Three years on, the Grenfell tragedy epitomises the UK’s brutal inequality, racism and injustice

Memorial for lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire
Fréa Lockley

On 14 June 2017, the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people. Three years later, bereaved families and survivors still don’t have answers, meaningful change, or justice. And amid the ongoing coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and growing protests against the UK’s systemic racism, this anniversary is acutely poignant. Because the Grenfell tragedy epitomises the heart of inequality, racism, and injustice in the UK.

Three years on…

The fire destroyed 201 households. At the time, Theresa May promised survivors they’d be rehoused within two weeks. Yet three years later, seven households still don’t have a permanent home. Community members have criticised Kensington and Chelsea Council’s (RBKC) response. The most recent report from a task force set up to monitor RBKC’s actions said it had been “painfully slow” to rehouse the households made homeless.

It also said:

We remain concerned about the pace of change; the culture across the council; and the quality of the relationship with the bereaved and survivors and the wider affected community.

Those involved couldn’t give “unequivocal assurance” that RBKC is “effectively” helping the bereaved, survivors, and the community to fully recover. It also highlighted the council’s rude treatment of those affected:

We continue to hear reports from community groups and individuals of cases where their reception by the council is either ill-considered or brusque.

The fight for change and justice must continue

Phase one of an inquiry into the fire ran from May to December 2018, leading to a report in October 2019. Phase two is set to recommence on 6 July 2020.

As The Canary reported, the first inquiry said that evidence “strongly supports” that the tower’s cladding played a role in the fire’s spread. Yet hundreds of buildings still have similar cladding, and for many buildings, there’s no government funding to replace it. Ahead of the third anniversary, Justice4Grenfell called on the government to agree a deadline to remove unsafe cladding. The latest analysis claimed this could threaten 56,000 people, but actually the figures are likely far higher. According to the UK Cladding Action Group:

On 10 June, Justice4Grenfell spokesperson Yvette Williams said:

Over 23,000 households are still covered in Grenfell-style flammable cladding three years after the disaster.

The fight for change and justice must continue as many thousands of people’s lives are at risk.

Another finding that emerged from the first phase was that Grenfell Tower contractors seemed more concerned about “cost and delay” than fire safety. Upgrading fire cavity barriers to give 120 minutes fire-resistance – rather than the 30 minutes – would have cost an extra £12,000.  We now know the tragic cost of the failure to do so.

Corporate greed

The corporate roll call of shame became clear throughout the inquiry. Main contractor Rydon, and a number of other subcontractors, allegedly knew the potential dangers of the materials used if a fire broke out.

Celotex supplied the flammable insulation at Grenfell. On 30 January, the inquiry heard that it cynically exploited the “confusion” surrounding building safety regulations. Stephanie Barwise QC said it actively promoted its RS5000 insulation product despite knowing it should have been recalled after safety tests.

Arconic supplied the combustible panels used on Grenfell. According to the Guardian, these “were among the cheapest on the market”. They were “made from thin sheets of aluminium filled with a polyethylene core, which melts at 130C and ignites at 377C”.

Barwise told the inquiry:

The degree of contempt demonstrated by the manufacturers for safety is extraordinary, especially given both Arconic and Celotex understood that their products were combustible and indeed highly flammable.

Profiting from death

As families grieve and the community is still coming to terms with the impact of the fire, the companies involved continue to profit.

In 2019, Rydon made pre-tax profits of £16.1m enabling a £5m dividend payment to its owners.

Arconic reported revenue of $14.2bn in 2019. By November 2019, Arconic had spent “£30m on lawyers and advisers defending its role in the [Grenfell] disaster”. It was reportedly spending “up to £50,000 a day”.

France-based Saint-Gobain, owner of subsidiary Celotex, meanwhile, reported 2019 sales of €42.6bn.

In February, corporate core participants threatened to remain silent unless they were guaranteed they wouldn’t be prosecuted in the second phase of the inquiry. On 26 February, attorney general Suella Braverman said oral evidence from individuals wouldn’t be used in criminal proceedings against them. The government said:

However the undertaking does not prevent witness evidence from being used against corporations in any future prosecution.

“A politics that values profit over people

Although the first inquiry did make some important points, it was highly controversial. Importantly, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) stressed that the findings of the first report ‘scapegoated’ those who tried to save lives. As it pointed out, “control staff, firefighters and officer members” who responded:

did not clad Grenfell Tower in flammable materials nor install the faulty doors, windows, lifts, ventilation system or the other failing safety measures. They were not the owners or managers, those legally responsible for safety in the building. The inquiry has not subjected ministers, politicians, councillors and construction bosses to this kind of scrutiny.

On 14 June, Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

Today, a community and their firefighters grieve. But we will not accept another year of inaction.

Three years on, we have heard endless promises, excuses, and platitudes from government, but the reality on the ground has not changed.

He continued:

While the world has faced up to the coronavirus pandemic, the inquiry into the Grenfell atrocity has been put on hold, giving the companies and politicians responsible more time still to avoid scrutiny.

It was decades of deregulation, privatisation, and austerity that allowed Grenfell to take place, with a politics that values profit over people. When the economy restarts, we must not fall prey to the failed arguments of the past that led to this horrendous loss of life.

Ignored

One of the most poignant aspects of this tragedy is that residents warned of the dangers well ahead of the fire. Their words were ignored.

In 2009, a fire at Lakanal House killed six people. Previous ministers had promised to review safety measures. Nothing happened. Conservative Gavin Barwell was housing minister from 2016 to 2017. But Barwell either ignored the letters or claimed they got “lost”. Nothing changed.

The so-called ‘Grenfell housing minister’ is now a non-executive director for the UK’s largest social housing provider. It has 42 high-rise tower blocks.

As rapper and activist Lowkey pointed out:

In 2019, The Canary spoke to Zeyad Cred who started the Grenfell silent walk that, before lockdown, took place on the 14th of every month.

The Canary asked Cred if he thought the process towards justice would still be the same if the fire had occurred in a wealthier part of Kensington and Chelsea. The borough has the highest level of inequality in London “by a considerable margin”. And the richly multicultural area around “Grenfell Tower is home to some of the poorest people in the country”.

Cred said the response would be “completely different”. He continued:

This borough’s been divided for years and years before Grenfell. We have the north and the south of the borough. The south… tends to be very privileged in financial wealth and we’re [in the north] more privileged in culture and togetherness. So there’s a definite divide.

Cred also explained, “it’s clear to us” that a similar tragedy in the south “wouldn’t have been dealt with in the same way”. “We wouldn’t,” he continued, “be two years on and still waiting”.

And yet here we are another year later. Survivors and the community are still waiting for answers and for justice.

“What will it take for things to change?”

The third anniversary comes amid a pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. The legacy and injustice of Grenfell is intrinsically connected.

The pandemic hit the UK’s poorest people the hardest. The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities is another ongoing tragedy. This reflects the same community of Grenfell. Tyrone Scott, housing adviser for Shelter’s North Kensington Project, wrote:

On top of the enduring housing problems and trauma these families have faced since the fire, the current pandemic has made things so much worse. Far from being a great leveller, Covid-19 has exposed many of the same injustices and deep inequalities within our society that Grenfell did three years ago.

“Race and class”, he stressed, “play an undeniable part in how people are affected by Covid-19”. He continued:

Enough is enough. What will it take for things to change?

The battle against social injustice is ongoing – but with the power of community, I firmly believe nothing is impossible. Right now, we are seeing people all over the world stand up against injustice, racial discrimination and prejudice.

It’s time for us to demand justice. Today we remember everyone whose lives were destroyed by the fire. But we can’t and mustn’t forget them tomorrow. The time for change is now.

Featured image via Fréa Lockley

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