Grenfell one year on: No justice, no peace

Grenfell one year on: No justice, no peace
Comment: This was a man made inferno, writes Malia Bouattia.
7 min read
14 Jun, 2018
The Grenfell community is still waiting for answers, accountability and justice, one year on [Getty]
It's difficult to believe that we are one year on from the tragic night of the Grenfell Tower Fire which took the lives of 72 people; difficult to imagine, because so little - if any - of the much needed justice has yet to be delivered to the victims, their families and communities. 

Indeed, one year on from the disaster that left us all looking on powerlessly as people burned to death at the heart of one of the richest boroughs in the UK, and the total lack of basic support, which led to the death of so many in the first place, has continued to characterise the government and council's approach to the Grenfell survivors.

Indeed, over 200 households, including surviving residents from the tower and those who lived nearby required rehousing following the events of 14 June.

As it stands, a shocking 129 of these households have yet to be rehoused. Over 70, many of whom are families with children, remain in emergency and temporary accommodation.

A former Grenfell Tower resident, Maryam Adam, who was pregnant when she escaped the blaze with her husband, lost many of her friends and neighbours. The couple were placed in temporary accommodation so small there was not even space for a cot for their newborn.

"We are not living in our home, or anything like it. I don't know where I'm going to move, where I'm going to live […] And I'm fed up because I don't know for how long I'm going to be waiting. We lost everything in Grenfell, we lost everything" she said.

Just days after the Grenfell tragedy, Theresa May announced that all the residents would be given a place to live within three weeks.

As the months passed, it became clearer that the Tories were not going to deliver on their promises. Nine months on from May's statement, then-housing secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that it was "unlikely" that everyone would be given a permanent home by even the first anniversary of the fire.

Some lives are dangerously cheap in Britain today

In a re-run of the decisions that led to the fire in the first place - ignoring the safety of the residents, cutting corners for profitability, and long-term social cleansing policies in the borough - survivors have been neglected and undermined during the incredibly slow process of being given new housing.

The North Kensington Law Centre - a source of legal support for all the victims - recently published a report which highlighted the negative impact it is having on the community. It showed that without basic achievements of collective justice and a state response, individual healing remained impossible for many of the survivors.

Public criticism has also been mounting against May's government, as people demanded answers about the causes of the fire, and share their discontent over her immediate response.

The information emerging from the public inquiry confirms what residents had been saying all along, both in the immediate aftermath, and in the run-up to the catastrophe:

This was a man made inferno.

Basic fire safety regulations were ignored, flammable cladding was installed because it was - marginally - cheaper, and the repeated calls by residents for action to be taken were not heeded. Some lives are dangerously cheap in Britain today.

In their rush to appease the situation, $313 million was spent by the government on over 300 homes by Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC).

And yet, more than 200 still lie empty because they are simply inadequate for the residents who are in urgent need of some stability following the trauma of last summer.

Some properties are said to have damp issues, or are far too small for families, others are too far from required hospitals and schools. To add insult to injury, there was even a failure to provide thorough fire safety checks to some properties prior to residents accepting them.

Given the psychological trauma of having escaped such a high block of flats, some survivors requested to be housed at lower levels to help allay fears of a repeat nightmare. Yet, despite having done the groundwork by collating extensive information about the residents' needs, in practice the process failed to take such factors into consideration, and some have been forced to decline inappropriate housing up to five times.

Without basic achievements of collective justice and a state response, individual healing remains impossible for many of the survivors

Others yet felt intimidated, and effectively forced to take what was given to them, despite its inadequacy.

In addition, it seems the burden of unsafe housing has been dumped on the shoulders of the poorest councils.

Just this week, it was announced that some councils, including Croydon, have had to halt much needed refurbishment work to council flats in order to fit in now-required sprinkler systems.

Funding cuts have meant that the council had to abandon existing refurbishment projects to deliver decent living conditions in order to meet the new safety regulations. Even in the responses to the horror of Grenfell, the reality of its cause continues to play out.

Housing is not considered a social right, a state responsibility, or a collective investment for the general good of society.

It is under-funded and under-resourced when public, and given over to rapacious money-making when private. The housing crisis continues, and the dramatic warning of the consequences of this approach, delivered in the most horrendous way to all of us last year, remains unheeded.

May and her party have offered nothing but empty words and symbolic actions, geared to PR, with little follow through.

It is hard not to be struck by how little Theresa May and her ilk care about the poor, about migrants, about people of colour whose lives were destroyed.

Had a similar fire - God forbid - ravaged through the streets of a different neighbourhood a few streets south, we would have seen crisis responses, national commemorations, and government-led action.

However, some lives are worth less than others, and the continuation of certain policies remains more important than the survival of the most downtrodden.

May's words since the fire match her policies, and the practices that led to the flammable cladding being placed on Grenfell tower in an attempt to cover up the poverty, the institutional xenophobia, and the structural racism that the residents' living conditions represented.

Just days ago, the PM admitted that her response was "not good enough" and continued to express her regret for not meeting survivors on the day. Once again, she proved her total failure to understand that tokenistic photo-ops intended show her compassion are meaningless when they are not matched by the practical efforts on the ground to meet the demands for justice, and healing that the Grenfell community have called for time and time again.

Watch again: Five days of Grenfell

As a member of the Grenfell Health and Wellbeing Service at St Charles' hospital explained, the psychological impact of the fire for residents is also dependent on factors such as the success of the public inquiry and their access to adequate and stable housing.

As it stands, justice remains out of sight.

Stormzy's words continue to sum up the situation with frightening precision: "Just forgot about Grenfell, you criminals, and you got the cheek to call us savages, you should do some jail time, you should pay some damages, we should burn your house down and see if you can manage this".

The UK we live in, and that we have lived in since the 1980s is one in which poor people burn to death because rich people didn't want to see their poverty, because their representative did not judge their lives as important as others, because profiting from housing is more important than providing for the black and brown working class communities.

And every day that goes by, shows again and again that without structural change, this status quo will continue for many years to come.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.