Four years on, Grenfell's delay in justice reveals UK society's systematic failings
It has been four years since the Grenfell Tower fire which devastated the lives of many and killed 72 people. The tower block is a harrowing reminder of just how deep structural inequality runs in many aspects of life in Britain including housing.
This fourth anniversary has come at a time where the British Government concluded in its race and ethnic disparities report that institutional racism in the UK doesn’t exist. And yet, institutional racism and classism killed Grenfell Tower’s residents.
Individuals from these communities do not have sufficient representation in parliament, let alone the local council
This tragedy happened in one of the richest boroughs in London and yet it was working-class citizens who were the most affected. Grenfell Tower was also home to marginalised communities; refugees, black and ethnic minorities, poor people. After narrowly escaping the horrors of war, refugees saw a glimpse of hope to start a life in Britain, only for that hope and life to be snatched away from them on 14 June 2017.
The English Housing Survey 2017-2018 reported that 40 percent of those living in high-rise social housing buildings are Black, Asian or other, which compared to the percent of the population (14 percent), is high.
Undoubtedly, many white people also live in poverty. However, multiple studies have shown that Black people and ethnic minorities are more likely to be on low income compared to white people. A shocking report from Runnymede (2020), The Colour of Money, revealed that Black African and Bangladeshi households have 10 times less wealth than White British people.
Kensington and Chelsea is home to the wealthiest people in the country and is 71 percent white. The poor, black people and ethnic minorities residing in the area, including those in Grenfell Tower, are simply not the local council’s priority when considering profits.
Individuals from these communities do not have sufficient representation in parliament, let alone the local council. There are clear wealth, educational and racial disparities in parliament which consists of an overwhelming majority of white people and people who have university degrees or have been privately educated.
In 2016, the Conservative Party shot down a bill requiring landlords to provide liveable housing. Nearly a quarter of MPs across all parties owned rental properties and 39 percent of Tory MPs were landlords.
The lack of representation further marginalises them and quashes their voices. Politicians who are so far removed from the consequences of government policies and the realities on the ground are making decisions that will affect the lives of thousands.
The regeneration project on Grenfell Tower and the dire consequences which came from it highlights the wider issues surrounding housing policies. Urban regeneration has caused the displacement of thousands of people on a low or middle income. The project has involved bulldozing social housing, many of which had no structural issues, and an increasing number of houses being built on and around council estates under the guise of the "mixed communities policy". It has been criticised for being a social cleansing tool to purge ‘the unwanted’ from valuable land so that private housing associations and the rich may take over.
For years, residents had been reporting flammable plastic and aluminium window frames, smoke coming from electrical appliances, the state of fire escapes and many other concerns but they were ignored. Individuals who had expressed their concerns were repeatedly treated as nuisances, bullied, blacklisted, and were even threatened with legal action.
Before the fire, a regeneration project was carried out on Grenfell Tower which involved installing the building with cladding. The planning documents made a repeated reference to how the cladding would improve the appearance of the area. The concern about how Grenfell Tower looks from the outside to largely white and wealthy residents living in luxury tower blocks in North Kensington being greater than the safety of residents in the tower exhibits the gross social inequality pervading Britain.
We must recognise institutional racism and classism to not only tackle inequalities but to save lives. Ignoring this fact will only perpetuate further inequality and harm as demonstrated by housing policies and the events which took place before and after the Grenfell fire
The council and housing developers failure to remove unsafe materials like cladding, as well as the government’s failure to hold them accountable, has resulted in thousands of people’s right to life and adequate housing being violated. Vulnerable residents, including wheelchair users, elderly and disabled people were housed on the top floors of the tower – a quarter of all the children and 41 percent of disabled people who lived in the Tower died that night.
In addition, fire safety notices were only in English, a language not spoken by many Grenfell residents. Human rights violations continued after the fire. Residents suffered from inhumane and degrading treatment when support and basic services were not given to them, and some survivors were still waiting to be rehoused three years after.
Recent events around Grenfell Tower’s 4th anniversary remind us of the poignant fact that nothing has really changed. Dangerous cladding is being used on new medium-rise homes despite leaseholders being forced to accept loans to remove them from existing buildings. Residents are given no choice. Either they endure potential bankruptcy or live in fear that their home will too become a hellish inferno. According to insulation manufacturer, Rockwool, about 25 recently-built hospitals, care homes and sheltered housing complexes were likely to have been constructed with cladding.
The newly built Nine Elms sky pool said to be the first of its kind in the world, has become yet another symbol of housing inequality. Residents of Embassy Garden who bought their flats under a shared ownership scheme are not allowed access to the pool, whereas those who purchased or rented their apartments at full price (most are currently priced over £1 million) can access the pool. Ballymore, the developer of the sky pool is also the owner and developer of a housing development called New Providence Wharf in Poplar, east London.
Ballymore has managed to invest in a luxurious pool on one side of London but has failed for nearly four years to remove flammable Grenfell like cladding from buildings Ballymore owns with the reason being it’s “complicated”. Just last month the 19-storey block at the New Providence Wharf estate, which has ACM cladding, caught fire and residents had to evacuate.
In addition, a recent video made by an extremely distressed mother has sparked another conversation about councils and other authorities neglecting poor people. The video showed her council flat ceiling caving in for the second time and water gushing over the area where her seven-year-old son usually watches television. She screams “I told them [the council]! I told them!” Thousands of citizens can resonate with the pain and anger in her voice. Grenfell Tower residents told the authorities of the dangers. They didn’t listen and then the fire happened. People are being put into horrible positions which are preventable and are not being treated with dignity or respect.
We must recognise institutional racism and classism to not only tackle inequalities but to save lives. Ignoring this fact will only perpetuate further inequality and harm as demonstrated by housing policies and the events which took place before and after the Grenfell fire. Human rights shouldn’t just be afforded to those who are wealthy but to everyone. Councils, housing developers and the government have a legal and moral obligation to protect human rights and uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as other international human rights laws.
Yasmin is a freelance journalist covering a variety of different subjects including human rights, law, culture, social issues and social justice.
Follow her on Twitter: @YasminAlnajar97