Opinion Politics

Grenfell Tower: Do the poor have to die for their voices to be heard?

Grenfell Tower
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In the streets around Grenfell Tower, residents have spent the past two days wondering why the tower, their home, has burnt down and killed their neighbours, friends and family.

Why in the heart of London, an inferno like the one we all saw, could even happen.

The truth is, in London and elsewhere, working class lives don’t matter as long as the rich live comfortably well in their penthouses.

Grenfell Tower is now a national disaster. But it could have been avoided.

The tower was partially refurbished, but as the Conservative-led Kensington and Chelsea council didn’t want to “over-spend” for its poor residents, who live in the most deprived part of this very rich borough, they went for the cheapest option available.

The contract to improve insulation and replace heating and water systems in the block was supposed to be carried out by building firm Leadbitter, but the contractor said it could not do the work for less than £11.27 million, £1.6 million above the council’s budget.

Therefore, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation which maintained the council’s housing stock went elsewhere and put the contract back to Rydon as they could carry out the work for £8.7 million, even though the plans did not change.

Austerity measures and a lack of care, explained why this council decided to “buy cheap”.

But even throughout the regeneration work, residents at Grenfell complained about the quality of the work, posting images of exposed pipes laid across residents’ carpets and voicing concerns that boilers had been fitted in the middle of hallways, near to fuse boxes.

Residents accused workmen of ‘cutting corners’ and warned that damage to their flats had not been repaired while rubbish was allowed to pile up in communal corridors, blocking emergency exits.

What matters the most wasn’t the quality of the work, or the safety issue, but the cost of the work itself.

Since the tower completely burnt down killing its residents, Omnis Exteriors, the contractor used for the insulation work, said it had been asked to supply cheaper cladding to installer Harley Facades which did not meet strict fire-retardant specifications.

The safer cladding sheet was just £2 a square metre more expensive meaning that for an extra £5000, the building could have been encased in a material which may have resisted the fire for longer.

The cheapest version used in Grenfell is banned from used in several countries, including USA and Germany.

But it didn’t matter to the council that only an £5000 was necessary to get better sheets.

As the Grenfell Action Group said, all that mattered was the cost. The group even complained to the council that it seemed that the contract had been “awarded to the cheapest bidder” regardless of the quality of work.

But both the council and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation didn’t care.

This lack of duty of care wasn’t new. The Grenfell Action Group had even predicted that a catastrophe like this one was inevitable if the council wasn’t willing to invest. They warned both the council and the tenant management company, but all of their warnings fell on deaf ears because working class lives didn’t matter to them.

This week’s disaster has exposed a crisis in central London concerning how local authorities treat social housing tenants at a time of soaring house prices and shrinking council budgets.

Kensington and Chelsea tenants feel they aren’t welcome there. Their presence was barely tolerated by a council that push for the redevelopment of the area with expensive private accommodation.

After all, why do poor people want to live in Central London? It’s too expensive for them, and not for them. They aren’t welcome here and that’s why the council didn’t want to invest a bit more money for them.

The council has been working hard for its rich tenants, but they want to get rid of the poor because Kensington and Chelsea isn’t for them.

“There is real fear that the development of the estates is part of a social cleansing programme,” said the newly-elected MP for Kensington, Labour’s Emma Dent Coad, this week on BBC news.

This is a story of a tale of two cities. The rich live near the poor, but the council only care about the rich and hope to get rid of the poor.

The combined effect of cuts to housing benefit, the introduction of a benefit cap and a continuing trend of selling-off council properties meant that a message has been driven from Conservative councils for a number of years: unless you can afford to pay market rates in inner London, you should go somewhere else.

That is not just neglect; it is a positively hostile approach to working class people from a Conservative-led council that doesn’t want to serve all of its residents, but just the richest ones.

What happened in the early hours of 14 June in Kensington and Chelsea could have been prevented if the council wanted to. The warnings were there and they didn’t listen.

Do the poor have to die for their voices to be heard?


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