Monday, 19 June 2017

The towers of silence: after the fire - the legacy of Grenfell

*Updated Monday & Tuesday- see below:

Watching the coverage this last week of the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower has been a traumatic experience for everyone, and one that none of us will ever forget. To see such suffering, and be unable to help is frightening: and it has also raised fears in all of us for the safety of our own homes, and communities. 

After details of the structural factors which appear to be central to the cause of the speed of acceleration of this fire became public knowledge, it was easy to find evidence that there are buildings in Barnet which may also be at risk. 

The names of two of these are already in the public domain: Merit House, in the Hyde, Colindale - and Premier House, in Edgware. Both are alleged to have had cladding installed that is similar to that used at Grenfell. And now it is claimed that at least ten buildings in total in the borough may be at risk. 

Labour councillors in Barnet are pressing for an immediate investigation of these concerns, although it seems to me that the issue of risk may be on a potentially almost unquantifiable scale, here and nationally. 

Cladding of this type, if not this particular manufacture, has been used very widely throughout the UK: in schools, universities, railway stations and various other public and private buildings. How safe is it? If safe in theory, in terms of materials used, and testing, can we be sure the cladding has been properly installed, in such a way that does not compromise the fire safety standards of the product?

Tory antipathy towards 'red tape' - a view often expressed by Conservative members in Barnet - and fears of  'health & safety gone mad', or any similar process that might have stood in the way of an easier profit, have led to deregulation of measures intended to protect us from harm. Poor performance in planning, building control and enforcement, especially when those services are privatised, as in Barnet, should raise other matters for concern. Do we have sufficiently robust processes to ensure the most stringent standards in safety are being observed?

*Updated: an article in the Guardian has emphasised the dangers posed by the weakening of building control regulation, and the risks of privatisation: see here.

Rydon, the company which delivered the installation of the cladding to Grenfell, is contracted to Barnet Homes, the housing service for Barnet Council, for the provision of 'dementia friendly' housing for older and clearly very vulnerable residents. 

Mrs Angry asked Derek Rust, the CEO of Barnet Homes about this via twitter: 

No response. Mrs Angry also asked:

No response. No doubt councillors will now make sure all the relevant retrospective safety checks are made - but still, many other questions arise, as a result of what we now know about the Grenfell fire.

*Updated: Barnet Homes have issued the following statement about ten tower blocks they manage, three of which are in Granville Road, Nw2: see here.

The issues raised are both practical, and immediate, in terms of the immediate risk to any residents living in similar circumstances in this borough, but there is also a wider significance, in areas increasingly being identified in the statements and questions of those affected by the fire at Grenfell.

By the end of the week it was clear that the sense of fury amongst the community in this part of West London is one that has been gathering strength for many years. But they speak not just for themselves, but for all those communities in our capital city, and in the rest of the UK, whose needs have been overlooked for so long. 

We are now hearing the voices of a generation growing up in a world where disadvantage is accepted as an inevitable part of the natural order of things: fundamental to that order, so that privilege may be retained by a minority, and maintained by a government indifferent to social justice, but committed to the protection of the best interests of themselves, and their class. 

And yes, we do have to speak about class. 

The old definitions may have broken down, but our society is now polarised between two extremes; two classes - those with control over their lives, and those without. 

As David Lammy suggested last week, it really is a 'tale of two cities', here in London now: a city struggling with a fatal division at its heart. A division between those with power, and a voice: and those with neither. 

Lack of money, loss of access to law, healthcare and education - and housing -  takes away the means to rebalance this polarity: which is exactly why those services are being stripped away. It is a deliberate strategy, born of an ideological obsession that is as fixed in Barnet as it is in Kensington and Chelsea.

Curious, and touching, to hear what one man shouted to the cameras last week, as an example of political indifference, in all the furore about social cleansing, and 'regeneration' and the lack of interest by the local authority in the plight of the poorer inhabitants of one of the richest residential areas in the world:

They shut our libraries, he yelled. Curious, you might think, that he would be so aggrieved by this, rather than anything else. Well: it wasn't this, and nothing else: for him, for all of us, it is symbolic of the whole problem; the wider problem - the ideological assault of the vital services which support the needs of the local community, and the indifference of Tory councillors to those needs, to that community.

It was hard not to be reminded of Barnet, in many ways. 

One of these reminders was in the form of a letter, published in the Guardian, from a resident of Kensington & Chelsea, who had received a tax rebate of £100 from the council, a payment made to reward those who had paid in full, with a boast to residents that the Tory authority was successful in 'consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services' ... He returned the money, last week, to the victims of Grenfell Tower.

This was an eerie echo of a similar pre-election gesture by Barnet Tories, not so many years ago, when a tax cut of about 25 pence a week was made to residents, on similar grounds, with similar grandstanding swagger - just before they announced that they were slashing funds for desperately needed respite care for the families of severely disabled children at Mapledown School. 

Tory leader Richard Cornelius had excused this appalling cut on the grounds that 'the average person in the street' would think it was 'fair'. Only after a storm of protest, from the vast majority of people who did not think it was 'fair' - and much distress caused to families and carers -was the funding restored. 

A shameless preference for rewarding the well off by cutting services to the poor, and vulnerable, is only one similarity between the two Tory run authorities. 

Barnet is another borough with, like Kensington and Chelsea, areas of incredible affluence, but also areas of deep social deprivation. 

In our case, it is a borough where the libraries are closed on the pretence, pre election, of 'refurbishment' but actually in order to impose a devastating programme of cuts in service.  

Where there are good schools and the best access to healthcare in the most affluent areas, and to hell with the rest. 

Where more money is spent on the highways budgets of Tory held wards. 

Where the western side of the borough has the greatest levels of need, and the highest number of Labour held wards, and a frontline of large scale housing developments which will not provide homes for residents, but force their displacement. 

They call it regeneration: we call it social cleansing. Others say it is gerrymandering.

If it was intended as gerrymandering, the plantation of the western, Labour voting side of the borough - it has now been proved to be another ideological and strategic failure: conceived in the feverish fantasies of the neo-Thatcherite, intellectually stunted Tory members, but delivered of an unwanted baby: a new intake of disgruntled, renting young voters, saddled with student loans, unable to afford to get on to the property ladder, and - dear me - voting Labour, estimated at a level of 70%. 

The development of West Hendon, Colindale, and Grahame Park, and other areas in the borough, is presented as 'regeneration'. 

This word is not a euphemism: it is a lie. It is a lie because it is presented as a regeneration intended to benefit the residents and taxpayers of this borough, whose public assets, in many cases, are being used to subsidise the profits of developers. The benefit is theirs, not ours.

So, yes: we must return to the subject of West Hendon. Where it was revealed, during an Inquiry into the compulsory purchase of 'right to buy' leaseholder flats, that land was given to the developers for only £3 - land worth (some years ago) more than £12 million - a conservative estimate. This blog has featured the story of West Hendon extensively, over the years - and a BBC documentary was filmed on the estate and broadcast last year, see here.

In nearby areas, properties that were formerly a local hospital, a national newspaper archive, a police training centre - all are disappearing and replaced by massive housing developments. Much of the new properties are said to be being bought in cash, off plan, which arguably artificially forces the cost of housing even further beyond the reach of local residents. And explains why so many of these new properties are now being let, rather than providing homes for local families.

Homes for local families, and the need to retain and support local communities is a policy that does not fit with the materialist philosophy of our local politicians. Their own emotional detachment has no use for sentiment, and the idea of social housing is repugnant to them, as a matter of principle. 

You may recall that the local Tory housing spokesperson famously stated that the borough did not want the less well off, or those 'dependent' on local services. He wanted the penthouses of West Hendon to be bought by 'Russian oligarchs'.

So much has been written about the faux regeneration of council estates and working class areas: so much about the examples in Broken Barnet. Social cleansing has become an over used phrase, looked on with contempt by Tory politicians, even as they sign off another development that will inevitably have the same consequence: social tenants moved on, and out, 'decanted' elsewhere, anywhere, the human collateral of profit. Those that are allowed to remain do so on the most grudging terms: short term tenancies, no security of tenure, unwelcome, and unwanted. So, an over used phrase, but an active strategy, and true, all the same. 

Where do those who have been displaced go? 

In many developments, protections for residents, and guarantees of rehousing are rewritten, over the course of planning and then construction. What started as a 'refurbishment' of West Hendon, for the benefit of social tenants and leaseholders, mutated into something else: something much more acceptable to the ideology of the Tory council: a private development. 

Some residents had long term tenancies, and were grudgingly given accommodation in a grim looking block outside of the footprint of the luxury development, out of sight of the beautiful waterside, the families given instead a view of the back yards of respray garages on the Edgware Road.

The even less fortunate residents, some of whom had lived there for ten years or more, were kept on short term tenancies, so as to limit the legal obligations that the authority had to rehouse them. One offer of accommodation refused and you had made yourself homeless. Many faced the grim prospect of eviction, and a move, like this mother in the BBC documentary, into squalid alternative temporary accommodation, rat infested, out of borough, away from family, facing a very bleak future.

In the case of Grenfell, residents were stuffed into a 21 storey tower, with apparently no regard for adequate fire safety measures. The authority's prior concern, it is alleged, is that the ugly, brutalist structure should be tarted up, so as to make it less obviously what it was: a containment of the poor, in an area of privilege, where reminders of poverty and social injustice are an unwarranted distraction - and a threat to property values. A monolith of social injustice: now a monument to folly, and despair.

The sight of the smoking wreck of Grenfell Tower, and footage of firefighters silhouetted in the emergency lighting of that terrible night, desperately trying to deal with an apocalyptic conflagration, aiming hoses that could not reach the height of the flames, could not help but remind me of my father, who was a volunteer fire fighter throughout the worst of the Blitz, spending night after night, struggling to save buildings in the city of London from destruction. They were fighting an enemy, in a time of war. Who is the enemy, now? Who is responsible for the deaths at Grenfell Tower?

The casualties of the Blitz were so many, and the risk of staying put so high that many thousands of residents fled London, a phenomenon unreported at the time by a press working under regulations that put the preservation of morale before the acknowledgment of truth. Now we see accusations, whether accurate or not, but fed from a failure in communication, of a similar management of truth, in regard to the level of deaths at Grenfell. Whose truth are we managing, now? 

The preservation of morale was also the pretext for silence over another wartime loss of life: - the bombing of West Hendon, in 1941.

Thousands of homes were destroyed, and around seventy five people died that night: comparable to the number known to have lost their lives at Grenfell - although the final figure will be be higher, and like in the case of West Hendon, an absolute total may never be known. 

After the war time devastation, of course, families were rehoused, the community revived and a Labour government was elected which rebuilt the country, and created all those foundations now being tunnelled into and undermined by successive Tory governments: a welfare state, the NHS, social housing, like the estate at West Hendon now being destroyed.

Seventy five years after the war time bombing, while residents packed their bags, and waited to be evicted from their homes, a memorial service was held to commemorate the victims of that night in 1941, attended by some who remember the event, and some who suffered the loss of family members, all these years ago.

This service took place below the newly constructed 31 storey tower block that has been built on part of the former council estate. Work carried on as we stood there, regardless of the ceremony. Round the corner, beyond the private development, and out of sight of the waterfront, was Bullfinch House, where the few secure tenants had been grudgingly rehoused, while their less fortunate neighbours were evicted. 

No cladding, on the new high rise, private tower block in West Hendon - as far as we know, at the moment - but still clearly a building at risk, in the event of a major fire. 

The fire safety arrangements for the residents of the new building are unknown: is there a sprinkler system? What sort of emergency escape, and guidance? How would firefighters reach the upper storeys? We don't know. 

Privilege cannot always buy you peace of mind, or protection from harm. Time to ask some questions of Barratt London, and Metropolitan Housing, and Barnet Council, and Capita, one would think.

The state of planning, and enforcement, in Barnet - a privatised service - has reached a point where nothing that we previously took for granted can still be assured. The priority is now tipped in favour of development: and not for housing for the benefit of our local communities, but in order to facilitate the profits of private enterprise. 

Blocks of flats are being flung up all over the borough, with little consideration of the real needs of residents. And social housing is seen not as an answer to a problem, but as the problem itself, or at best, only as an opportunity for yet more development.

All of this is taking place against the groundswell of a movement, a change in the tide: the anger that has been suppressed for so long amongst the dispossessed people of this city, this nation, is finding its voice. 

The election campaign, and the huge surge in popularity for Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, saw masses gathering in a way that is part of that change: people looking for hope for a better future, and justice. The danger, now, is that if that voice is silenced once more, and people feel that they have no hope, the frustration will cause unrest, and an ugly change in mood.

The extent of disengagement that was displayed by the Prime Minister, too fearful to meet survivors in the aftermath of the fire, perfectly articulated the culture of contemporary Conservatism: a set of values that is sustained by a lack of empathy for the experience of others. It is written into their manifestos, their policies, and is the mark of their administrations in government. 

And the extent of welcome given to Corbyn wherever he goes now is the measure of need that people have for something different, something better, kinder, more human, from their politicians.

The emotions unleashed by recent events must be directed into political action now: the alternative is too frightening to contemplate. 

Listening to the anger so vividly expressed by residents of West London on news channels this week made one thing very clear. Their fury was not just about the fire, or regeneration, or social cleansing, but about something more profound: the sense of displacement within society, and their intention, now, to tolerate no more. Now is the time for change, and the realignment of government with the best interests of ordinary citizens, and not the privileged few whose grasp on power is now so much more tenuous than it was a few months ago. 

There are tumultuous times ahead, and life is never going to be the same again. 

It's been a long time coming.

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