It feels today that we are at the start of a new era, still hazy and uncertain in its final shape, but clear that the old order is gone. As in a cartoon, we have run off the cliff and we hover in the air, our feet still spinning, waiting for the fall to start while we realise what has changed.
So much has changed.
Firstly, the laisser-faire deal between the people with businesses is over, but many company boards still misguidedly think that just more marketing and fine words will let them continue unreconstructed. The horrors of the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London exposes the duplicity of lobbying for fewer regulations while protecting profits, bonuses and huge salaries, including in some not-for-profit organisations. That there is now a criminal investigation may finally bring home to these boards the fury and anger of poorer people and the outcry for the growing inequalities and disregard for ordinary people to be challenged.
Secondly, the UK economy is weak and getting weaker. We really have not yet got past the 2008 crash, and the penny has now dropped in the public mind that austerity has not been the answer. Many economists have been calling out austerity for years, but it suited some peoples’ agendas to ignore the facts and to pretend instead that self-interested tax cuts and spending cuts were a sustainable answer to the previous private sector credit crunch and banking crisis.
Thirdly, austerity did not apply the privileged. We were not all in it together. The public mood now understands it was a mistake to believe in arguments that concentrated the spending cuts on revenue such as welfare benefits and public sector salaries while protecting capital and outsourcing contracts to business cartels. We are probably now at that moment in the Wizard of Oz where the curtain opens and we have realised the grubby reality of these deals. The railways with subsidies of over three billion pounds each year and yet staggering on in shabbiness and chaos is just one case study. Food banks are another.
Fourthly, Brexit. As one CEO pretty much summed it up this week – WTF! There is a crass level of thinking in some business circles that disruption is great. Lots of opportunities to make more money. Frankly, some who hold that idea are simply drawn by greed and will never be able to think through the consequences. Which is why we come back to the first point about regulation, where bluntly it is the role of the state to limit the excesses of greed, a job that goes way back into the beginnings of recorded history. And greed drove Brexit, both for political power and for disruption at any cost. For a change of perspective as seen from the continent this article by Jean Quatremer is well worth reading.
Finally and not least, those pesky kids. The institutions of the UK are frankly running fast to play catch up with millions of young people. An example here from a conversation within the BBC by young staffers who were frankly bemused with their detached older bosses.
“They don’t know where to start [to reach young people]. Even the studio audiences cannot have under-18s unless they are accompanied [post-Savile]”
“They say that given recent [political] events we need to come up with ideas to reach apathetic 16 and 17 years olds. [But] BBC Three isn’t touching them, nor is Radio 1. And TV is for ABC1 women aged 55 run by controllers who are ABC1 males aged 55.”
The times are changing. The pressure has been steadily building up but was denied and resisted. But economic realities have a force and groundswell of their own. The old neoliberal ways are increasingly irrelevant.
Now we must choose: either we manage change smoothly or change will manage us roughly.
One of my sisters and her family lives in social housing a few streets away from Grenfell Tower in London. She wrote the following pieces in the days after the tragedy:
[We] have been touched but not hurt by the fire in our community. There is a palpable ‘let them eat cake’ tension, heartfelt and visceral to me and mine that seems to largely pass the notice of our rich neighbours.
I believe that the establishment perspective is about media and information-release management, with a view to letting the story, and the number of the publicly admitted deaths, dribble out gradually.
The aim is to prepare people emotionally, nationally for the true horror and scandal. The effect here on the ground is of their denial of the loss, adding grievous insult to grievous injury.
They say 17, the people say 100-150 mostly children, with the most elderly and disabled on the top-most floors.
I also heard that once it was ablaze, no-one above the 5th floor got out.
I have seen Emma Dent Coad speak at a meeting a while back, she is exactly the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
Theresa May is on borrowed time.
My Canadian employers can’t understand how the fire could have happened in the 21st century. In Canada all high rise buildings must have sprinklers.
In this country we appear civilised. Tourists, visitors and the rich and privileged accept this appearance, as they are meant to. The resident poor know the difference.
Social housing is largely punitive, it sends messages to its residents that it must be their own fault, somehow. It is cramped with inadequate sound insulation and the landlords keep updating us on things we are not allowed to do. Coming up to Christmas my own estate they put up posters reminding us that if we try to spend on ourselves, rather than rent then we will be evicted. Each Christmas they do this, then, a few days before Christmas they post out the annual rent rises. The standard of workmanship is shoddy and third rate and they only repair things that they have a legal obligation to do.
My own block (4 floors) has balconies that run serve as a passageway to the flats, all of them built on the north side of the building. They built them in the shade deliberately. They know that if they were on the sunny side then residents would spend more time there. Our landlords have so little regard for us that they believe that we would all be fighting with each other, better that we stay put in our boxes.
The term ‘sink estate’ didn’t come from nowhere and the permanent signs posted around the grounds giving us a list of ‘no’s (no ball games, no cycling etc) finished off with a warning about anti-climb paint.
This thing happened because we are regarded and treated badly collectively, we are treated badly because we are poor and because they can.
Tony, you know from your own professional experience that risk assessments are a recurring feature. With my working in nurseries a daily risk assessment happens first thing. At each step of the way, but especially when adding cladding, what kind of a half-arsed excuse must that have been.
I will try to explain to my employer that what we have here is a corporation built shanty town.
I consoled my Jewish neighbour and friend yesterday who was revisited by the spectre of Auschwitz.
I don’t blame all rich people, or Theresa May personally. I get how these happen. I know why she and the landlord’s representatives don’t want to face the people.
Collectively we have a terrible record of responding appropriately to large scale domestic disasters. In part the individuals immediately concerned can be overwhelmed by their tasks, rabbit in the headlights response.
In the case of Grenfell Tower the establishment playing down of the numbers is part of the reason, I think, that their response is non-existent. I know they dare not show their own faces (could some of them be busy shredding documents?) but if they were taking their responsibility, and the true scale of the scenario seriously then they could have employed an agency that knows how to deal humanitarian disaster relief.
I have heard, unconfirmed, that the gifts donated have now been locked away in storage.
Going anywhere on foot these days takes so much longer because friends and neighbours want to talk.
My friend thought the true number could be 200.
One neighbour told me that the metal reinforcements within the concrete will have melted away. If this is completely or only in part, the structural integrity is seriously compromised.
Yesterday was humbling, none of those deeply traumatised young firemen joined to tell people to stay inside only to watch them burn and it is this same force that will be going back inside to shore up the fragile and charred mega-mausoleum and to locate and count the bodies.
It isn’t just that people here need to talk when they meet their neighbours in the estate or in the street, we have also learnt just how valuable our community is and we feel a need to express our love and to strengthen those bonds.
Why, I have been asked, do we build over 11 stories when that is the extent of the fire brigade’s hoses?
Sky and Channel 4 have been praised and valued, the BBC has been perceived as trying to wind down the coverage too early.
Among the tributes at the site, collective and individual expressions of loss, some well targeted anger and one particularly that I will hold onto, two words inside a sparkly red heart outline: Come Unity.
I learned yesterday from The Metro, that last year The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea received £55 million in rent and spent £40 million on housing, they are currently ‘sitting’ on reserves of £274 million. These shocking figures haven’t taken account of the council taxes reaped from their tenants, on top of the rent.
I live in social housing in the Right Royal Borough although my landlord is Peabody I can supply some background.
My second biggest expense, after rent is council tax and my rent has risen with an eye to the private market rates rather than them accurately covering my landlord’s costs.
Quite a big proportion of the total rent received by the Borough is through housing benefit but not all. And quite a big proportion of the housing benefit is on behalf of people on state pensions. Most of those around me of working age and ability do just that, and pay full rent even if they are earning low or unreliable wages.
My costs (as an example):
Last years rent: £7,027.80
Last years council tax: £926.93
Also I learned from The Metro, they repeat it from an interview in The Daily Telegraph with a rookie firefighter (Shoreditch based April Cachia -26) I feel this needs repeating, quoting:
“Her crew was warned that the stairwell was too cramped for firefighters to go in wearing breathing apparatus suits, so they were given the option of helping survivors outside the building or going inside wearing just their eye gear.”
She went in as far as the 10th floor and helped out 20 people despite it being 5 days into her job. She also said that she had never seen so many people work so hard.
Heroes and villains.
I don’t intend to be banging on endlessly, but there are still some salient points that need a good airing. They also need to be acknowledged and addressed by those responsible and those in power.
Firstly, and this is aimed at the media outlets. Please, when you quote the numbers (79 at the moment) choose your words very carefully! 79 is NOT the number of the dead from the Grenfell fire, 79 is the officially acknowledged number of the dead from the Grenfell fire so far! It will rise and everybody knows it. To imply otherwise is to collude in what could be, or appear to be, a cover-up!
Secondly there is a real fear that the survivors will be housed outside of the Borough, even if their family, school, work and community is right here. This perception stems from the aggressive gentrification pushed by top price property developers to change the poorest section of the Borough into prime real estate that has been a feature in the area.
In the past few years there have been two nearby mass developments, clearing away social housing and poor people.
- Covering a huge area from the top of Portobello Road running all the way to Wornington Road, this is nearing completion.
- The whole other side of Wornington Road from the college at the Golbourne Road end to Ladbroke Grove at the other, which is currently being demolished.
Now I know that these developments are welcomed and encouraged by The Royal Borough, who relish the prospect of moving out potential Labour voters in favour of nice clean (and rich) fellow Tories.
This is, and has been, their agenda and their policy of choice and it has fed into their outrageous attitude that is apparent in their dealings with their social housing tenants.
This is why when Emma Dent Coad took the Kensington seat for Parliament the jerrymanderers could not believe that, even after all of the Kensington Town Hall Tory rigging of the democratic process a Labour candidate had still been chosen, and demanded three recounts.
If we do not actively address these issues and we go back to business as usual then we will be storing up potentially worse problems in the future.
Thursday night I was woken at around 1am, someone knocked hard and repeatedly on my door. I couldn’t see anyone through the spy-hole so I stepped out onto the balcony to see one of the two fire engines entering my estate.
1 of my neighbours in my block, it transpired, had fallen asleep and a chip pan had caught fire, No-one was hurt and we watched the same firemen, last seen in tears at the ceremony at the Grenfell site a week on, working efficiently and without the extra stress that we have also recently witnessed. An hour and a half later we went back in.
The following day around noon I answered my door to three senior firemen. They told me that they would like to check my smoke alarm and answer any questions I may have. That was what they told me but this clearly was not the extent of their job in hand. One of them engaged me in pertinent conversation and sought permission for them to enter my home. I am not an expert but I know that it doesn’t take two experienced senior firemen to press the button on a smoke alarm. As we were talking the other two were all over the place in a hurry, as well as pressing the button.
My guess is that their brief included looking for evidence, and making notes of:
- How many people actually live here.
- The type and condition of any possibly dubious domestic appliances.
- Does anyone smoke or use candles.
- The tenant’s understanding and responsibilities regarding fire safety issues.
They also listened with interest the tenant’s specific concerns about their particular building in regards to fire safety, I asked about the entrance doors to all blocks on my estate which are electromagnetic, solid 2″ thick hard wood. Would they open in the event of a serious fire.
If I were a professional firefighter I would feel happier going out to a housing estate fire with a clear picture of what difficulties may be encountered before they happen in order to be equipped and briefed ahead.
God bless them.