The aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy is full of contradictions.
Behind a charade of solidarity, national and local government have continuously failed to deliver justice to victims. This blog explores the cognitive dissonance of the Grenfell Tower response and how we may be seeing the same things repeated in the aftermath of Covid-19.
The significance of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower should not be understated. On 14 June 2017 the UK’s worst residential fire since the Second World War ripped through the tower, killing 72 people and causing hundreds of other residents suffer trauma and lose everything. The response in the immediate aftermath of the fire was one of shock and an outpouring of support for the victims. Politicians across all parties were dismayed and Theresa May, then Prime Minister, declared: “The fire at Grenfell Tower was an unimaginable tragedy for the community, and for our country. My Government will do whatever it takes to help those affected, get justice and keep our people safe.”
Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson renewed May’s promise to the victims, stating “we will continue – as the previous Prime Minister promised – to support the affected families”. So, over four years after the fire, have those promises been kept?
Government at both a local and national level have failed to uphold their commitment to bringing justice to the victims of Grenfell Tower. Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) Borough Council were responsible for Grenfell Tower prior to the fire and offloaded the property management to a separate organisation established in 1996, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). KCTMO’s decisions and negligent behaviour, acting on behalf of RBKC, were key factors that caused the blaze. In response to the fire, the chief of the RBKC council resigned, and the council now boasts a Grenfell Recovery Strategy that is committed to supporting and bringing justice to victims, while centring recovery on the needs of the community. Yet, at the same time, over four years after the fire, six families are still awaiting permanent rehousing by the council, despite the council being the richest local authority in the UK.
The borough council has a history of ignoring the needs of the more deprived areas of the borough. This rangers from refusing to buy up the famous Notting Hill slum buildings that housed some of London’s poorest in the early 21st century and use them for social housing — instead allowing their redevelopment as middle class housing — to building the Westway motorway directly through Ladbroke Grove, destroying homes for a convenient route out of central London for wealthy Londoners. Since Grenfell, the council has continued in its ways. Its leadership is unrepresentative of the diverse communities it serves and its decision-making, especially in regards to redevelopment projects, continues to cause friction with the local community.
Even recent victories by local campaigners, like stopping the demolition of Wornington College in late 2017, are seen as only made possible by the ‘Grenfell context’. Kensington and Chelsea council has long been seen as a local authority that fundamentally misunderstands the communities it represents; if it is committed to justice after Grenfell, it must do more to understand community needs and put people before profit.
Meanwhile in national government, while Downing Street is lit green every year in tribute and Boris Johnson promises the mistakes that led to the fire will not be repeated, Conservative MPs recently voted against an amendment to the Fire Safety Act 2021 which would have protected private residents living in buildings covered in the cladding that made Grenfell so flammable. By blocking the amendment five times, the government voted for the interests of landlords and property managers above those of residents, so that the cost of making buildings safe falls on residents. The Prime Minister’s words about lessons being learned and justice being served to residents everywhere were seemingly empty. Until government stops siding with landlords and property management companies and instead actively holds them to account, any ‘commitment’ to post-Grenfell justice is just a façade.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, we are seeing the same tactics of government repeating empty words of remembrance without facing the reality of the role it played and changing for the better. Groups like Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice are facing an uphill battle to get any accountability for the UK’s Covid death toll. Their fight is similar to that of campaigning groups set up after Grenfell, like Justice 4 Grenfell. It has also been pointed out that both the Grenfell and Covid-19 outcomes are inextricably linked to race.
We must recognise where the words of those in power do not match their actions, so we can fight to ensure history does not repeat itself. JAN Trust is committed to advocating for BAMER communities on issues that disproportionately affect them.