The Daily Telegraph
A horrific fire in our richest borough raises troubling questions about how our society treats the poor
When I was young, I used to dream of living in a high-rise flat. The council accommodation built in Sixties Glasgow was warm, clean and futuristic; families who were moved into it, like my father’s, felt like they’d won the lottery. That he ended up in a two-storey house seemed like the short straw to me, but no one complained. The schemes, as they came to be known, were to acquire a reputation for social malaise a generation later. But they were safe, structurally sound and affordable. The idea of them going up in flames, with their tenants unable to escape, is a very modern nightmare.
Jeremy Corbyn was premature with his attempts to politicise the tragedy when the dead were still being counted at Grenfell Tower. But what else can this be, other than political? These tower blocks exist because politicians wanted them. They went from des-res to clusters of deprivation due to calamitous political and social policies. The decision to sell off these flats, with a new façade to improve their market value, was political. Politicians subcontracted the management. Those who live in council houses usually depend, more than anyone else in Britain, on a political system that works properly. Their lives are in politicians’ hands.
Theresa May didn’t meet any residents when she visited yesterday, which is unfortunate. The general election campaign made her look like someone who avoids awkward questions, and she is living down to this reputation. Jeremy Corbyn did far better, listening to residents’ complaints about Mrs May and promising to “speak up” for all of them. When he said that Tory cuts left tenants more exposed, it was ruthlessly political – but it seemed to make sense. Hadn’t £8.6 million been spent making the flats look like less of an eyesore for the local residents of Kensington? And didn’t this cladding turn out to be combustible?
It would be dangerous for the Tories to think the public inquiry will depoliticise all this. The Grenfell Tower disaster is a powerful metaphor for the inequality that Mr Corbyn talks about regularly and it would be tragic if Labour asks the questions while the Tories – panicked and effectively leaderless – hide behind an inquiry. Answers are needed now: how many more might be living in firetraps? Why were the repeated complaints of those in the towers not heeded? Why had a serious fire never taken hold of any high-rise flat in Britain until recently? Might the gentrification process, with its recladding, have introduced a fire risk that wasn’t taken seriously by the authorities?
There is no more visible manifestation of inequality than seeing high-rise council tower blocks next door to £3million houses. Kensington is the richest part of Britain’s richest city and Grenfell Tower is an oasis of deprivation. The people who live there are among the poorest in the land, while those who live a few streets away have underground swimming pools. Kensington is one of those parts of Britain where life expectancy falls by about 10 years when you cross a road, a place that seems to embody the failure of wealth to spread. Or, for those with an eye to see it, the failure of capitalism and austerity.
When Kensington turned Labour in last week’s election, it was a stunning display of the progress that Jeremy Corbyn was making. Only a third of residents there own their own home: for the rest, it’s rent, at extortionate rates, in buildings that we now know may be fatally unsafe. It’s no surprise that young people find Corbyn’s message so appealing if they struggle to claim a stake in capitalism, and feel they have no hope of joining the propertied classes. The stories of the way that Grenfell Tower lodgers were treated – threatened by lawyers if they complained, or just ignored – suggest a situation that is simply indefensible.
So it would be deeply unwise for the Tories to seek to defend it. You don’t need to be a Corbyn voter to suspect that the high-rise penthouses popping up on the banks of the Thames are rather less likely to go up in flames. When we learn about the dead we’re likely to see the most vulnerable, isolated people in society. That these people are being scandalously neglected is not in doubt. The question is who should provide help, who listens to their concerns?
A few years ago, Iain Duncan Smith said that the Conservatives are the natural ally of the poorest, and will help them fight back against an unresponsive bureaucracy. His welfare reforms were designed to dismantle the benefits trap, saving lives rather than saving money. Two years ago, Michael Gove called for the Tories to become “warriors for the dispossessed”. But instead, the Tories chose to become the party of Brexit and have been steadily losing interest in the social justice agenda, which is now being seized by a jubilant Labour Party.
So what, now, do the Tories offer people like the residents of Grenfell Tower? Grammar schools? Even its “affordable home” plans are reserved for those with serious amounts of money. Soon, the so-called Starter Homes will be affordable only to those on £50,000, double the average salary. The “shared ownership” initiative is accessible to an estimated 3 per cent of people moving into council houses. Even the 2015 election pledge to let people buy their housing association property has turned out to be a dud; only one in 10 residents, it transpires, can afford to do so.
It is now half a century since the Ronan Point disaster, where four people died – enough, at the time, to be treated as a national disaster and its dead the victims of poor government policy. The far greater death toll this time means we are looking at one of the greatest disasters in our modern history. The culpability is perhaps greater, given how much more is now known about building safety. This calamity cannot help but raise fundamental questions about our society, our politicians and the way those at the bottom are treated. And about why, when residents repeatedly raised their concerns, no one seemed to listen.
Fundamentally, the Grenfell Tower disaster raises a simple question: whose side are you on? The Conservatives had better have an answer.