Grenfell Tower, one year on: community members discuss
Zain Miah: I buried 43 of the 72 who died
As I travel to the various cemeteries where those who we’ve lost lie on the first anniversary, it will be an all too familiar scene. I no longer need to search through my phone to find the grave markings and numbers for each person. I can stand in the graveyard and look out, identifying in my mind who lies where, but unfortunately knowing them only by name and the stories of them shared with me by their families.
The first ever funeral I took part in was my father’s, in August 2016. Exactly a year on, I found myself burying several victims of the Grenfell fire. In all, I buried 43 out of the 72 who died. A stark reminder of just how precious and temporary our lives can be. And why, more than ever, the fight for good, justice and kindness is needed.
How do you cope? It’s a common question. The answer is simple yet agonising. The reality is that I have found a resilient perseverance within myself, that same resilience that we as a community found , the same resilience that survivors continue to display, and that same resilience that will unite thousands as they mark the anniversary.
My life has changed. Before Grenfell I had focused on delivering aid to poverty-stricken regions abroad. Since Grenfell, although international struggles bear immense weight among my priorities, my focus has shifted more towards home, specifically to the role of zakat (the Islamic principle of a “faith-based tax”) in supporting those in need here in the UK.
Though the remains of our loved ones were buried, their legacy and stories remain. We must use these stories as anchors in our efforts for justice, our perseverance and our commitment to ensuring we never have to bury so many of our loved ones after a tragedy ever again.
• Zain Miah is the founder and project manager for the Grenfell Muslim Response Unit
Cathy Long: Why were the authorities so slow to realise we needed support?
So much has been said and written about Grenfell that it’s easy for us to think we have the answers already. But many questions remain. It’s important that we know what the social and political conditions were that led to so many mistakes. If we don’t understand the broader context of regulation and power, then we’ve failed to learn the right lessons. Having been involved in the community response I want to know why the authorities were so slow to realise that we needed their support.
Life has changed immeasurably for many people here. Work and social patterns have changed. I spend more time in churches and mosques than I ever imagined. The constant media coverage and the numerous public meetings have been incredibly stressful for the community. There is something different about dealing with grief in a very public tragedy, as opposed to a private one. You can’t take hundreds of people out of an area and not see an impact. And lots of people work in the gig economy or on zero-hours contracts and there is so much going on – public meetings, seeing lawyers, community initiatives, meeting with the authorities – that many have found it hard to spend enough time working. But we prioritise each other now, not our jobs. It’s vital that we understand the broader social and economic impact that this is having on our whole area.
I’ve made a lot of friends in the last year; people who stood by each other in the darkest of times, and they deserve to know why they were failed.
• Cathy Long is a local resident and volunteered at Notting Hill Methodist church after the fire
Lucy Masoud: I feel the guilt of those of us firefighters not on duty that night
On the morning of 14 June I awoke to the horror at Grenfell Tower. As a serving firefighter based at Chelsea fire station, I watched the scenes unfold on my TV in a complete state of shock. My first thought was that this must be a fire in a developing country, as fires like that do not happen in the UK. When I realised it was Grenfell Tower, a building I knew well and a community that I have worked in for some time, my heart sank.
I was there the next day as a union rep to support my colleagues and over the following weeks spent time with many friends who fought the fire. The stories they told haunt me to this day. My heart breaks every time I hear the word Grenfell. I feel the collective guilt of those of us not on duty that night. My work with the Fire Brigade Union demands that I spend a large amount of time within the local community around Grenfell, yet no matter how many times I look up at that tower, no matter how many times I catch a glimpse of that building, all I see is a mass grave standing tall in west London, and it will always take my breath away.
Now the public inquiry has started, all we ask for is justice – justice for the 72 men, women and children who burned to death in the richest borough in the UK.
• Lucy Masoud is a London regional official for the Fire Brigade Union and a serving firefighter
Daniel Renwick: If you build with combustible materials, expect infernos
There is not an issue in British politics that Grenfell doesn’t cut to the bone on. As a local videographer and youth worker, I witnessed the aftermath of the fire from the morning after it began. For a year, a scandalous complacency has been maintained by those in power, making survivors and bereaved campaigners fight for fire safety.
Only after lobbying and huge pressure from Grenfell United did the government vow to end the nightmare for people living in highrise buildings wrapped in the equivalent of 30,000 litres of petrol by removing the cladding. It is simply not good enough.
The beginning of the public inquiry has brought hope of justice, as the truth laid bare is an empowering thing. However, misunderstanding the processes of deregulation and neoliberalisation places limits on the search for truth. If they are not fully explained, it will allow those responsible to be excused. The deeper causes are structural; they are ideologically underpinned.
Grenfell was not only foreseeable, it was inevitable. If you build with combustible materials, expect infernos. Policies are written with flammable materials at their core. When ignited, these materials can make an inferno of a safe place.
Class contempt, institutional indifference and organised state abandonment brought Grenfell into being, and despite the prophetic words of the Grenfell Action Group blog, not even a catastrophe will lead those in power to see the error of their ways. Brexit is a project of deregulation and border regime politics, it will make a bonfire of European standards and further nudge those in precarity to the margins of British life.
• Daniel Renwick is a local youth worker, writer and videographer who made Failed By the State – the struggle in the shadow of Grenfell
Pilgrim Tucker: Without permanent homes, survivors can’t begin to heal from their loss and trauma
Despite initial promises to rehouse those the fire made homeless within three weeks, a year later most are still not in permanent homes. Seventy-two Grenfell families are still in emergency accommodation. Fifty-five are in temporary accommodation alongside another 74 affected households from the wider Grenfell area.
Many residents have been offered completely unsuitable accommodation: with too few bedrooms, miles from key medical care, unsafe or in very poor condition.
Displaced residents from the blocks next to Grenfell Tower, who are mostly now in temporary accommodation in the private sector, believed they would be allowed to keep their council rent levels until they were rehoused permanently. But the council has told them that they can only guarantee rents until the end of this month. The terms of many of these properties are insecure, with break clauses meaning they could be asked to leave at any time.
Although RBKC has built fewer social homes than any other London borough in recent years, the housing problems the Grenfell fire exposed were recognised as common to councils across London and much of the UK. Instead of addressing social housing in the Grenfell public inquiry, (as many submissions requested) the government has promised a “fundamental rethink” and a green paper on social housing. To be anything more than a fig leaf, the green paper will need to propose completely lifting the local authority borrowing cap that prevents councils from building desperately needed homes.
It will also need to start looking at how to reverse the government policies implemented since 2010 that have exacerbated the problems created by decades of neoliberal housing policy. 150,000 social rent homes have been lost since 2012 through demolitions, right to buy, and the raising of rents from social to so-called “affordable” levels.
Grenfell survivors need permanent homes to begin properly healing from the terrible loss and trauma of that night. In the wealthiest borough of one of the richest cities in the world, that they don’t yet have them has simply no justification. Theresa May said this week that she will “always regret” her poor response in the days following the fire. With so many families still facing indefinite homelessness, apologies alone are not enough.
• Pilgrim Tucker is a community organiser and campaigner who supported the Grenfell Tower residents’ campaign, the Grenfell Action Group