Gren­fell Tower: A shadow over the cap­i­tal

Re­mind­ing the Dick­en­sian ob­ser­va­tion, the fire re­veals Lon­don as a tale of two ci­ties

Muscat Daily - - OPINION - Mark Eas­ton

Drive over Lon­don’s West­way, and Gren­fell Tower de­mands your at­ten­tion. It is a black nail that has been ham­mered into the na­tion's con­science.

In its shadow, the faces of the miss­ing are ev­ery­where - on lamp-posts and bus shel­ters, rail­ings and walls. Un­blink­ing they stare, it is hard to hold their ac­cusatory gaze.

A month af­ter this ap­palling tragedy, we still don't know ex­actly who or how many peo­ple died at Gren­fell Tower. Per­haps that tells us some­thing about our frac­tured re­la­tion­ship with the peo­ple who lived there.

Some, per­haps, were happy to be anony­mous. But others were sim­ply marginalised and iso­lated.

Only the most vul­ner­a­ble and des­per­ate would have been el­i­gi­ble for a va­cant coun­cil flat in the tower. Tra­di­tional so­cial hous­ing such as Gren­fell has fallen out of fash­ion. Fewer such homes were built last year than at any time since their in­ven­tion, with just 6,800 com­pleted in Eng­land.

The first coun­cil blocks were de­signed for work­ing peo­ple from all back­grounds. But over time, so­cial hous­ing has been ‘resid­u­alised’ - in­creas­ingly avail­able only to the most dis­ad­van­taged house­holds - and that has con­se­quences for a neigh­bour­hood’s re­la­tion­ship with wider so­ci­ety.

“For too long in our coun­try, un­der gov­ern­ments of both colours, we sim­ply haven’t given enough at­ten­tion to so­cial hous­ing,” the Prime Min­is­ter told the House of Com­mons last month.

“In this tower just a few miles (kilo­me­tres) from the Houses of Par­lia­ment, and in the heart of our great city, peo­ple live a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent life, do not feel the state works for them and are there­fore mis­trust­ful of it.”

In one of the gar­dens of the Lan­caster West Es­tate, just a few yards from Gren­fell Tower, I meet Pil­grim Tucker, a hous­ing cam­paigner who has worked with the res­i­dents for a num­ber of years and knew some of those who died.

“The fact that more and more it is only the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple who can qual­ify for so­cial hous­ing means that there is a sec­tion of peo­ple here who be­come re­ally dis­en­gaged,” she says.

“There are peo­ple who live be­low the radar, home­less peo­ple who have been sofa-surf­ing, peo­ple liv­ing with fam­ily but not of­fi­cially on the rent-book, refugees from war, peo­ple who have ex­pe­ri­enced some trauma in their per­sonal lives or have men­tal health prob­lems - those peo­ple, for one rea­son or an­other, don’t have their voices heard.”

The point is made that some res­i­dents had ex­pressed their con­cern about the safety of Gren­fell Tower but com­plain they had been re­buffed by of­fi­cials. The bor­ough-wide hous­ing body sup­posed to pro­tect res­i­dents, the Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea Ten­ant Man­age­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion (KCTMO), is far larger than such bod­ies are usu­ally.

Most TMOs cover a sin­gle es­tate, en­sur­ing lo­cal peo­ple’s voice is heard loud and clear. The KCTMO man­ages al­most 9,500 prop­er­ties and one of the ques­tions for the pub­lic in­quiry will be whether it be­came too re­mote from the safety con­cerns of a few res­i­dents from a block of 120 flats in the north of the bor­ough.

“This is the story of some of those who were in the fire, told through friends and fam­ily who were in touch with them dur­ing those des­per­ate hours, and in the words of those who sur­vived.”

We do know that about 250 peo­ple es­caped Gren­fell dur­ing the fire, but it is now ap­par­ent that 80 are miss­ing or con­firmed dead. They had ar­rived at the tower from all over the world - more than 20 coun­tries were rep­re­sented.

There were fam­i­lies with small chil­dren who had re­cently moved in and pen­sion­ers who’d lived in the block for over 40 years. And then there were the un­known.

In a sea of ex­tra­or­di­nary af­flu­ence - Kens­ing­ton is the wealth­i­est con­stituency in the coun­try - the area around Gren­fell Tower is an is­land of de­pri­va­tion. The neigh­bour­hood is among the poor­est ten per cent in the UK.

It has been like that for cen­turies. In 1851, Charles Dick­ens wrote of the par­ish of Kens­ing­ton as be­ing ‘stud­ded thickly with el­e­gant vil­las and man­sions’, but also an area that in­cluded ‘a plague spot scarcely equalled for its in­salubrity by any other in Lon­don’.

Echo­ing the Dick­en­sian ob­ser­va­tion, Lon­don Mayor Sadiq Khan tells me the fire had re­vealed Lon­don as a tale of two ci­ties. “There are many Gren­fell Tow­ers where there are hid­den Lon­don­ers who of­fi­cials don’t know about,” he says. “Their ex­pe­ri­ence of politi­cians of all par­ties, lo­cal politi­cians and na­tional politi­cians, is them let­ting them down, is them mak­ing prom­ises

they don’t keep, or them never be­ing seen save at elec­tion time.”

“So don’t be sur­prised if they don’t vote, don’t be sur­prised if they don’t take part in the nor­mal demo­cratic norms that you and I take for granted. They feel let down for years and years.”

The mayor thinks Gren­fell has ex­posed the fail­ure of politi­cians to ‘walk in the shoes of some of those res­i­dents’.

Theresa May agreed with that sen­ti­ment in her state­ment to MPs: “Let the legacy of this aw­ful tragedy be that we re­solve never to for­get these peo­ple and in­stead to gear our poli­cies and our think­ing to­wards mak­ing their lives bet­ter and bring­ing them into the po­lit­i­cal process.”

The sense of be­ing iso­lated from power is very strong in the

com­mu­nity around the tower. That helps ex­plain the ex­tra­or­di­nary re­sponse in the early hours of that Wed­nes­day morn­ing. I met a lo­cal woman who had just pulled clothes from her wardrobe and food from her cup­board to give to her neigh­bours in need. These are peo­ple who have come to rely on each other.

Peo­ple don’t trust the au­thor­i­ties to take care of them and keep them safe, or be there in their hour of need. The new leader of Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea coun­cil, El­iz­a­beth Camp­bell, has apol­o­gised for the lo­cal au­thor­ity’s re­sponse to the dis­as­ter. “This is our com­mu­nity, and we have failed it when peo­ple needed us the most,” she said.

To help dis­til the vi­tal com­mu­nity spirit in the area, a box­ing

club was set up at the foot of Gren­fell Tower, now de­stroyed. Since the fire, there has been a pub­lic fundraiser that has meant the lo­cal boys are back in train­ing in the cor­ner of a nearby car park.

“We have friends that lived in there, and the kids are in a des­per­ate state,” box­ing trainer Gary McGui­ness says. “There are more tragedies com­ing out every day.”

The club is about build­ing the re­silience of chil­dren from tough back­grounds - re­silience des­per­ately needed right now.

“It’s har­row­ing re­ally that we might never know some of those vic­tims, name­less peo­ple,” mother and club vol­un­teer Colleen Spencer Git­tens says.

(AFP)

This file photo shows the re­mains of the res­i­den­tial block Gren­fell Tower in west Lon­don on June 15, a day af­ter it was gut­ted by fire

(AFP)

This file photo shows a woman walk­ing past flow­ers, left as a trib­ute to the vic­tims and the miss­ing from the Gren­fell Tower block fire out­side Not­ting Hill Methodist Church, in west Lon­don on June 19

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