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Tuesday, 20 June 2017

240. Grenfell Tower – a village worth of people housed in a chimney

Grenfell Tower was a vertical village filled with a wondrous variety of humanity, multiple skin tones, wide-ranging interests, different religions, diverse cultures and all ages.

But Grenfell Tower was also a village worth of people living in a chimney because, it seems, people who should have cared did not.

Welcome to modern Britain…

I’ve hesitated to write about this unnecessary horror. I do not live in London. My flat is not in a high-rise block. But the causes of this wretched tragedy have their basis in much that I’ve written about on this blog; greed, lack of compassion, the exponentially growing disparity between those with un-spendable wealth and everyone else, political short-termism and incompetence. There are different rules for the rich and powerful and the rest of us, and we have a political system which is more like a warped reality show than a test of competence.

IN the aftermath of this monstrous event, we have collective responsibilities and obligations which I will deal with at the end of this, slightly longer than usual and humour-free post.

The wider context for the Grenfell Tower tragedy is that it was always going to happen – somewhere. I believe it is only the scale of the horror and extent of loss of life and apocalyptic pictures of destruction and mayhem that have taken our collective breath away. The scenes were reminiscent of third world factories where workers die because they are trapped inside sub-standard buildings because profit is all that matters. But this is Britain, one of the most developed countries on the planet and the occupants regularly complained and drew the authority’s attention to potential hazards. They were ignored.

Everywhere you look, cheap architecture is being quickly thrown up to house people who have limited choices due to their socio-economic circumstances. Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sold off the UK's precious social housing stock of good quality post-war housing that represented Britain’s bequest of the 1939 - 45 horrors; the right of working class people. I remember my Granny’s council house where she raised 5 boys and where I made mud pies and picked apples in the garden. Over the years it was modernised by the council including getting an indoor toilet early in the 1970s. But most of the houses in that street are now privately owned. That social housing, legacy of the war and sacrifice of a nation, has never been replaced.

Equally, Labour councils have put out public services to private tender reducing regulation via the back door and no one did more to introduce the corrosive private sector ideologies into the public sector than Labour, from Tony Blair’s administration right up until it lost power under Gordon Brown.

The current Labour crew were woefully ineffective during last year’s referendum (see last week’s post) Labour failed miserably to make the argument for stability, remaining in a reformed EU and celebrating diversity and free movement of people.

Last week I posted a piece about Britain’s slumping position in Europe but the scenes that unfolded in Grenfell Tower and the subsequent, incomprehensible lack of official support for the victims would not have seemed out of place in a Mumbai or Kenyan slum. And this in one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world. SHAME SHAME SHAME.

There is no fire authority in the UK that could have dealt with the Grenfell Tower inferno, funnelling flames inside the cheap cladding. But there could easily have been sprinklers, central fire alarms, fire escapes. One commentator from Kensington council said that residents had not ‘wanted’ a sprinkler system as it would have slowed renovations – as if safety issues were akin to the colour of the walls.

Families were, it seems, given inappropriate advice on how to react in the case of a fire. Those who survived appear to be the ones who ignored that advice.

But, I believe, Grenfell Tower has a wider significance. The tragedy is an appalling testament to a country in a mess, where greed, self-interest, short-termism and inequality are out of control.

Some of our immediate responsibilities as a nation are these –
We must force ourselves, without sentimentality or ghoulish voyeurism, to look at the pictures of the lost; the innocent faces of the children, the open expectant faces of the young adults with their promising lives ahead, the lined, experienced faces of the older residents who deserved a better end.

Then we must remind ourselves that this simply did not need to happen. It is the result of greed, incompetence and inequality. One rule for ‘us’ and a different rule for ‘them’.

Also, we cannot just exist in a situation where, when things go horribly wrong, politicians compete to see who can make the loudest call for another costly inquiry. INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS TO BE MANAGED.  Politics has become an ongoing beauty pageant with ‘leaders’ popping like a series of mad jack-in-the-boxes bouncing up and down to the dull beat of opinion polls.

We must remind ourselves every single day that WE CAN AFFORD A DECENT STANDARD OF LIVING FOR EVERYONE never mind what the media barons in their tax exiles tell us and never mind how many stories they spew out about immigrants and the disabled and benefit ‘scroungers’ causing the country’s problems. They are lies peddled by people who, themselves, avoid contributing fairly to society.

We must stop separating ourselves from each other with technology and politicians must stop separating themselves from the people with committees and quangos and barriers to government services. So when I ring my local council I do not want to deal with an automated system. I want to deal with a human being because I am a human being.

It goes without saying there must always be residents on relevant housing committees. It was that way when I was a councillor in the 1980s and chaired my local area housing committee, why has it changed?

We need to stop trying to placate the xenophobes pulling us away from the common good and achievable goal of a decent future for everyone. We need to actively work against the downwards pull of self-interest.

The media must stop feeding the public a diet of celebrity shit and start reporting real news, real issues about real people. If they don’t then we must not fund them by buying their papers, clicking on their websites, tuning in to their programmes.

And, as day 1 of Brexit negotiations concluded yesterday, giving a brief startlingly clear glimpse of just how weak the UK negotiating position really is, we should consider the behaviour of some tabloids. Some of those now making headlines and front pages with the gruesome images of Grenfell Tower were quick to condemn health and safety laws as the scourge of Brussels.

The blackened carcass of Grenfell Tower stands as a disgraceful monument to unnecessary death, wasted futures, unutterable sadness and a failure in the chain of human compassion and kinship which should link us all.

While it may be an eyesore to an affluent borough, perhaps the remains of the tower should be stabilised and stay as a reminder of what happens when greed takes over, when Mammon is god, when one group of human beings is regarded as worth less than another.

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