Bryan Gould, was a Labour MP, and now lives in New Zealand.
What does inequality look like? In a society where the gap between rich and poor has widened significantly, what evidence of that gap would one expect to see?
A dramatic and painful answer to that question was provided to us this week with the shocking image of the burning London tower block. If we ever wanted evidence of how – even in a society that is relatively affluent – the poor can be disregarded while the rich pursue their own interests, this was it.
The “towering inferno” occurred in one of London’s most affluent boroughs. While around 120 poor families were crammed into Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block, most of the borough comprises leafy suburbs and million-pound houses.
The borough’s elected local authority apparently saw it as its first priority to lift property values in the borough and, as a necessary step to that end, to corral the poor into limited locations, getting them off the streets, out of sight and out of mind. The residents of Grenfell Tower, it seems, sensed that this was the case – a perception borne out when the concerns they repeatedly expressed about the safety of the tower block were ignored.
We all saw the consequence of that neglect. It is already clear, even before the necessary inquiries into the tragedy have been set up, that the building was unsafe and had been from the moment that the first tenants had taken up residence.
There were, it seems, no fires sprinklers. The fire alarms were inadequate. The building design made no attempt to inhibit an outbreak of fire and on the contrary ensured that flames would spread rapidly. Worst of all, it seems that the cladding attached to the building when it was refurbished a little time ago was of “limited combustibility” – and we now know that any degree of combustibility was too much.
These manifestations – literally of “care-lessness” – reflect an order of priorities that should have no place in a civilised society. The local authority seems to have been more concerned with saving the ratepayers money, avoiding “unnecessary” regulation, and promoting the interest of the wealthy in seeing property values rise, rather than in providing a safe living environment for those who could not afford to buy their own homes.
We might have hoped that the democratic process would have ensured that the interests of the poor could not have been so easily swept under the carpet. But, sadly, the western world offers many instances of how democracy can be diverted to serve the interests of the already powerful. In Donald Trump’s America, for example, the President is celebrating his “achievement” in denying health care to 23 million Americans so that he can deliver billions of dollars in tax relief to big corporates.
In New Zealand, we like to think that we are spared such excesses. We know, because we read about it, that there are people who are homeless – living in cars and garages – and that there are many children growing up in poverty, suffering ill-health and inadequate education as a result.
We read about it, but it fails to make an impact on us, because our own lives are relatively comfortable. It is someone else’s problem – the government’s – and when we cast our votes to elect a government, we are more concerned with how much tax we pay than about the cold, damp rooms, the overcrowding, the wheezing lungs and the empty tummies.
Thankfully, these attitudes do not produce by way of consequence – or have not done so far – anything remotely as dramatic as a flaming tower block. We do not, after all, have many tower blocks available to test out degrees of combustibility – or culpability.
But the damage we do to ourselves – as a society and to its individual members – can be just as serious as the fire at Grenfell Tower. The flames that engulfed so many were a demonstration – cinematic in its power and intensity – of what inequality can mean. We have persuaded ourselves that we can live with the less dramatic but no less lasting penalties that we choose in effect to impose on our fellow citizens.
We may not force them to jump out of burning windows. We simply condemn them to a lifetime of disadvantage.
Bryan Gould 16 June 2017
Britain was shocked yesterday at the sight of Grenfell Tower, a block of flats that housed as many as 600 people in West London, engulfed by flames in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Since the fire, a number of shocking facts have become apparent, and Theresa May has called for a public enquiry:
- * Tower lies in the wealthiest locality in the country, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The average income is over £100,000 and the average property is sold for close to £2,000,000. David Cameron and Roman Abramovich both own a house there. The residents of Grenfell Tower are mainly working-class and ethnic minority, living in the cheapest accommodation in the borough, provided through the borough’s council, which pays KCTMO public money to manage the building. Senior managers at KCTMO earned £650,000 between them last year.
- *The residents formed an association, the Grenfell Action Group “to record our struggle and… remain as evidence for future generations of how our community has been mistreated by RBKC [the borough’s council] and its social housing management agents the Kensington & Chelsea TMO (KCTMO).” The Group raised serious concerns about fire risk following near catastrophes at other KCTMO properties but were ignored, causing them to write “[we] firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” 90% of residents signed a petition for an investigation into KCTMO’s handling of safety concerns.
- *The residents sought legal support to force KCTMO to improve safety in Grenfell Tower, but could not afford it due to cuts in legal aid. In 2009, under Labour, England and Wales had the highest per capita spending on legal aid in the world, before Conservative austerity measures cut it.
- *£10m was spent refurbishing Grenfell Tower from 2014-16, without addressing residents’ safety concerns or installing sprinklers. Instead, cladding was added to make the building look more attractive from the outside (presumably, to richer people who lived elsewhere in Kensington). Residents were told that the building was designed in such a way that a fire in one flat would not spread to others, and therefore advised to stay in their homes in case of a fire. This proved not to be the case,possibly because the cladding was flammable.
- *In 2009, a coroner’s report into another fatal tower block fire in London recommended that the government ensure sprinklers are installed during refurbishments. In 2014, given the lack of response from government, Labour MP and former firefighter Jim Fitzpatrick, pressed this in a parliamentary debate. Conservative minister Brandon Lewis said: “Sprinklers work. We know that. No one can deny it… They are an effective way of protecting lives and property.” But he rejected the idea that the government should enforce the fitting of sprinklers, citing the need to reduce the burden of regulation. Gavin Barwell, his successor as Housing Minister, and now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, pledged a review of building regulations in this area, but never carried it out.
- *312 Conservative MPs voted against a Labour bill last year which required landlords to make homes “fit for human habitation”. 72 of those are themselves private landlords.
- *Ten fire stations and 500 firefighters’ jobs have been cut since 2009. Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London and now Foreign Secretary, told an assembly member objecting to these cuts to “get stuffed”. The new mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, will review the cuts.
- *Thousands of ordinary people have donated money, supplies and time to help the victims of the fire, including many Islamic groups. According to witnesses and survivors, the Muslims who were awake for Ramadan prayers, having fasted all day, were crucial to raising the alarm and helping neighbours from the building.
- *As of Thursday, after decades of Conservative rule, Kensington is represented by a Labour MP (Emma Dent Coad) who has a strong record of campaigning against gentrification, for housing rights and writes a blogendorsed by the Grenfell Action Group.
- *Theresa May visited Grenfell today, but refused to speak to a single resident.
To sum up: in the richest borough in the country, poor people died in their homes, despite repeatedly warning the authorities of safety concerns and possibly as a direct result of actions taken by KCTMO. The government knew what should be done to avert such tragedies and did nothing. Cuts stopped the tragedy from being prevented through legal action or mitigated by the fire service. Those responsible remain in power. But the people are fighting back.
Because of Jeremy Corbyn’s honesty and courage, people have seen the truth – Austerity was a myth. I, Daniel Blake portrayed the injustice.
Theresa May has admitted this was unnecessary, is saying austerity is over and therefore this has been deliberately inflicted. The Tories must now accept the consequences, and step down from government.
All of the deaths, the deprivation, all of the poverty – all were deliberately inflicted.