Kaitlin Dryburgh – 16 June 2022
On 14th June 2017, 72 people lost their lives in a preventable fire in one of the richest areas in the UK. Five years on we remember those who sadly lost their lives and those whose lives were devastated by this tragic event. Yet we also reflect on what has changed since then and what needs to change, the justice that is overdue and the people and institutions that are yet to take accountability for what took place. Grenfell was more significant than a fire, it lifted a blanket to show many brewing issues below the surface that were engulfed by institutional racism and classism. It shone a light on who is really listened too and what rights tenants have in the declining state of social housing. Every country in the UK, including Scotland, has to reflect on these issues if we never want a repeat of what happened on 14th June 2017.
There is a storm of issues at play, social housing, gentrification, and a cladding scandal. But what we cannot ignore is the fact that, among the million-pound townhouses, expensive cars and lavish lifestyles of Kensington borough, 72 people lay dead and mainly minority and low-income families were unable to find justice for what happened.
Immediately after survivors spoke of chaos, they were expecting support and aide from local and national government but soon realised that it wasn’t coming, it was their local community that pulled together to pick up the pieces. Shahin Sadafy a prominent figure in campaigning for the victims of Grenfell through the survivor group Grenfell United recounts his experience, “central government and local government were nowhere to be seen. We were absolutely shocked at the lack of response and the lack of organisation. I was expecting the army to turn up – for support and relief. There was no one here”. In the following days and weeks there arose many heroic and shocking stories of how people made it out alive and survived, regardless of the fact that the response from emergency services was found to have been inadequate.
When discharged from hospital many had the overwhelming feeling of “now what”, they had no home or possessions, who was helping them? Seven weeks after the fire Justice 4 Grenfell reported that most survivors (around 200 households) were without housing, in fact it was revealed that last year Kensington and Chelsea Council still had to permanently re-home six families. Helpless and forgotten were the words that most people used to describe their situation, this was predominantly because of the way local authorities and housing management agencies were unable to work efficiently and flexible enough to get their residents into permanent accommodation. This was also a reflection on the social housing problems seen all over the UK, mismanagement, and an overall decline in quality and quantity of social housing in general. Reckless decisions all over have put tenants at risk and powerless to have access to good, safe housing. What many have also alluded to is the demonisation of those accessing social housing, that social housing is filled with your typical benefits scrounger and societal menace. This has made it harder for Grenfell residents to find the answers and respect they deserved before and after the fire.
The Kensington community was not new to activism and figured that even in the face of a traumatic event no one else was going to seek answers for what happened at Grenfell, it would have to be them that put up the fight. The multiple survivor groups have become case studies in successful social activism as their non-stop activity in mobilising the working class and the whole country in some instances has been astounding.
However, the £149m (and counting) inquiry to find answers has been a non-stop game of buck-passing. In a tangled web of local authorities, public bodies, third-party organisations, and contractors it seems that non-one is any closer to bringing charges to those who allowed this to happen. The complexity of trying to find accountability derives from the complexity of the social housing situation in which Grenfell lay. Discourse between ownership, management and contracting for the tower meant that tenants were left at an increasing risk, while construction, management, and fire safety had reduced. This situation is unfortunately still mirrored through-out the UK. In the year previous to the fire some 383 firms were involved in some capacity in Grenfell’s refurbishment, not to mention those who were overseeing the work. Yet when residents complained about the increased risk of a fire in the block owing to issues such as lack of an evacuation plan, faulty fire doors and changes to floor numbers this was ignored and subsequently it was found to have led to increased loss of life.
What this meant for tenants and homeowners all over the UK was a review into the cladding that was used for their homes, was it the same as Grenfell’s that accelerated the spread of the fire across the building? Some unfortunately found that theirs was of similar fabrication to Grenfell’s, and for many this was devastating news. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the value of their homes plummeted overnight and unless they shelled out sometimes tens of thousands of pounds to refurbish their property (often a high-rise apartment) they were stuck in a death trap that they couldn’t sell, some still are. Trying to bring accountability to the contractors who built their property in the first place, like the Grenfell inquiry became impossible.
The start of June this year saw the Scottish government ban the highest risk metal composite cladding from any all buildings and ban highest risk cladding and combustible materials in buildings over 11m. Although this has been the practice for some time this does ensure it is enforced and this will always be seen as a positive by homeowners and tenants alike.
The power of tenants is seen to be decreasing in recent years, while the challenges they face have intensified in a variety of different ways. Airbnbs and holiday lets pose problems for tenants trying to keep rents low, while the privatisation and instillation of Arms Length Management Organisations to govern social housing makes accountability for poor quality hard to come by. Increasing rents in Edinburgh and Glasgow have sometimes made it impossible for local residents to stay in the communities they’ve grown-up in or for students to live in these cities. Private landlords have created an unequal power balance in which tenants need to bow down and submit to. Living Rent which campaigns for the rights of tenants all over Scotland deals with a multiple of issues arising. More recently one of their Edinburgh groups sought to campaign against yet another purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) in the city. There are many concerns about the popularity of PBSAs and their approach which often leads to students being used as cash-cows, but they also take precedent over building more social housing, something of which Edinburgh is in dire need. Perhaps more pressing though when looking at the case of Grenfell is that often PBSAs are built to a very low standard, one that doesn’t consider the life-span of a building or the best building practices.
Common Weal’s Common Home Plan shows that in order to decarbonise Scotland and strive for a circular economy in which materials are always kept to the highest quality we need to ensure that our buildings are of high quality, being at 90% thermal efficiency and have a lifespan of 60-100 years. We can’t achieve this if profits are prioritised over good quality housing, housing that benefits the people and helps achieve creating a healthier Scotland. Tenants’ rights in both the private and social housing sector needs to be protected, this helps protect communities, lowers inequalities, and provides more social housing.
However, this week we remember the people who lost their lives and the survivors, with many services and vigils taking place through-out the UK, it gives us a chance to reflect on the fact that justice has not been served and no one has been held accountable. Going forward, we need to support the rights of tenants and ensure everyone has the right to safe and affordable housing.