By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
London’s Grenfell Tower went up in flames on June 14, killing an unknown number of people (certainly there were more casualties than the official toll of 80) and leaving a particularly ugly charred scar on the West London skyline (short photo essay at NC here). Since this is July 14, now seems like a good time to catch up with the story. Here’s a good photo timeline of the fire itself, with illustrations of the layout and construction of the building, from the BBC. Wikipedia summarizes:
The fire started in a fridge-freezer on the fourth floor. The growth of the fire is believed to have been accelerated by the building’s exterior cladding.
Emergency services received the first report of the fire at 00:54 local time. It burned for about 60 hours until finally extinguished. More than 200 firefighters and 70 fire engines from stations all over London were involved in efforts to control the fire. Many firefighters continued to fight pockets of fire on the higher floors after most of the rest of the building had been gutted. Residents of surrounding buildings were evacuated due to concerns that the tower could collapse, but the building was later determined to be structurally sound…
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, criticised safety protocol, in particular those telling people to stay in their flats until rescued. This advice presumed that the building’s structure could contain a fire within a single flat, but in this case the fire was spreading rapidly via the building’s exterior. Since 2013, the residents’ organisation Grenfell Action Group had repeatedly expressed concern about fire safety, saying in November 2016 that only a catastrophic fire would force the block’s management to adequately address fire precautions and maintenance of fire-related systems.
(Before we blame the tenant for the fridge, Grenfell Tower was subject to power surges, and other household appliances had already caught fire.) There’s a great deal of discussion at the safety code and fire-fighting protocol levels, but I’m going to skip over that to the big picture as presented by Bill Black, writing at NC here, focusing on deregulation and the cladding:
I do not focus on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown because they are uniquely culpable for the mass deaths in the fire. Their failures are important to explaining several points that are often unclear to Americans. First, Blair and Brown, as leaders of the Labor Party, were supposed to protect poorer citizens like those living in the tower blocks through effective health and safety regulation. Historically, that would have been a top priority of the Labor Party. Second, the reality is that Blair and Brown were aggressively hostile to health and safety regulation and that hostility exemplifies the radical transformation that “New Labor’s” leaders made to the party.
As weak as the building requirements were for cladding once Thatcher emasculated them, initial testing results are that the cladding at Grenfell and many of its counterpart tower blocks failed to meet even the UK’s rudimentary standards…. The lack of a sprinkler system and a single stairwell for evacuation again show the inadequacy of UK building standards compared to other modern nations. Those deficiencies were made worse by a lack of fire breaks, (reportedly) missing fire-resistant doors, and the failure to conduct required inspections.
The fact that the Tories emasculated vital building safety rules is consistent with their Party’s ideology. Blair came to power after Thatcher and was the leader of the Labor Party. His Party’s ideology had long supported effective safety rules. Blair, however, proudly led what he called “New Labor” – a Party that embraced Thatcher’s anti-regulatory zeal with its own special passion.
I agree with Black that the Grenfell Tower disaster is blowback from years of Thatcherite deregulation by Tory and “New Labour” mandarins working together. However, Grenfell Tower — and, it seems, British public housing generally, are also subject to a terrible neoliberal infestation, so the story is more complex than Black makes out. (Black also omits the agency of tenant organizations like the Grenfell Action Group, who fought on the complex, broken ground that neoliberalism creates.) In this post, I’ll look at some of the effects of that neoliberal infestatiion. Let me telegraph the question I’d like to have answered by including a photograph of the Guardian’s Grenfell FAQ at right. I’ll explain more about it later.)
Here are five characteristics of the official response to the Grenfell Tower Disaster, and to the management of Grenfell Tower generally:
(1) Inability to reassure the public that official actions were taken in good faith
(2) Opaque and complicated public-private governance structures
(3) Little prospect of redress from law enforcement
(4) Inabitility to generalize to larger systems issues.
(5) A system stacked against the public at every turn.
Let’s take each of the of these in turn
(1) Inability to reassure the public that official actions were taken in good faith. The latest public meeting was held on July 13:
Pat Mason, a Labour councillor on Kensington and Chelsea Council, told Sam Delaney: “It was meant to update people on what was happening but it was a completely shambolic meeting because [officials] just couldn’t run a meeting.
“People are just so angry, they wanted straight answers which they didn’t believe they were getting. There’s too many people with too many stories about promises broken.
“The meeting eventually descended into a shambles because people decided they didn’t have any confidence in those people [in charge].
“Even the things [authorities] are doing which you would say are good, they seem unable to communicate it to the audience.”
And why would they? Because they live there, tenants know the quality of work done on the Tower — “Relations with [the contractor] broke down so completely that Grenfell residents pinned up posters to their doors warning workmen not to enter their homes” — and they know the costs, too. Grenfell Action Group:
For a number of years RBKC has spent £1.5 millon a year of our Council Tax on subsidising the Holland Park Opera while refusing to spend their massive reserves (currently in excess of £240 million) on providing decent housing for residents in North Kensington. This is something that we are determined to challenge through direct action in the future. The Council is now proposing to end the HPO subsidy by donating a £5m lump sum to create instead an independent opera charity.
I’ve got nothing against opera, but £5m vs. £300K is a little raw, no? Why would anybody trust the council, if those are their priorities? Even the new chair of the Council says it will take “a generation” for trust to be rebuilt. If it is at all.
(2) Opaque and complicated public-private governance structures. Grenfell Tower is governed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO). Wikipedia defines a Tenant Management Organization as follows:
A TMO is created when residents (tenants and leaseholders) in a defined area of council or housing association homes create a corporate body and, typically, elect a management committee to run the body. This body then enters into a formal legal contract with the landlord of the home, known as the management agreement.
The management agreement details precisely which services are managed by the TMO on behalf of the landlord. The extent of the devolution in service can vary enormously, particularly between small and large TMOs, but may typically include day-to-day repairs, allocations and lettings, tenancy management, cleaning and caretaking, and rent collection. The TMO’s operations are mainly funded by the management fees payable by the landlord under the agreement.
(Imagine trying to create a dataset from 4,000 of these.) You can already see the complexity, which I will illlustrate with a link to the brochure supplied to tenants after the Grenfell Tower refurbishment (“regeneration”) was complete. You see if you can figure out who to call if you have a problem, and how fast the response will come; it reminds me of ObamaCare.
(3) Little prospect of redress from law enforcement, as a happy by-product of this complexity. From the Guardian FAQ:
When is the trial starting?
The simple answer is not this year, maybe next, and maybe not at all.
The words used most often by police to describe the criminal investigation into the Grenfell Tower disaster are “unprecedented” and “complex”. Nothing in the modern history of the British criminal justice system compares….
There are many questions to answer. Which of the 60 companies involved in the refurbishments over the years at Grenfell Tower did what? Who is to blame? Are they a company or individuals? And how to prove beyond reasonable doubt to a jury that a certain company or person should be convicted? Did they break a law, and are the laws even that clear cut? Or did their actions or inactions just fly in the face of common sense? Four weeks on from the disaster, and the usual hallmarks of a criminal investigation are absent. There have been no arrests, no search warrant has been applied for, no one has been interviewed under criminal caution. The Met say they are content with the progress, with companies and individuals handing volumes of material over. Police vow to use harder powers if they suspect evidence is being withheld.
Ah. “Voluntarily.” The Guardian describes police investigators at the shambolic meeting:
DCI Matt Bonner, who is leading the police investigation, struggled to reassure more than 200 people present at St Clement’s church that he would bring those responsible to justice.
He told the meeting it was a highly complex investigation, one unprecedented outside terrorist attacks, only to be told the fire was indeed a terrorist attack or mass murder. “The investigation will hold people to account,” Bonner insisted almost inaudibly amid the commotion.
He was repeatedly asked why arrests had not already been made. “I can’t give you a commentary. It would risk jeopardising the investigation and losing prosecutions down the line,” he responded. “Every single question you ask will be answered.”
The investigation was recovering vast troves of data and had identified 60 companies and organisations involved in the construction, refurbishment or management of the building. “The scale of this investigation is why it will take so long. Give me the space to conduct an effective investigation and judge me at the end of it.”
Bonner said a team of about 250 officers was working on the criminal investigation. Attempting to illustrate its scale, he said the team would interview about 650 firefighters, 300 police officers, 255 Grenfell fire survivors and residents of the Lancaster West estate where the tower is sited.
Hmm. I’m not seeing any members of the Grenfell Towers governance structure on that interview list. Surely an accidental omission?
(4) Inabitility to generalize to larger systems issues, again(I’m guessing) a happy by-product of the complexity. From The Independent:
Shadow housing secretary John Healey criticised the Government for being “too slow to reassure residents”, claiming the safety check process is “in chaos”.
He also condemned the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) failure to list buildings that failed the combustibility testing carried out in the wake of the North Kensington blaze that killed at least 80 people.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Mr Healey said: “It is totally unacceptable that four weeks on from the Grenfell Tower fire ministers still don’t know and can’t say how many other tower blocks are unsafe… “Too slow to grasp the complexity of the help survivors need and too slow to reassure residents in 4,000 other tower blocks across the country.”
(5) A system stacked against the public, by a process called “regeneration” by its advocates (and “social cleansing” by those it affects. The Financial Times explains:
London’s ‘regeneration’: the backdrop to Grenfell rage
Regeneration sounds like a sensible concept: knocking down old and tired housing estates and replacing them with larger, denser developments that feature a mixture of affordable and luxury flats. The latter carry the cost of the former, which is particularly appealing at a time when government budgets are tight.
The idea has been championed in various forms by both Labour and Conservative governments as a way to fund new homes in a city that is desperate for them.
It has gained particular momentum in recent years as property prices have surged across the capital and austerity has strained public finances. Last year, David Cameron, then prime minister, pledged to demolish nearly 100 so-called “sink” estates as part of an anti-poverty blitz.
The concept is seductive to councils, she argues, because they can cash in on the property boom by selling land to developers while, at the same time, washing their hands of the responsibility of maintaining ageing estates.
But as developers run into higher costs and delays, they often petition to reduce the affordable component of their projects.
In 2015, members of the London Assembly found that the regeneration of 50 estates over the preceding 10 years had led to a net loss of 8,000 socially rented homes. This depletion took place even as the total number of homes on the sites almost doubled.
So many property investors have flooded in that
So it’s entirely rational for tenants to think they’ll be displaced by “regeneration,” and that their “own” local governments are siding with property developers against them:
Along the way, social housing has increasingly become the refuge of society’s poorest and most vulnerable. That tends to make such properties even more of a burden to manage, giving local councils greater incentive to let them run down and then sell them to developers.
The temptation is particularly great in Kensington and Chelsea, where an influx of foreign buyers has helped make property among the most expensive on the planet.
And that brings me back to the image I placed at the beginning of this post: “Where is the money going?” The image comes from a “question wall” posted under the Westway, presumably by an activist, and the Guardian FAQ answers many of those questions. But the Guardian doesn’t answer “Where is the money going?”. That strikes me as odd, especially given that “regen,” including regeneration at Grenfell Tower, is an asset class. One would think that relationships between KCTMO, the Council, and any potential future investors in Grenfell Tower would be a topic for investigation. I can’t find any material on it. UK readers?
Where is the money going? Do the many Councillors who resigned have any ideas?