Max Dun­bar

The Fire This Time

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Max Dun­bar

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

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