety of the homes we expect some people to live in – and how easily their fears are put to one side by those in power. Similarly, it’s right to praise the emergency services – but far more worthwhile to talk about how stretched our fire fighters are following cuts and station closures. (Last year saw a 21 per cent rise in fire fatalities.)
As the search continues for the missing and feared dead, accountability should be the next priority. It’s not politicising tragedy to talk about this. It’s the least Grenfell Tower residents are owed.
You can help those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire by donating to the Dispossessed Fund here.