The news of the fire and deaths in the London apartment fire is crushingly sad.
The UK’s Independent is reporting that Khadia Saye, a noted artist who currently has work on display at the Venice Biannale, is among the missing and presumed dead.
Although this happened in Kensington, a famously prosperous area of London with an extremely high number of properties worth £1m or more, it didn’t happen in a block of luxury flats. It happened in a high-rise building on a council estate. Those responsible for managing social housing in the area on behalf of the borough were the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), a company which says on its website that it is responsible for nearly 10,000 properties – and a company which the people who lived at Grenfell Tower had complained about for many years.
The Grenfell Action Group residents’ association had consistently warned about the possibility of such a tragedy; this morning, they updated their website with a post which reads: “Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC [the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea]. ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.”
Links to their earlier posts prove it: in 2013 they warned that shutting down the block’s car park would mean just one narrow, restricted road for emergency vehicle access, something which eyewitnesses reported slowed down the fire engine response this morning; the same year, they wrote a long post about continuous electrical surges which had been causing fire hazards in the building (“decisive action was only taken yesterday after highly distressed residents descended en masse on the estate office to demand help and assistance. They had woken to find smoke issuing from various electrical appliances in their homes, including the light fixtures, and descended in panic to the estate office to demand help”) ; and in November 2016, their frustration about what they called inadequate fire escapes culminated in a frighteningly prescient post titled Playing With Fire: “The Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring to an end the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders… It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block… is the most likely reason those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice”.
From the NY Times;
David Lammy, a Labour lawmaker representing Tottenham, in Northeast London, told the BBC that he considered the fire to be “corporate manslaughter.” “This is the richest borough in our country treating its citizens in this way, and we should call it what it is,” he said. “It is corporate manslaughter. That’s what it is. And there should be arrests made, frankly. It is an outrage.”
He said that after knocking on housing estate doors across the country during recent elections, he had seen that many buildings had antiquated fire standards and poor conditions.
In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Heather Brooke, a professor of Journalism at the City University of London, writes,
It soon emerged that residents had previously raised questions about fire safety in the building, which was home to about 120 families. The Grenfell Action Group, a community organization, had published a series of blog posts about their grievances with the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, the company that runs the building on behalf of the local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. One post from November 2016, starkly titled “KCTMO: Playing With Fire,” chillingly suggested that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.” The group’s complaints about fire safety go back to 2013.
Whether the borough listened to and acted on these warnings will be examined in the days to come. One thing the local government did do, reportedly, was have its in-house lawyer send a letter in 2013 to the blog’s author alleging defamation and harassment, and demanding the removal of several posts.
The regeneration of social housing using a mixture of public and private ownership began under Tony Blair’s Labour government and continues today. It is an issue fraught with strong feelings about politics and class, but in London the root of it is a city where the population is growing fast but the housing supply is not keeping pace. Added to this, the world’s superrich are choosing London real estate as a place to park their millions. Prices for private houses and apartments have skyrocketed.
The tragic London fire appears not to be the result of bad luck. There will be the usual studies and commissions to investigate.
But to me it appears to be at least in part the result of government failure to protect the public interest, particularly when it comes to the lives of immigrants and the poor, a push out of the poor and immigrants from the city due to unaffordable housing costs and the handing over what had been public ownership to private management.
If that sound familiar to us in the United States there is a reason.
With policies like that there are more tragedies to come.