My previous piece addressed the political nature of the fire at Grenfell Tower. But if it was poor or even morally corrupt political decisions that allowed the conditions to emerge for a fire on this scale to occur, what conditions allowed such bad decision making to happen in the first place? The answer to this is deep rooted in British society and makes the case for a political response to this catastrophe even stronger.
The immediate motivation behind council corner cutting and cost-saving is the dogma of austerity that has pervaded British political discourse since 2010. Put simply, to reduce the size of the state and public spending to, in theory boost economic performance.
The issue with this is simple; either the services on offer are reduced in scale and scope. Or the quality of services is reduced due to greater pressures or privatisation.
Councils have seen their budgets reduced on average well over a third during austerity. Nevertheless many of their social responsibilities remain the same. So what happens when your budget is massively reduced but you have to renovate a tower block? The council goes for the cheaper options and poorer quality materials. They decide not to press ahead with ‘’unnecessary work’’, this includes installing sprinklers.
But surely councils and government have to meet the same regulatory standards as they did in an era of greater resources? Here we see another branch of austerity rhetoric- regulation and red tape is bad. It reduces efficiency and is bad for business, this in turn encourages the flouting of regulation. Grenfell is a horrific consequence. Red tape saves lives and surely lives are more important than profit margins.
Austerity means a reduction in quality and regulation, this means higher risk. Austerity also means a cut in the fire service- 600 fewer fire fighters in London alone in recent years. It means cuts to the health services that treat the wounded, cuts to the police who investigate any potential criminal wrong-doing.
All this has manifested in a perfect storm that engulfed the people of Grenfell. People who are amongst the poorest in Britain, it these people austerity finds it easiest to target.
People like the residents of Grenfell do not have the money, or the legal resources to ensure their own safety from fire. Many of them have suffered the disdain and apathy of the council, either in terms of complaining about fire safety or in other matters. They do not believe they could affect what was being done to them. Furthermore because they are poor, it is they who rely most ardently on public services. When these are cut, it is they who suffer most.
Austerity hurts the poor the most, it puts a huge burden on them whilst the rich of our nation carry on as before. In Chelsea and Kensington this is painfully visible, the council tower blocks look over some of the most expensive property in the country. The fire then is not only political but ideological. At the root of this tragedy is the notion, as many victims and locals have been quick point out, that this has happened to them because they are poor. Is there any credence to their claims? They are certainly angry, demonstrating raw anger and emotion. They are indeed right to be angry.
The right-wing press have been arguing that the uproar would not have been so great if this had happened in a luxury block. Yes, it would. Avoidable deaths are always are tragedy and the country would have mourned. But the fact is the shock and anger is down in large part to the fact that his should not have happened. It would not happen in a luxury block. This happened because social housing is treated with at best apathy and at worst distaste in Britain. Last year the Red Cross said the NHS was in a humanitarian crisis, I would say social housing is too.
The rich a have denigrated and exploited the poor for time immemorial, it is an unfortunate expectation in society. What is now expected however, as we live in one of the most advanced countries in history is that the poor in society are afforded a social safety net, receive good public services and a state that offers them some protection. Certainly in Britain this was one of the main achievements of the post-war era. To use the nation’s wealth and position to ensure everyone has certain needs met and legal protections. This is something we used to be rightly very proud of.
Do we really begrudge giving someone with no job or a poorly paid one a roof over their heads and the ability to access health care? Yet in the past 30 years this fundamental element of Britishness seems to have been eroded. Since 1979 the state has rolled back, the poor, unfortunate and marginalised in our society have been castigated and cast in the role of morally defunct. It has been a protracted campaign of political and media rhetoric, it is now embedded in our society.
Brief history lesson over. The targets of this shift in values, the turn against state-welfare and universal healthcare are the people of Grenfell Tower and people like them in towers all over the country. And to those who say we can’t afford it these things, or to buy quality materials for a tower block renovation, yes we can. The Royal Borough council at hand has reserves of £208 million according to Councillor Robert Atkinson, if this is not what such funds are for then what is?
It is this sentiment, that people such as the Grenfell residents are not worthy of that money which now pervades our government. It is the reason why more taxpayer money was given to Jacob Rees-Mogg to renovate his wifes’ stately home than to renovate the homes of 600 people. Or the reason MPs can claim 5x more on expenses for hotel rooms than was saved in using the cheaper more flammable cladding on Grenfell. It is the reason that some residents of the high-end luxury block of flats purchased for the survivors have derided the decision as it will lower the price of their property.
This new mantra is the reason why austerity as been swallowed by the public with only a small wince. It means services and support for the poor can be slashed and ruined without much recourse. Until of course something as dreadful as this happens.
The residents of Grenfells across the land fall victim to the worst of this change in ethics. Councils across the country and government itself knows that if they want to cut budgets, cut corners and cut deals with private firms the poor are the ones they can target. Why? They have lost their voice. They fought and battled against deindustrialisation in the 1980s and lost, they’ve been beaten down and ignored ever since.
When a pro-active, peaceful voice is raised as it was done on many occasions by the Grenfell residents, highlighting the safety risk in the block, they were ignored. A financially limited group, diverse in faith, language and background who feel ignored are not likely to give the council much of a fight.
Thus illegal cladding was used, no sprinklers were installed and what began as a small kitchen fire killed 79 people. And as powerless and voiceless as the residents might have felt before, they now see the nation is behind them. They now raise their voice against not just 5 days of neglect but 30 years.
What we are seeing on the streets of London is anger at what has happened, anger at scores of needless deaths many of them children. But it is also an anger that a situation like this was ever allowed to happen, an anger at the way their needs have been swept aisde, ignored whilst billionaires have been indulged a stones-throw away from the now ashen tower.
The victims of this disaster and those all over the country who it could so easily have been need and deserve our help. Austerity finally has a face, it finally has victims we can see. It is my hope that austerity burnt in that tower. The people of North Kensington have shown a true British spirit in their reaction and support, the government needs to do the same.