The Fire This Time
Power knows that a city is defined by its skyline. Foreign diplomats, politicians and businessmen, cruising into Heathrow in a clear day, will see glistening structures of glass and concrete overshadow the river. Architectural writer Stephen Graham cites a study from the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats, a development lobby group, which claims that ‘in July 2013, there were seventy-three ‘super tall’ skyscrapers in the world over 400 metres high and two ‘mega-talls’ over 600 metres – a category that didn’t even exist a few years ago.’ A further architectural study argued that a significant percentage of new towers – 19% in the UEA – is made up of ‘vanity height’: narrow strands of cable and shaft at the peak of the tower, unusable for living space. The power spectacle is the thing.
Towers mean power. But they can also signify poverty and weakness. I spent a few years working on a vast, sprawling housing estate on the east side of my own city. The estate was easy to get lost in, but I could always tell where I was by navigating on the gigantic social housing towers, which dominated the horizon. Some of these towers were pleasant and convivial places to live: others were riven with crime and nuisance behaviour. All my tenants agreed that a tower flat was the bottom of the social housing ladder. Towers can mean stigma and failure. And in London the skyline is different now. The thousands of passengers touching down into Heathrow, from the air, see amongst the glittering superstructures the charred ruin of Grenfell Tower.
It’s not given to us to imagine the horrors experienced by the men, women and children in that building on the night of June 14, and perhaps that is a good thing. It is like trying to imagine yourself on the higher floors of the World Trade Centre on the morning the planes hit.
It is a given of human nature to assign blame. When the tower burned, everyone knew who to blame. The Tory press blamed feckless social tenants. Leftists blamed government austerity policies. A witness of the annual hard-right Islamist Al Quds march, held just days after the disaster, even claimed that some demonstrators blamed the Grenfell fire on a Zionist conspiracy.
Assigning blame definitively will have to wait awhile. With the best will in the world, the public inquiry will take years to report. Survivors looking for accountability will be looking for a long time. It took 55 years for the government to apologise to Alan Turing, 40 years for an inquiry into the NHS contaminated blood scandal and 28 years to bring criminal charges in the long wake of Hillsborough. The British state does not like to admit its mistakes, and tends to do so only under duress and at the very end of the eleventh hour.
There was an obvious wider context to the Grenfell fire. For over a decade the property game drove up rents and choked supply, most obviously in the capital. Swathes of central London became eerie ghost roads lined by mansions used mainly as capital assets, while locals and workers were priced out. A Policy Exchange report claimed that central capital police were reluctant to arrest criminals after a certain time because they risked missing the last train back to whatever distant suburb they could afford. The government was well aware of the issue, but wholesale reform never came. There were too many entrenched interests, too many key landlord and heritage people. Grenfell residents were aware of fire risks but had nowhere else to go.
The property game is self-sustaining. Say you’re a smart young graduate, looking to make it in the big city. But whether you end up as a rocket scientist, a City trader or just driving the Clapham omnibus, one thing is certain – at least half your income will go on housing costs and commutes. You don’t have to be Lord Alan Sugar to work out that the only way to seriously make money is to become a landlord, rather than a renter – better to be a player than get played. You borrow money to buy your first property
(cheap credit is a big help here) to rent it out at a decent profit, borrow more for your second property, flip that too. Landlordism is the UK’s last form of social mobility. Everything else in public life is regulated to the point of absurdity. To become a cleaner or run a pub one must pass exam boards and undergo record checks. Becoming a landlord is much less onerous, with one main criteria needed: ownership of the relevant property. Pensioners, cab drivers and low-level civil servants got into the property game as an easy way to boost income.
The problem is that the game hurts landlords too. Running a property isn’t like looking after a stock portfolio or Kickstarter account. It needs constant attention and maintenance, as per the old Le Corbusier quote: ‘A house is a machine for living in.’ From burst water pipes to anti-social behaviour, anything that can go wrong with a tenancy most likely will. The CABs are full of ex-landlords who have lost small fortunes to rent arrears and bailiff fees and court costs and contractor invoices.
If you can’t buy or rent on the open market, a council house is your last resort. It was also a landscape under attack from the austerity economics of the 2010s. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn confronted Theresa May after Grenfell burned: ‘What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity, this disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners’. Local authorities liked to look from that angle, and indeed many struggled even to cover essential social care from the Osborne years. But while the Conservatives starved northern cities, they were kinder to their friends in London and the shires. Kensington and Chelsea authority had £270 million in reserves.
Political observers focus on Westminster’s game of thrones. But local government suffers from a longstanding democratic deficit. The vast majority of people in the UK have no effective local representation at all. The last councillors’ survey found that:
Councillors’ gender profile, ethnic origin, disability status and
caring responsibilities have changed very little between 2001 and 2013. In 2013, 67.3 per cent of councillors were male (70.7 per cent in 2001), 96 per cent were of white ethnic origin (97.3 per cent), 13.2 per cent had a long-term health problem or disability and 27.9 per cent had one or more caring responsibilities.
It also found that ‘Councillors had an average age of 60.2 in 2013, similar to 59.7 recorded in 2010, and up a little from 57.8 in 2004.’ This puts them well out of step with a changing nation – and can make an inhospitable environment for local people wanting to get involved. A Fawcett Society report found many town halls had a ‘1970s culture’ of racism and sexism. And local journalism had been gutted to the extent that it could not effectively scrutinise council decisions.
As mentioned, I worked in council housing myself – for my sins, as they say. During this time I worked with tenant and residents associations. Some were lively and well-organised groups, whose meetings were a joy to attend. Others were unrepresentative of their blocks, and focused mainly on keeping the ‘right’ people in and the ‘wrong’ people very firmly out. Too many people in housing management had a corrosive contempt for their tenants.
While councils pleaded poverty during the austerity years, they somehow found the money for lifestyle policing. If you have a mortgage, you don’t expect the bank manager to come round unannounced, order you to trim your hedges, fill in a stack of paperwork and rehome your dog. But if you rent a social house, expect someone like me to interrupt your day to enforce a raft of meaningless tenancy policies. (The latest idea is to ban smoking in council homes.) In the wake of Grenfell, it was announced that surviving tenants would not face jobseeker sanctions, and may be able to claim immigration amnesty. For a moment it seemed like the endless arbitrary rules that govern the lives of the poor may be lifted for awhile. But I wonder how long such amnesties will last.
It’s common to say after such disasters that this must never happen
again, and that meaningful change must come. But the question becomes academic far too easily. If at least 80 fire deaths don’t force the state to regulate landlords, address the housing crisis and open up local democracy – then nothing is going to make that change happen. But I draw hope from the compassion and kindness of the British public, many of whom donated money, clothes and sleeping space in the days after the fire. There is an enduring compassion and empathy in this country and it is underestimated. It counterpoints the contempt too often shown by power. Essay Prize Competition 2017 Second Place