Thoughts On… Grenfell

Six months on and the burned out shell of the tower still casts a shadow over Ladbroke Grove and Latimer Road.

Grenfell at the end of November

I’ve tried to write this blog post so many times.
The first time was two days after the fire, while part of the relief effort: I was just angry. I was furious with the council, the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation), and the general inaction of authority.
The second time was almost a week later: at points, overwhelmingly sad and defeated about what it meant that this tragedy had occurred in the first place.
I’ve tried several times since then to start it again, and now, six months on, I think I’ve finally worked out what I want to say.

The horrific fire which tore through Grenfell Tower on Wednesday 14th June 2017, just after midnight, burned for more than thirty-six hours. The official death toll is seventy-one but there are plenty, including myself, who believe it should be higher. It was a terrible and unprecedented tragedy in the UK, but the worst thing about it was that it was so easily preventable.

Grenfell Tower is part of my community. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in a considerable radius of the block who didn’t have some kind of personal experience with it or know someone who lived there.
My brother and I went to the crèche on its ground floor, we played in the playground at its base, my Mum worked there for a while, and I knew Khadija Saye who lived there with her mum. Unfortunately I have to use the past tense now. We lost touch after going to our local community centre together, but there are always those people in your life who leave distinct lasting impressions even after years apart. When I think of Khadija I instantly think of joy and laughter and that smile which took over her whole face. And my overwhelming association with her is that she gave fricking amazing hugs.

It is a fate that no one deserved, and there will be very few who remain untouched by this tragedy.

Latimer Road and Ladbroke Grove are home to an extremely tightknit community who take strength and pride in their diversity. I’ve lived here for twenty-three years, and I would never want to live anywhere else.

I’m still angry and I’m still sad. You see the tower every single day and it’s a constant reminder of the failings of local government to listen to us as a marginalised section of a very rich borough. Until just before the fire, I lived in a Conservative constituency that had been Conservative since its inception, with carefully considered borders so it would stay Conservative forever. Every time I voted Labour I did so with a resignation that my vote would probably never make a difference. As recently as 2015, the Conservative candidate won the election by more than 7,000 votes. The fact that this time we got our very first Labour MP, even if it was only by twenty votes, demonstrates just how ready people are for change.

I’ve always felt like there was a clear divide in my borough.
For example, in RBKC which is made up of eighteen wards, if you take Campden, a ward in the richer southern half of the borough, the 2011 census highlighted that essentially a quarter of households (24.5%)
 were registered as a second address.  If you look at North Kensington, however, the number of registered second addresses was only 11.7% in my ward Colville, and 5.6% in Golborne. Similar trends exist in overcrowding: in Campden, 4.8% of households are classified as overcrowded, in Colville, 9.9%, and in Golborne 17.4%. The evidence speaks for itself.

Especially where my estate is, it feels like pretty much the border between the rich and img_3046everyone else. The parts that the tourists flock to – Portobello Road, the infamous ‘blue door’, the grand terraced houses of Kensington Park Road, the million pound repaving of Exhibition Road that lines the impressive museums of South Ken – these never felt quite like home, because my crèche, my school, my church, my community centre, my friends were all on the “other side”. I don’t like the divide, I don’t enjoy the “them and us” mentality, we shouldn’t have or need it, but it’s still there.

It’s interesting how this disparity in wealth has been a bit of a revelation to the rest of the country. “The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea” has always been pigeon-holed away in the public perception as “where the rich people live”, but now we’re under the microscope and the press have suddenly taken an interest. One thing I don’t appreciate about the coverage is the way this area has been portrayed as the rich and the poor, the entitled and the penniless, the high and mighty and the downtrodden. It’s not the case that all this time we have felt defeated or hopeless, because people have been constantly petitioning the council, fighting the TMO, and demanding change. That never stopped. It just feels like, finally, the powers that be have been forced to take note. We’re not the downtrodden poor, we’re not charity cases, we’re just not as rich as the mansion-owners round the corner.

To put it really simply, it’s an area that been the setting for both Notting Hill and Kidulthood. Two fundamentally different films if I ever saw them.

I can’t speak for those who lived in Grenfell Tower and I can’t speak for those who have lost everything, but I can speak as a member of a community who feel ignored and undervalued by our council. Maybe that will change with a new MP and a new political party, and I am hopeful that it will, but what it won’t change is what has already been done. And people need answers.

The Fire

The fire was a wake up call for the council, the government, and the country. We need it to be. If anything good can come from this tragic event, it’s that this is finally the time for change. This was a tragedy that should never have happened. This was a tragedy that was preventable. This was a tragedy that highlighted years of neglect.

I have been so proud and so moved by what I saw from my community and beyond in response to the fire. The only experience I can draw on is from St Clement’s Church and the ClementJames Centre on Sirdar Road, but I’ve heard hundreds of similar stories from around the borough. The church opened its doors to evacuees at about 3am and the donations quickly started pouring in. By about eight in the morning when I arrived, the breakfast station was almost full and we started bringing over extra tables to accommodate all the food coming in. The bags and bags of clothes, the toiletries, the food, the number of willing pairs of hands grew at such an incredible rate that the centre was quickly overwhelmed and had to start turning people away. We received so many clothes that it took a large team of us almost the entire second day to sort through them all, and then we filled almost two lorries’ worth with the sorted cardboard boxes. I spoke with charities who had come to see what we needed so that they could put the donations they’d received to good use, local chefs provided cooked meals for evacuees and volunteers, countless pizza deliveries showed up on our doorstep, and there were even random people placing supermarket orders to be delivered to the church. It was amazing to see. We had enough nappies and sanitary towels to stop a flood, and probably enough bottles of water to start one.

But a lot of the frustration and a lot of the anger came when people started to question where the council was. The community were on the ground and taking charge straight away. I watched in amazement as the ClementJames staff rapidly organised systems, roles, and support. They were making it up as they went along, but they did a bloody good job of it. They were so engaged and involved that they were having to force each other to take breaks. It takes an incredible amount of strength to keep everything going when you’re potentially falling apart yourself.

I’m not saying that the council weren’t doing anything while all of this was happening, but they were slow and, most importantly, they were not visible. A review produced this month by Hammersmith & Fulham (H&F) council, who were one of the first authorities to respond to the disaster, stated that “the chief executive made three calls to the RBKC chief executive offering assistance on the day of the fire.” In the end they provided support “despite the lack of any formal request to do so.” Our council didn’t even have the time to pick up the phone and accept help.
In addition, leaders from the H&F Grenfell Outreach task force had to personally approach hotels to locate residents who our council had essentially lost in the neighbouring borough.

Yes, I get that it takes time to organise contact points.
I understand that this was an unprecedented disaster which could not be planned for.
But why had we as a community managed to coordinate a relief effort hours before the body elected to represent us had even finished their “emergency meeting”, more than nine hours after the fire had actually started?
Why, on day three of this tragedy, were they refusing to respond to contact from our own MP?
And why, please tell me why, the only action I saw from the council on the first day of this whole thing, was their attempt to close St Clement’s Church at 7pm, while we were still looking after people who had nowhere to go, because it was not a “designated relief centre”?
To top it all off, after five days of almost silence, how dare Nick Paget-Brown, now ex-leader of the council, come out with anything other than an apology, and instead deny that there was any bad handling of the fire?

I don’t agree with the storming of the town hall in the days after the fire and I don’t agree with the people sending abusive letters and death threats to individual members of the council, but I sure as hell can understand the anger.

This isn’t just a lack of response in the immediate wake of the fire. The Grenfell Tower fire highlights years of neglect and the actions of the council and the TMO at Grenfell Tower are just one example:

In our block, it takes several phone calls from different flats to get the council to look at anything, we were forced to live on a “temporary” boiler for over a year, and the small fire safety plaque that’s now been put up on our communal staircase does little to inspire confidence in a council that cares…

The resignation of Nick Paget-Brown and Nicholas Holgate, leader and chief executive of the council, the council’s break with the TMO, as well as the report that nearly half of the rest of the Tory councillors will not be standing for re-election next May is just the beginning. It will take years for us to regain any trust in our local government. There is a fundamental and well-founded paranoia at the heart of the community that the council will not help us, will not support us, and will stiff us at every turn in favour of themselves and the other half of the borough.

Six months on…

And now, six months on, it’s difficult in some ways to see what’s actually changed.

The tower is still on display, despite the promise that it would be covered by August; four out of five evacuated families will still be in temporary accommodation over Christmas, despite the initial pledge by Theresa May that everyone would be rehoused within three weeks; and the interim report from the official inquiry that was guaranteed as soon as possible has now been pushed back until next autumn. Just another string of broken promises.

I was one of a group of community members, leaders, Grenfell Tower residents, and volunteers who met with Theresa May in the days after the fire. To be able to represent my community was a privilege that I did not take lightly, and neither did anyone else in the group, and it was an honour to be in the company of so many like-minded people who had supported and fought for this community over the last few days, months and years. It was our chance to voice our frustration, our mistrust, and our accounts of the relief effort, the fire, and the negligence before that. We impressed upon her the need for cooperation, communication, and coordination moving into the future.

I am not the biggest fan of Theresa May, but I genuinely believe that, in this case, she listened to us and wanted to make a difference, and that, even if she could not personally understand our experiences, she could acknowledge the deep feeling of alienation in our part of the borough.

Afterwards, she made a statement in the House of Commons, admitting that “the support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough… That was a failure of the state, local and national, to help people when they needed it most. As prime minister I apologise for that failure.” Which, admittedly, was the least she could do, but was still pretty strong in politician-talk.

Since then, however, the evidence weakens this apology. With Brexit on everybody’s lips and the Prime Minister engaged in all of these supposedly “successful” talks we all keep hearing about, it feels like Grenfell has fallen a little by the wayside in the national government’s eyes. So much so that we’re having to petition her again to restore the people’s faith in the public inquiry.

In that same statement to the House of Commons in June, she said:

“So, long after the TV cameras have gone and the world has moved on, let the legacy of this awful tragedy be that we resolve never to forget these people and instead to gear our policies and our thinking towards making their lives better and bringing them into the political process. It is our job as a Government and as a Parliament to show that we are listening and ​that we will stand up for them. That is what I am determined we should do.”

But still, the national government’s actions seem to contradict her sentiment. The Conservatives continue to support the extension of right-to-buy, welfare cuts, and the private developer-led “regeneration” of social housing estates, with only one in five new homes forecast to be built classified as “affordable”. There is slightly more hope locally where councils across the capital have committed to spending a total of around £383m to make social housing safer following the Grenfell fire, but with over 100 tower blocks across the UK failing new Government fire safety tests, and with the general dearth of affordable and social housing across the country; this is a national problem and should be a national responsibility.

The immediate concern is rehousing.
118 of 208 households should not still be waiting for a home. It is undeniable that such huge operation will take time, but then, even though the Prime Minister’s heart was in the right place, the initial promise of three weeks should not have been made. The official deadline was then pushed back to Christmas, and is now standing at twelve months to rehouse everyone. And if the current rate of movement continues, it’s conceivable that Grenfell families will be without permanent homes for the next two years.

How can we let that stand?

In a borough with usable reserves of £274m and a huge number of empty second homes and abandoned affordable properties, how can council leader Elizabeth Campbell use the argument of living in “an overcrowded London borough” as a legitimate excuse?

People cannot restart their lives from hotel rooms.

They cannot begin to process the old memories until they can properly build new ones.

They shouldn’t have to.

The Tower back in June
The Tower back in June

The desire for justice and for people to be held accountable is strong and unwavering. When there are answers, the healing process can begin. But at the moment, if doesn’t look like we will receive this closure for years to come. The three main lines of inquiry are:

  • The public inquiry called by the Prime Minister
  • The criminal investigation conducted by the police
  • The independent inquiry led by human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

The public inquiry which started in September came under immediate fire with the appointment of Sir Martin Moore-Bick who seemed completely unrepresentative of the local population and appeared unwilling to cooperate at all with the community. It was his inquiry and his judgement:

The inquiry was to be limited to the cause of the fire, how it spread, and preventing a future blaze.

He refused to take questions after the first day of the hearing.

Any survivor on the inquiry panel (the team of assessors who would advise him) would “risk undermining impartiality”.

Since then, he seems to have mellowed somewhat. The inquiry will now cover the cause and spread of the fire; the design, construction and refurbishment of the building; and the response of the authorities in the days after the fire. It’s progress, but he still refuses to include social housing policy in the inquiry’s remit.
He has also asked whether assembling a consultative group of local residents to liaise with him would be helpful, but this is still quite different to a formal advisory panel.

In a lot of ways it feels like two steps forward, one step back.

Where the official inquiry falls short, the police and the Equality and Human Rights Commission will hopefully pick up the slack. The police are investigating criminal offences of manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, misconduct in public office and breaches of fire safety legislation, and the EHRC’s chair, David Isaac has specifically stated that their decision to launch an inquiry was “to look at what we think is important and what’s missing from the official inquiry, which is the human rights and equalities perspective.”

But all three need to tread lightly.
This is not a threat, just a statement of fact.

The feeling of alienation and the threat of social cleansing has singled us out within our own borough. They want to cancel Notting Hill Carnival every year and they throw the word ‘regeneration’ around with no guarantee that council block residents will still have a home by the end of it. Only recently a leaflet from the Kensington Tories in one of the richer RBKC constituencies asked people to rate how important the Grenfell Tower tragedy was to them alongside questions about refuse collection and parking permits.
It is tragic that in the wake of such a terrible event, one of the immediate concerns of other local tower block residents is that Grenfell will be used as an excuse by RBKC to tear down other council estates in the name of Health and Safety.
We have been looking out for each other rather than relying on government bodies, local or national, for a long time now. Grenfell brought that home more than ever. 
We are used to taking things into our own hands. We have made it abundantly clear that, moving forward, the community is to take an active role in local and national government decisions concerning Grenfell: the rehousing process, the protection and support of survivors from the fire, the inquiry, and the future of the Grenfell Tower site.

This is one of the reasons why there is such a demand for a formal advisory panel in the official inquiry. One that is made up of wide range of local residents and community leaders to reflect the diversity of the area and provide some authority in the trial with a genuine understanding of living in North Kensington. The concern is that without this the inquiry will lack validity and faith from residents.

Perhaps it seems to border on paranoia, but there is such an engrained scepticism of authority in the areas of Ladbroke Grove and Latimer Road that any decision made without consultation with the local community is a risky move.

The earliest that there will probably be any answers is April, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission publish their recommendations. The public inquiry, as mentioned before, will now not publish its interim report before next autumn, by which point the police will have only just finished their forensic investigation and will be moving on to further witness and suspect interviews.

A quote from the Guardian seemed pretty apt:
“Things felt urgent in the days and weeks after the fire. The truth is that they are more urgent now than ever.”

But now is when the waiting game begins.

It’s hard to find hope and optimisim in times like these, and yet, within the community, the silent march continues on the 14th of every month and there are countless projects like Grenfell United, Justice 4 Grenfell, and Grenfell Speaks doing everything they can to help the area. Community centres are organising arts and craft activities, coffee mornings, and providing other practical assistance with the rehousing process, and there’s local school support for children and families. You can find a lot more information about what’s going on here: https://www.grenfellconnect.org.uk.
And today you can join the silent march from around the world with a candle and the hashtag, #ACandle4Grenfell.
It’s not just about waiting around for a verdict because there’s still so much we can do as a local community and as a wider society. We’re not helpless, that’s for sure.

If one thing has come from all of this, it is that we are stronger than ever as a community. And we will not be silent.

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