Britain: Grenfell Tower fire…still waiting for justice, one year on

Grenfell demonstrators, 17.6.17 (photo Mary Finch)

The horror of the fire at Grenfell Tower one year ago, on 14 June 2017, will be etched on the consciousness of working class people for a very long time. None more so than the survivors, and the families and friends of those who lost their lives. But this terrible event is seared into the hearts and minds of working class people across the country, especially in London, where the housing crisis is immense.

From the moment the disaster took place, the anger of affected local people was expressed in class terms. This was about rich and poor. This was the sacrifice of working class lives in the name of profit, especially black, Asian and migrant workers’ lives.

As the Socialist said at the time: “It cannot be clearer that austerity kills. But this is more than the last seven years of Tory austerity. It is decades of cuts, privatisation, deregulation, relaxation of planning, lack of democratic accountability.
“It is moneygrubbing, cost-cutting, scrimping shortcuts in the pursuit of ‘savings’ and profit. From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to David Cameron, this is rampant neoliberalism.”

The accounts given to the Grenfell inquiry are heartrending. All the capitalist politicians and media weep.

But it is an outrage that after a year we have to demonstrate outside Downing Street. A whole year, and there is no justice.
Still no one responsible is in prison. Still there is no decent housing for the survivors. Still tower blocks around the country are covered in dangerous cladding, with no sprinklers and broken fire doors.

Still the representatives of the super-rich who created this nightmare are untouched. And still the capitalist establishment acts as judge in its own case, in Martin Moore-Bick’s so-called inquiry.

It is an outrage that demands action. Get these people housed. Take over the empty properties. Call an independent, working class inquiry to shine a light on the profit-seekers and their political friends.And fight like never before to get these Tories out.

Rehouse survivors immediately – take over empty properties

Despite Theresa May’s promises, Grenfell survivors still languish in hotels. Only around one in four have a new permanent home.

As of summer last year, the borough’s Sutton Estate had 159 empty council homes. A council data leak identified 1,652 empty private properties – many simply commodities to be traded on international markets.

At the time, Jeremy Corbyn rightly raised requisitioning empty properties. We said yes – and that compensation should only be paid when there is a proven need: not a penny of public money should go to the bloated mega-rich and their investment companies.

But a year on nothing has happened. Why should survivors and the local community wait any longer?

If the politicians won’t act, the community can. The Socialist Party advocates going back to the traditions of the 1940s when working class communities organised mass occupations of luxury housing (see below).

So many knock-on effects still blight the local community.Residents of the Lancaster West estate in the shadow of the tower have to pay rent and service charges – despite a fifth of them living in hotels due to maintenance problems months after the event. They still didn’t have regular central heating, gas or even water supply. Access to the estate was very difficult – and, incredibly, urgent fire work had not been carried out.

Mental health services are overwhelmed, meaning many who need help for other reasons are put back on waiting lists or have support curtailed.

Disgracefully, it appears that some residents face deportation. Unwittingly, these residents have found that they haven’t complied with the bureaucratic small print to extend their leave to remain.

Launch an independent, working class inquiry

Already it is clear from the inquiry that there was a catalogue of failures – from inadequate government building regulations to failed fire doors and much more.

The Socialist Party completely rejects attempts to blame firefighters who heroically faced a situation in which the failures of management, council, government and profit-driven policies complicated normal assumptions.

But the inquiry cannot be a genuine, independent inquiry that points the finger at the capitalist establishment responsible for this when its chair and key advisers are drawn from the very same circles.

As we commented at the time: “When it was announced that judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick was to take charge of the inquiry, it became immediately apparent that this was the ruling class choosing someone to do a job for itself.”

Their interests are to protect the politicians who promote austerity, deregulation and privatisation, and the private companies who profit from these measures.

Lawyer Imran Khan suggests the inquiry should investigate whether institutional racism was a factor. Undoubtedly the horrific events are evidence of racism in the pursuit of profit at the cost of working class lives – but this inquiry is not likely to draw those conclusions.

It is for this reason the Socialist Party has argued there should be an independent community and trade union-led inquiry.
Trade unions are working class organisations independent of all the vested interests. If they worked in liaison with local tenants’ organisations, they have the authority and resources to set up their own inquiry, with terms of reference set by those affected rather than the Tory government.

May elections warning: socialist policies and action needed

In Kensington and Chelsea there was a genuine belief that, for the first time ever, the Tories could lose control of the council, particularly after Labour’s narrow parliamentary victory in Kensington in the 2017 general election.

But we warned that in order to make gains Labour needed to show it would be a radically different kind of council, one that listens and acts in defence of its working class residents.

The vast majority of Labour councillors in London do not support Jeremy Corbyn’s policies. In fact, Labour councils undermine support for Labour every day with their cuts and privatisation.

The Socialist Party has consistently argued that they should refuse to pass on austerity, use reserves and borrowing powers to stave off cuts, and build a mass campaign for the funding necessary.

We said Corbyn supporters in Kensington and Chelsea Labour, together with local tenants, should organise a conference to debate policies a new council should be elected on. For example, rehousing Grenfell victims, using the £280 million in the council’s reserves, and requisitioning empty properties.

If a Labour council had been elected on that basis, it could have taken radical steps to bring justice to Grenfell. But sadly this was not done. Labour gained one extra councillor. An opportunity has been missed.

But this does not mean the chance has gone for justice. Residents’ organisation and decisive action by the trade unions, organised around the concrete demands expressed above, could bring not only justice to the survivors of Grenfell and the community, but win safety for all residents of tower blocks and mass housing.

Jeremy Corbyn and the trade union leaders need to call massive national action. The demonstration on Saturday 16 June, correctly led by the Fire Brigades Union with some of the local campaigns, should just be the start of the union leaders mobilising demonstrations and coordinated strikes to drive out the Tories and bring in a government that stands in the interests of working class people.

Workers’ tradition of occupying empty homes

In September 1946, returning World War Two veterans arrived home to find a massive housing shortage. Local councils weren’t meeting their housing needs.

About 200 families, led by the Communist Party, occupied Duchess of Bedford House on Campden Hill, between South Kensington and Notting Hill, on Sunday 8 September 1946.

It was luxury accommodation and lying empty. So many turned up that they had to find another eight houses.

The occupation was a central part of a campaign that forced councils to find alternative housing arrangements. Similar occupations took place in the 1970s.

Neoliberal model has failed: socialist policies can solve housing crisis

Paul Kershaw, chair, Unite the Union housing workers’ branch

Commentators compete to explain that Grenfell sums up what is wrong with Britain and that it must mark a change. But that change means rejecting polices put forward by politicians of all the major parties for decades.

Homelessness has more than doubled since 2010. Over a million families in England were stuck on waiting lists for social housing last year, and a quarter of those have been waiting for more than five years.

Increasing numbers are trapped in insecure, often poor quality, private rented accommodation. Low pay and insecure work, combined with rising debt and decades of house price inflation, mean the dream of buying a home is increasingly distant. Home ownership is at a 30-year low despite the fact that most government spending on housing now goes to supporting home ownership.

Research from Nationwide Building Society shows that a third of people renting privately are left with just £23 to spend weekly. The number of families contacting Citizens Advice about illegal evictions has increased by just over 40% since 2014. This is a growing housing emergency.

Attempting to deflect criticism of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), the council’s lawyer James Maxwell-Scott told the Grenfell inquiry that the wealth of the borough was irrelevant as the fire could have happened in other borough with high-rise buildings.

Of course, the point is that penny-pinching on maintenance and refurbishment, and the failure to act effectively to support or rehouse victims, reveal the reality of neoliberalism at its most stark in an area littered with billionaires and empty ‘safe deposit box’ luxury homes.

But it is true that the failed neoliberal housing model – mass sell-offs; penny-pinching budget cuts; multiple, buck-passing, profit-seeking, outsourced contractors; total failure to listen to working class residents – is universal. Bad conditions and a failure to meet basic safety standards remain a scandal around the country.

Grenfell resident Eddie Daffarn was asked what linked the multiple failures that led to the fire in a Guardian interview. He answered: “Greed, lack of respect, lack of humanity. It is the opposite of everything it should be. This is housing as a commodity to be exploited. It is not only in RBKC, it is what housing has become.”

It seems some social landlords are using the government’s failure to issue clear guidance as an excuse for inaction. Although the government has now belatedly pledged money for safety work, it is not new money and will come out of existing budgets.

While trying to calm investor concerns that it could follow the path of Carillion, which collapsed earlier this year, Mitie, which provides a range of services to social landlords, reports investment in housing stock has been delayed due to expected post-Grenfell costs.

A campaign for a socialist solution to the capitalist housing crisis could get enormous support. Labour’s most recent policy statement on social housing marks a move away from the neoliberal New Labour policies of the past, but still bears the marks of the Blairite right wing (see Socialism Today issue 219, ‘Labour’s halfway housing plan’).

It commits the party to return house building to a level last seen in the 1970s before serious neoliberal attacks undermined council housing.

But it only commits to return to the level of spending last seen before 2010 – when building was far too low, and the problem of affordability was intensifying. And rather than building them all as council homes, under the control of a democratically elected local authority, the total is now to include social and private housing.

We need tough rent control and security of tenure across the private sector now, as an emergency measure. Democratic accountability of all landlords – private, social and council – to tenants and the wider workers’ movement. And a massive programme of investment in improving – not gentrifying – existing social and council housing, as well as building new council homes.


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June 2018