As the body count rose from the Grenfell Tower fire, sensible people warned us not to rush to judgement. Activists, mainly from the left, denounced a complacent housing bureaucracy at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, and a Conservative government, which had refused in its laissez-faire way to regulate rented housing.
The warnings sounded sensible. At the time of writing, I still do not know for sure why the fire spread with such ghastly effectiveness. Why rush to judgement and into print? In any case, is there not something wrong with people whose first reaction to a disaster is to take cheap shots?
But sensible points can be beside the point. From the moment I heard the accents of the survivors on yesterday morning’s news, I understood that the fire was inescapably political.
London is a city of the rich and the poor. The middle and skilled working classes are finding it increasingly hard to rent a home within five miles of the centre, let alone buy one. The rich are just as likely to live in high-rise flats (or ‘apartments’ as the estate agents call them) as in Chelsea townhouses. Tower blocks for the toweringly wealthy are everywhere: from Canary Wharf and west along the Thames to the old St Katharine’s dock, south of the river in the converted Battersea Power station, and back north at the Candy brothers’ complex for oligarchs by Hyde Park.
To give you an idea of how rich the London rich are, across the road from where I work at the Guardian and Observer, architects have developed the wasteland north of Kings Cross. Once the home of prostitutes and drug dealers, it now has apartment complexes. The architects have done a fine job of turning a derelict spot into a place to live and work. But Kings Cross is still intersected by main roads and railway lines. The noise and the air pollution alone make it no one’s idea of a luxury neighbourhood. For all its faults, a 3-bedroom flat in a converted gasholder, which a family with two children might want, costs £2.9 million. A two-bedroom flat, which a family with two could just about manage in, costs £2.1 million. During the election campaign, Labour argued that an income of £70,000 a year made you rich. Certainly, it puts you in the top five per cent of earners. But to afford the price of these modest ‘apartments’ in a not noticeably salubrious part of central London you would need an income of close to £600,000 or have access to a million or more in capital.
As soon as I heard the accents on the radio, I knew rich London had been spared. The fire was in a council tower block comfortable people only see as they drive on the Westway. The survivors had the voices of poor London: of refugees, of newly arrived immigrants from the Congo, Philippines and Morocco, and of the established working class, who could not think of moving out however many second or third jobs they took on. While I take the warnings against jumping to conclusions seriously, you can already say that their families and neighbours died because they were poor.
Survivors of Grenfell Tower said they had complained repeatedly that the building had only one escape route. They were worried boilers and gas pipes might explode. They asked why fire alarms and sprinklers did not protect the tower. In a prophetic post last November the tenants said: ‘It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO.’ ‘We were ‘brushed away,’ they added.
The late LSE Professor Richard Titmuss once said, ‘poor public services soon become public services for the poor’. They stay that way because the poor lack the means to challenge them.
In any tower block for the rich from Canary Wharf to Hyde Park, if the homeowners said they were in danger, their apartment managers would have jumped to reassure them. Comfortable people know how to complain, or how to hire professionals to complain on their behalf. The poor do not, and official society knows it can disregard them. If middle-class readers doubt me, try phoning the complaints line of any public or private service and fake if you can a working class or immigrant accent. My guess is the reception you receive will be a novel experience.
And, of course, if the wealthy are brushed off they can concentrate minds by threatening to sue. As officials ignored the firetrap in Kensington, the owners of luxury Thames-side apartments sued Tate Modern. They went to the courts, not because they feared their lives were in danger, but because a new viewing gallery Tate Modern had built meant that thousands of visitors were staring into their homes and turning their flats into ‘goldfish bowls’.
I am not jeering at them or saying their concerns were trivial when set against the dangers of the London slums. I am simply making the case that money and lawyers will ensure that the rich are unlikely in the extreme to die as the tenants of Grenfell Tower died.
This ought to be a moment of reckoning. We ought to insist on rich and poor alike receiving the same health and safety standards. If the rich have sprinklers, so should the poor. If the buildings that house the rich have cladding that does not go up in flames so should the buildings that house the poor. We ought to go beyond safety, and raise expectations of what levels of space and comfort residents of public housing and private rented accommodation can expect.
Perhaps we won’t. The implementation of civilised standards will take time and cost money, lots of it. Perhaps there will be an inquiry that goes nowhere, a police investigation that fizzles out, and some tinkering with regulations in Whitehall. The carnival of British public life will toot its horn and move on. I don’t think it can. Or at least I hope it can’t. We have just seen hundreds of people, piled up in a death trap, trying to escape from a catastrophe they had repeatedly warned would befall them.
If we can move on from that, we can move on from anything.