Grenfell Tower: Three Years On
The lack of justice for the victims and their families epitomises the UK's rampant inequality
By Florence / 4 July 2020
Now, more than ever, home is a tautology of safety. To stay home is to be protected from the unknown and uncontrollable, to be a small hero in the face of viral terror. We cross the thresholds of our four walls at our calculated risks, before scurrying back into our sanctuaries to sanitise the fear off our hands. But what happens when home itself turns out to be the biggest threat after all?
June 14th 2020 marked the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which took 72 lives and left more than 150 families without shelter. The charred hull, which was once home to more than 500 people, loomed uncovered for five months over the North Kensington borough as a reminder of the 60-hour inferno and the lives it engulfed.
Three years later, plastic-wrapped Grenfell is a more familiar if no less abrasive feature of West London's skyline. In the past, June 14th has been marked with a silent march through the surrounding areas, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this practice of communal remembrance was moved online. In tribute to each of the victims, bells of London's churches tolled 72 times, and tower block windows were illuminated green in commemoration. Anniversaries bring an acuity to grief that, this year, has been intensified by limitations on social gatherings; the 700 children who received counselling in the wake of the blaze, and who reported finding the greatest condolence to be within their friendship groups, have had to mourn in isolation.
The seismic effects of that summer night are unending for bereaved relatives and survivors- 8 families of whom were still living in temporary accommodation at the beginning of this year. The fight for safe rehoming was the greatest challenge of the immediate fallout; however, this was only the first battle in what became a saga of injustices for the Grenfell community.
From the Grenfell fire, a nationwide scandal has emerged, revealing flimsy building regulations mean millions across the country are living in effective tinderboxes.
The ACM cladding that covered the 24 storey building, with the aim of improving the exterior aesthetic, did not comply with official construction regulations at the time, and the fire doors withstood 15, rather than 30, minutes of flames. Letters sent before June 2017 to a series of housing ministers- including Gavin Barwell, who at the time was chief of staff to Theresa May- urged the government to toughen up fire safety regulations in high rise structures. Furthermore, in January 2020 the Grenfell Tower Inquiry revealed a number of emails detailing how several corporations involved in the tower's aesthetic refurbishment were aware the cladding posed risks. In short, the 72 lives lost, and the hundreds traumatised, were preventable.
After the tragedy, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) stated that all combustible cladding would be removed by June 2020. However three years on, official figures show that over 300 high rise towers are still encased in flammable materials, within which, 56,000 people sleep each night dangerously due to bureaucratic complacency. Rishi Sunak recently detailed the government's £1.6bn commitment to cladding removal for both public and private sector accommodation, yet the pace of the scheme's progress and leaseholders' ability in accessing the fund has come under fire. The government has banned ACM cladding on buildings over 18m tall and are only investigating structures of and above that height, yet on the August 9th, 2019 a low-rise timber-framed care home in Crewe burnt to the ground.
After Grenfell, the nation said, "never again". Never again would terrified voices be silenced and ignored, and never again would conscious inaction result in loss of life.
Yet again, this time in the arena of a pandemic, violent patterns of negligence are being played out to disproportionately affect BAME groups, such as those who resided in Grenfell. Overcrowded housing has increased the virus' transmission by 70% in densely packed areas, something that has been cited as a reason for the recent outbreak in Leicester. Furthermore, a higher proportion of BAME individuals work in frontline roles and are thus subjected to increased viral exposure. The government's early complacency in containing the virus and the lack of PPE given to critical key workers has led the UK to be one of the worst affected countries globally, despite nationwide access to free healthcare. Ignorance and austerity, rather than the virus itself, are proved, yet again, to be the grim reapers of the pandemic, enmeshed within which is a systemic disregard of black and brown lives.
"We can't breathe" were the last words spoken on a phone call by 33-year-old nursery teacher Nadia Choucair, who died alongside her three daughters, Zainab, Fatima and Mierna, her husband, Bassem, and her mother, Sirria, in the Grenfell blaze. Three years on, a similar plea was the last thing uttered by George Floyd as a white policeman knelt on his neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds. The resultant Black Lives Matter protests have seen a number of statues of slave-traders toppled and defaced around the UK, yet Grenfell Tower stands tall as an insurmountable monument to the insidious racism that is extant in Britain today.
Crisis exposes the fault lines in our societies, but through these cracks, some hope has nonetheless emerged. After Grenfell, the UK government could no longer deny social housing neglect and the biggest reassessment of building safety in a generation is currently being undertaken as a result. The second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is due to begin on July 6th and will go into greater depth on the victims' final moments, hopefully granting grieving families some closure. The groundswell of local initiatives to rehabilitate the Grenfell area in the wake of the fire has been echoed in the insurgence of community spirit reported over the 'lockdown' period. In January, the Grenfell Projects Fund was allocated £600k to help grassroots projects within North Kensington; one of which is Minds United Football Club that provides football training sessions for adults suffering mental health or substance abuse problems following the tragedy.
Neither fire nor disease discriminates but a government whose interests lie with wealth, rather than welfare, does. If, after this pandemic, we say "never again" then let us say it this time in earnest. In dismantling the foundations of racism, greed, and arrogance on which our society was built, we can work towards constructing new homes that are physical, and ideological, spaces of safety.
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