The fire which swept up the Grenfell tower in the early hours of 14th June is not only horrific for the sheer scale of the tragedy, but also for its avoidability. It is a gruesome monument to the naked greed, short-sightedness, and corruption of the capitalist system, shown by the criminal shortcomings of the council and their contractors.
The Grenfell tower was built in the 1970s as one of a collection of grey and mundane council blocks that were so popular with councils in that period, seen as a quick way to resolve Britain’s housing problems. Not only popular with councils, they were also popular with British construction companies, who saw a quick buck to be made selling system-built prefabricated concrete boxes for the poor.
Numerous housing companies cropped up on the market. All of them had in common a desire for a quick financial turnaround, with scant regard for either the environment or social issues that these monstrous estates created.
Amongst these was the notorious Taylor Woodrow “Anglian” system-built housing that was used on Ronan Point, which collapsed on 16th May 1968, killing four and injuring 17 others. The subsequent inquiry into Ronan Point found that the building was unsafe; that it had not been designed for expected wind loadings and would not be able to withstand even small explosions or fire damage.
Stories abound about shoddy work practises and the social problems created by these places, and by the 1990s tenants in these monsters were demanding either radical refurbishments or demolition; and not a few disappeared, with low-rise housing replacing them.
Both under Thatcher and Tony Blair, however, a new ethos arose that worshiped the middle class and big business. A demonisation of the working class was launched by the ruling class, determined to retrench their wealth; to try and shore up their decaying social system and denigrate the working class.
Not a few council estates have disappeared completely under the aegis of “regeneration”, only to be replaced by luxury flats – “affordable homes”…for the rich, opening up possibilities for speculators.
Criminal council and contractors
This is where the Grenfell tower disaster comes in.
North Kensington is undergoing a similar regeneration, with new homes for the rich being put up. The Grenfell tower didn’t look right and didn’t fit in to the area’s new image, so the Kensington Council decided to spend £10 million giving the tower a makeover.
The council and its contractor Rydon decided to use a panelling called Reynobond PE (polyethylene) to clad the building. According to a Reuters report online, “The manufacturer of the panels used to clad the London tower block…advised customers against using its polyethylene-cored tiles - the ones reportedly used at Grenfell Tower - in high rise buildings.”
The Reuters article continues:
“John Cowley, director of Omnis Exteriors which supplied the padding for the refurbishment but did not install it, told the Guardian that the company had been asked to supply the Reynobond PE variant.
“The newspaper said the PE panels were £2 cheaper per square metre than the Reynobond FR [fire resistant] option.”
Another aspect of the installation of cladding on the outside of building is the existence of a gap between the cladding and the structure, which can act as a furnace chimney, funnelling a fire upwards very quickly.
Both the speed that the fire spread through Grenfell Tower and photographs of the intensity of the fire – showing white flames sweeping up the building – testify fully to just how highly dangerous this cladding is. It raises serious question as to the sanity of the authorities who sanctioned the use of the stuff on a tower block, even although they were aware that it was completely unsuitable for use in such circumstances.
No doubt, a key factor in their calculation was that it is cheap. And yet the above report indicates that the fire resistant option was only £2 per square metre more expensive – an estimated total additional cost of only around £6,000.
Given that there was a previous fire in a social housing tower in Camberwell, South London, back in 2009 where six people died, why didn’t Kensington Housing ALMO seriously consider the recommendation that came out from the public enquiry into that disaster: the need for a functioning fire alarm system and the installation of a fire sprinkler system as part of the refurbishment of the building. Surely a part of the £10 million bill could have been earmarked for this important improvement? And why haven’t the Tory government in Westminster pushed for this as a requirement?
Justice for Grenfell!
Maybe the corrupt mafia that is the Kensington & Chelsea Tory council and their agents think sprucing the building up on the outside was much more important than looking after the safety of tenants entrusted into their care.
A look on the Rydon website today shows two other high-rise refurbishments to their credit: the Chalcot Estate in Camden and Ferrier Point in Canning Town, Newham.
In response to the criminal Grenfell scandal, Camden Council have confirmed that they are already now stripping away cladding on towers suspected to be at risk. With up to 600 tower blocks across the country now estimated to use similar below-standard panels, it is likely that many other council will have to follow suit.
The labour movement needs to demand a full inquiry into this disaster and into the safety of other refurbished blocks. We need to open up the books, not just at Kensington council, but others too, and make these accounts available for scrutiny by representatives from the labour movement and tenant organisations.
Those responsible for this horrific event must answer for and pay for their misdeeds. For too long there has been a cosy arrangement behind closed doors between the building industry, local authorities, and central government. The time has come to open the doors wide on these shadowy corridors and bring forth the light.
Working class homes are dangerous places
By a Coventry reader of Socialist Appeal
The tragic but avoidable deaths in Grenfell Tower in London have focussed the minds of some on what could happen in the approximately 4,000 tower blocks scattered across Britain. As I write, it has been revealed that 600 buildings could have similar issues and inspections are underway. But as many of those affected directly and indirectly by the Grenfell Tower fire have said, it is too little too late.
And it is not as if those in authority had not been warned. On 14th June the Guardian reported the words of architect and fire expert Sam Webb who had surveyed hundreds of residential tower blocks in the early 1990s and had presented his report to the Home Office. “A disaster waiting to happen,” he says. “We are still wrapping post-war high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.” Not only did more than half the buildings surveyed not meet basic fire safety standards but also, “We discovered a widespread breach of safety, but we were simply told nothing could be done because it would ‘make too many people homeless’.”
In the same Guardian article Dr Jim Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association (FPA), asserts that our standards need a fundamental overhaul. He says he has been campaigning for years to see fire safety standards improved, to no avail. He states, “It’s a tragedy that long-awaited changes to regulations usually only happen after significant loss of life.” And the lives lost are those of working class people!
We may never know the true figure of the number who died. For the past few days the media has spoken and written of 79 (and it is worth repeating) “needless deaths”, but the real figure could be closer to 150. Why? There are scores unaccounted for. Visitors to the block were not recorded. And there is the issue of multi-occupancy and subletting given the housing shortage crisis in Britain (and especially in London).
These events are of personal significance to me. I live in the top quarter of a tower block of 16 floors. Grenfell Tower had 24 floors, but there are similarities in my block with Grenfell Tower:
- There are allegations of subletting, where official tenants move to another city for work or for relationships, but do not know how long they will be away and, given the chronic housing shortage, do not want to relinquish a more secure tenancy than what can be had in the private housing sector. So who lives in the block? We don’t know.
- Our block was refurbished about 14 months ago just like Grenfell Tower. The work was supposed to take nine months but took 18. And cladding was added to make the flats better insulated and easier on the eye. We have been assured by the West Mercia Housing Group that the cladding is far safer that at Grenfell Tower. We don’t know.
- New doors and windows to the wrap-around balcony were installed but they are noisier, colder and draughtier than the ones taken out. With such draughts coming in, the claim that a fire in any flat will be contained for a “safe” period to allow tenants to escape is a hollow claim as incoming air will feed the fire.
- In addition to the in draughts from the balcony door and windows there is also an in- draught from the pantry area. That means that the smoke from any fire below me will soon fill my flat leading to potential asphyxiation.
- There have been numerous complaints from tenants to the management organisation about health and safety issues – and all have been ignored. The week after the Grenfell Tower disaster, fire notices about evacuation procedures appeared on the ground floor in my block. And in the same week workers arrived to dig trenches to install lighting in the car park, as cables to the original lighting had been severed over a year ago during the refurbishment. For over a year health and safety issues were ignored, despite complaints.
- All of the council house stock in Coventry was once owned and managed by Coventry City Council. In December 2000 some 58.56% of existing council tenants took part in a ballot to transfer control to a management organisation called Whitefriars Housing, which became part of West Mercia Housing in 2008. 6,315 tenants voted to transfer and 5,220 voted to stay with the Council. If you take into account those who did not vote, the percentage of tenants voting to transfer was 31.8% (6,315 tenants out of more than 20,000) and the transfer took place. As in London, management of the council housing stock was effectively outsourced to a “not for profit organisation” that employs a number of people, and those at the top earn a very good salary. How much certain employees earn we do not know as the Freedom of Information Act only applies to public bodies and Whitefriars is not a public body. It is therefore a closed book to tenants.
- When the transfer took place in 2000, tenants were allowed to elect four representatives to sit on the Whitefriars board of management. About three years ago the elections for tenants reps were abolished by Whitefriars, with the support of the then right-wing controlled Labour Council, as elections were too expensive (!) and the reps did not have, according to Whitefriars, the skills they were looking for!! As in Grenfell Tower the tenants became voiceless.
- We used to have regular meetings in our block between tenants and management representatives. They were also abolished a few years ago as at each meeting there was criticism of management. So management wanted to ensure that tenants’ “voices were not heard”.
- There is a feeling of apathy in the block as any complaints that are made by individuals are ignored by management, so fewer complaints are now made with the general feeling being “what is the point?” The fire and deaths at Grenfell Tower may wake many of the tenants up. However, as in London, there are tenants here who were previously refugees or asylum seekers or simply homeless and it often happens that when you are homeless and/or in need of refuge, the last thing you do is make complaints.
So where do we go from here? What demands do we make to make sure that those who manage the blocks are accountable? Where is the democracy for tenants? After all, our lives may be at stake!
- All management organisations of council/social housing stock should open their books so we as tenants who pay the rent can see where the money goes and who is paid what. One of the complaints made by tenants in Grenfell Tower was where did the £10m refurbishment costs go, especially as reports suggest that inferior materials were used.
- All social housing that has been outsourced to “not for profit” organisations should be brought back into council control so that the democratic element of regular local council elections can be used to make council housing departments accountable to the electorate. We as Whitefriars tenants cannot elect our reps, but strangely too no-one elects the Board of Management of Whitefriars. Apart from the four city councillors appointed to the management board by the City Council, all the other Board members are self appointed.
- Each block in the city should have a tenants’ committee that meets regularly, is funded and can produce a regular bulletin/newsletter as the mouthpiece of the tenants. At the moment all we get is a “regular” management newssheet that tells the tenants how well the management is doing.
- The Board of Management of council/social housing in each area should be made up of elected tenant representatives, the trade unions that organise the workers in the management organisations and the city council. Perhaps then we will have democracy and accountability in how council/social housing is provided and managed.
- At local, regional and national level there should be committees comprising tenants, the fire and rescue services, trade unions from the building industry, councillors and MPs to completely overhaul the regulations governing building standards in all buildings. It is now being reported that similar problems to Grenfell Tower could affect schools, hospitals and even some hotels.
- Finally, what happened in Grenfell Tower is intimately related to the housing crisis and the desperate shortage of truly affordable homes for rent, not the £400,000 homes that Cameron once claimed were affordable. Families with children should not be forced to live in tower blocks. We therefore need a massive home building programme of houses and flats. But how are we to achieve that? In our present system homes are built for profit. If no profit can be made from building homes for rent, they will not be built.
- To build homes we need land, finance, materials and skilled labour. Who owns the land? Who owns and controls the finance? Who owns the brick works, the cement factories, the glass and PVC works? Where is the skilled labour going to come from when funding to further education colleges, where building workers used to be trained, has been cut to the bone and courses closed? There is a dire shortage of skilled building workers. Why is it that between £50-80bn can be found for prestige projects such as HS2 but we cannot find the money to provide one of the most basic needs of human beings: a home?
- If all of the privately-owned resources needed to build homes cannot cooperate and coordinate their activities to solve the basic need of decent homes for all, then in the Labour Party and the trade unions we have to raise the issue of taking into public ownership land, finance and building resources, and for these to be managed under an agreed system of democratic control. We cannot democratically plan to solve the housing shortage if we do not own and control the means of solving that shortage.
- This is a class issue. How many more deaths do we need for people to wake up and realise that those who own and control the means of producing wealth do not care where their workers live, so long as these workers can get to work to create profits for shareholders. To be the masters of our own lives we need a different system where we create wealth for the benefit of the whole of society, not just for the fabulously wealthy 1,000 individuals at the top who own and control £658bn – wealth that has been created by the labour of working class people.