Housing a Human Tragedy

The cost

Governments can be terrorists too,
Save some pennies, all for the few.
What would Margaret Thatcher do?
Burn the poor for a better view.

Rachel Fox, 2017

Rachel Fox’s poem, for me, expresses something of the anger a lot of people are feeling about the tragic events at Grenfell Tower in West London. On top of the saddening, sickening loss of life, one of the most tragic things about the fire is that it was completely avoidable.

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Over the last few days we’ve seen, heard and felt many things. The unbearable sorrow of people who’ve lost family, friends, neighbours, pets. We’ve no doubt imagined the terror and desperation of those who were trapped and perished, picturing ourselves in their shoes, feeling their confusion, fear and horror.

We’ve read the blog by concerned tenants whose pleas, forewarning of potential tragedy, fell on deaf ears and blind budgets. And we learn new information every day that fuels the fury we feel. Lessons were not learned from a fire at Lakanal House, where three women and three young children died, and apparently relatives were not given Legal Aid, and therefore a voice at the inquest. Because Legal Aid was cut, thanks to austerity.

And let’s not forget that last year an amendment to the government’s Housing and Planning Bill was voted out. An amendment that would have required private landlords to make homes “fit for human habitation.”  You may want to read that sentence again and really take it in. MPs voted against making rented homes fit for human habitation.

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Surviving families are each being given £5,500 from a government fund to help their recovery. I don’t know the details of how this is to be used, but it seems barely enough to carpet and furnish a new home, and won’t come close to replacing the belongings people collect over a lifetime. And of course finding them new homes will not happen easily or quickly. We are immersed in a housing crisis. Not the one we repeatedly hear about in mainstream media that affects first time buyers, but a crisis where we have enormous waiting lists of people in genuine need of homes, particularly social housing that, generally, offers more security as well as affordability compared to the rip-off private sector.

And will they face months and months of waiting for necessary counselling to ease them on their journey through this trauma? Because, ordinarily, working class people always have to wait. This will be an uphill battle on so many levels.

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My sister lives a couple of stops away from Grenfell. Visiting the area felt uncomfortable, prying even, but we felt compelled to pay our respects and offer what little we could. I did not enjoy taking photographs, and there were many I couldn’t and wouldn’t take, but it’s what I do and I feel certain that we mustn’t avert our eyes. We must bear witness, document and never forget. The burned remains of the tower will eventually be demolished, but we can never forget what happened.  The stories will drop down the news agenda in the coming weeks, but families, survivors and communities will be living with the consequences forever.

The people volunteering their time are doing ordinary, amazing, human things. The church we visited had stopped taking donations of goods, such has been the generosity of people near and far. People have been running art therapy sessions with local children. A small child’s drawing of a black tower engulfed in colourful flames floored me – children should never see such sights. And I’ve never seen donations jars so stuffed full of notes. The local communities were there in an instant, dealing with an emergency with immediacy and action, not sitting in luxury offices deliberating. Bet them offices have sprinklers, too.

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Grenfell Tower was once home to hundreds of people. Now it stands as a symbol of the extreme inequality of our society. I don’t doubt that, had that been a tower of luxury flats, as opposed to social housing filled with predominantly black and brown people on low incomes, this would never have happened. And this is explicitly political. Austerity impacts hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. Every expense is spared if you’re hit by government imposed spending cuts, as council departments and social housing have been.

Outpourings of love, horror and anger sit side by side in the messages people leave on  boards and walls in the streets surrounding Grenfell Tower. But we are still waiting to hear expressions of contrition. We are still waiting to see shame. Because this tragedy was avoidable, and that is fucking shameful.

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3 thoughts on “Housing a Human Tragedy

  1. A terrible tragedy Peter- it was caused by years of neglect and pitiful non action to concerns made by residents. On BBC Panorama last night they said that the fireman put out the original fridge fire on the fourth floor and they thought the job was done until they went outside and saw the flames leaping up from floor to floor. Yes a reflection of how our society has sunk to treating rich and poor in totally different ways. Yes as you say completely avoidable and living in a supposedly civilised society in the 21st Century it should never have been allowed to happen. Words fail

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