One year on: the wider implications of the Grenfell Tower disaster

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It was in 2014 that then Prime Minister David Cameron said ‘spending cuts had done little damage’. This sanguine assessment of government spending since 2010 has been starkly contrasted by the blaze at Grenfell Tower. The disaster not only the crystallised seven years of austerity but the result of a culture of deregulation. A culture of seeing red tape as undesirable.

Some commentators tried to depoliticise the event by arguing that the fire may have been a human error. This view neglects decades worth of government failure with regards to Grenfell, council housing and to a great extent, housing policy. That may be the use of flammable cladding, the absence of fire sprinkler systems across tower blocks in the country or the dearth of affordable social housing. The latter was an issue born from the industrial-scale selling off of council housing under the ‘right to buy scheme’; all are problems that are inherent failures of central and local governance.

Housing policy intertwines organically with views of social class. ‘Poverty porn’, perpetuated by politicians and mass media across the UK alike, stems from a central thesis of shirkers. Continuing on, this is the idea of an apathetic, inattentive underclass of people that do not work or strive. As well as tensions between Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, this view helps to explain the consistent neglect of Grenfell Action Group’s pleas regarding the safety of the tower. Coupled with this was the rejection of COBRA meetings by Theresa May and her continued contempt in not meeting victims families in the immediate aftermath, ending in scathing criticism from residents.

Views of those who live on tower blocks and social housing are also at the mercy of government agenda. Continually, since the Thatcher years of privatisation, rampant deregulation regarding housing has removed vital safety provisions. New regulations have also ensured watering down and vagueness of safety provision, with them now being open to the manipulation and contusion of the political climate. This precarious push towards lowering costs at the expense of regulation is referenced by Jose Terero, a fire safety expert who spoke to the Grenfell Inquiry in phase one of its proceedings. He stated that there is a need to shift from a culture that inappropriately trivialises ‘compliance’ to a culture that recognises complexity in ‘compliance’ and therefore values ‘competency, performance and quality’.

Theresa May has since been praised in bringing about the potential to produce ‘a new age of building for homes.’ Action including the Social Housing Green Paper, attempting to rid the stigma of social housing and tower blocks is admirable, but when events take place that undermines this such as the effigy burning of a Grenfell recreation, it is clear to see much work is to be done. Nonetheless, there have been useful steps taken in unshackling local government by allowing them to borrow against the Housing Revenue Accounts. There has also been a £2bn spending pot earmarked for affordable housing. Swiftly after the policy was made, however, local council leaders from Lincolnshire (currently building less than 20 homes a year) to Nottinghamshire (a relative success story building around 200 homes a year currently) stated that it was not enough money for supply to meet demand. More radical ideas, such as councils’ renting unused property, known as ‘sweating’ have been rejected fervently by the government.

It was in 1990 that former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan noted that, ‘There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics’. Whether this and the problems the Conservative minority government are facing during Brexit signal a shift in the emphasis of policies created remains to be seen. I for one, am sceptical.

 

Lukas Winterburn

 

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