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Grenfell two years on - Still fighting for safety and justice
Paul Kershaw, chair, Unite union housing workers' branch
Two years ago, on 14 June 2017, 72 people perished in the Grenfell Tower fire in west London.
The capitalist press expressed outrage when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell rightly described it as "social murder." But the loss of life was caused by profit seeking, cuts, and an institutional contempt for working-class residents; it was not some unpredictable natural catastrophe.
For the bereaved and local people, the grief and shock continue. It has become increasingly clear that the factors that led to Grenfell are far from unique. Similar risks exist nationwide, as shown once more by the fire at Barking Riverside on 9 June.
Amid tears of self-pity, Theresa May used her resignation speech to claim credit for a 'caring' response to the disaster. Her comments were dramatically at odds with the mood of those affected.
She claimed her office was a "platform to give a voice to the voiceless, to fight the burning injustices that still scar our society." She added that "it is why I set up the independent inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, to search for the truth so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten."
The residents' group Grenfell United responded that it is harder to think of a greater injustice than Grenfell. They pointed out that - two years after the fire - the government has failed to deliver housing reform, failed to make people safe in their homes, and made the last two years a battle for the bereaved and survivors.
The fire exposed again the class chasm in society, and the callous incompetence of the capitalist state at a local and national level. It also tested the workers' movement. We should seriously consider the strengths and weaknesses revealed.
The Socialist's front page on the disaster
Them and us
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the local council was almost absent from the relief effort, reflecting the impact of years of cuts.
There was an enormous outpouring of solidarity as community groups sprang into action and volunteers from all over London travelled to north Kensington to help and bring donations. Trade unions also organised collections.
Theresa May visited, but avoided meeting local people, provoking outrage by just seeing officials. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn met volunteers and local people.
A typical comment picked up in the mainstream media was that "Corbyn came here and walked around as if he is one of us. That's how it is. That's why he has been so successful. Because he is one of us" (Independent, 16 June 2017).
Wellsprings of support for Jeremy Corbyn and the anti-austerity policies he was associated with were revealed.
May promised that people displaced - who, as she said, often had nothing - would be rehoused within three weeks.
In fact, progress has been agonisingly slow, stretching over years - despite the local area being one of the richest in Europe with more than enough empty homes to house families. Official figures showed at least 1,652 homes as completely empty in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
But even these figures play down the scale of housing being used as an investment - as safe deposit boxes for the rich - because they exclude homes occupied for part of the year. Housing charity Shelter estimated in August 2017 that over 10% of homes across the borough were kept empty most of the year.
When Jeremy Corbyn raised the idea of requisitioning empty homes to help displaced residents, he got an enormous response.
Socialist Party members campaigning in the area in the days after the fire were left with no doubt that the mood was intensely political.
Local people queued up to take our leaflets, and welcomed what we said supporting Corbyn and calling for real action. Comments to the effect that 'they' can find the money for wars, but not for 'us', were common in the discussions that followed.
Fighting for safety
The Socialist Party put out campaign materials straight away to assist any group of residents who wanted to organise for safe housing in the aftermath of Grenfell.
This could have been the start of a massive, sustained campaign. The capitalist press responded in horror to the suggestion of requisitioning because it challenged sacred property rights. They sensed the danger in popular anger being linked to radical demands.
Labour should have pressed on with demands that empty homes must be used for the homeless - and have added that council cuts, which laid the basis for heightened fire risk, should be reversed immediately so vital safety work could begin as rapidly as possible.
Blocks around the country face similar dangers to Grenfell. It was entirely possible that a Grenfell-like fire could have occurred in a Labour-controlled authority. The Barking fire has demonstrated that point.
Across the UK, the flammable cladding that played a major role in the Grenfell Tower fire was found on nearly 500 buildings, around 170 of them private residential blocks. It has since emerged that other types of cladding are also unsafe.
Even now, few of the blocks with Grenfell-style cladding have been fully made safe. Recommendations to install sprinklers in high-rises - dating back at least to the inquiry into the 2009 Lakanal House fire in south London, and repeated since Grenfell - have been widely ignored by landlords and politicians.
A stand-off between government and private owners, each expecting the other to pay up, has left tenants and leaseholders stuck in the middle, with neither government nor freeholders wanting to foot the bill, waiting for the other to blink first. Unsurprisingly, there are reports the consequent anxiety is having a terrible impact on the mental health of residents.
Imagine how things could have developed if Labour had committed to reimburse councils that carried out vital life-saving work, not waiting for a general election.
Industry journal Inside Housing reports that Labour has now called for the remaining 150 blocks to demonstrate "substantial progress" towards removing the cladding by December or face confiscation. They have had two years - confiscate them now, get the cladding off!
The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that local government spending on housing has been slashed by half over the last eight years. If Labour councils had started safety work on the back of a mass campaign and billed the government, they would have won enormous support.
In the context of perhaps the weakest Tory government ever, such a campaign would have been an irresistible force.
Of course, if the leadership had set a fighting, anti-austerity course, based on the potential power of the organised working class, it would still in the end have faced ferocious opposition not just from the landlords, bosses and Tories, but also from the Labour right.
The pro-capitalist wing of Labour remains dominant in the party's power structures, including local government. In order to properly respond to Grenfell, the Labour leadership would have to be prepared for a fight with the Blairites.
Residents around the country often did not know how safe their homes were. Local authorities are subject to Freedom of Information law, so have to provide that information when demanded. Housing associations, which now manage most social housing, are considered private bodies and not covered by that law.
Many associations initially refused to share fire risk assessments with residents, despite the recommendation of the state's official 'information commissioner' that they should proactively make them available. Most (not all) now do when demanded, but not proactively. Grenfell residents had raised fire concerns over years, but had been ignored or even threatened with legal action by their landlord. Many 'social landlords' appear to continue to make the same mistakes as the Grenfell landlord, the misnamed 'Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation'.
When the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government came to power in 2010, the social housing regulator which even then had a limited role was restricted further.
Now it narrowly focuses on finance - protecting the private investors that housing associations rely on, not their residents. This was part of the coalition's notorious 'bonfire of the quangos'.
Reforms would be welcome - but we cannot rely on state regulators. Social landlords must be made truly accountable through public ownership and democratic control by residents and housing workers.
Instead of operating like commercial property companies focused on 'investors' they should be fully funded by social housing grant, as in the past, and be open and accountable to residents and communities. If tenants vote to change their landlord, they should be able to move to council control.
A sense of being ignored and abandoned is prevalent among tenants. Jeremy Corbyn and the trade unions should respond by acting as their voice.
But this will mean being prepared for a decisive break with the pro-capitalist wing of Labour.
A socialist programme for safe homes after Grenfell
For an independent, working-class inquiry
The workers' movement should initiate a major investigation into Grenfell Tower and the implications for housing around the country, in addition to the official inquiry. It should be led by trade unions and residents' groups, drawing on independent expertise.
That investigation must be genuinely independent of government and profit interests so it's free to draw out the implications of spending cuts and privatisation, as well as make recommendations that do not compromise safety because of austerity. It should examine why recommendations following earlier fires were not implemented.
The official inquiry is slow and too narrow. Even the initial report on events on the night of the tragedy has now been postponed to October. Who knows when the final report will emerge? All this has a knock-on effect on the possibility of criminal prosecution. Jail the killer housing criminals!
Clean up the toxic waste!
Investigate and clear up toxic waste from the fire! Scientists testing the area have warned that repeated assurances there was no risk are wrong.
Although their work was government-funded, we only know because the scientists leaked their information. An independent inquiry should also look at why false assurances were given.
No safety, no rent!
If residents are not satisfied that their homes are safe, the full backing of the workers' movement must be given to withholding rent and service charges. No safety, no rent!
Cladding off now - bill the government
Money must not be a reason for further delay. The government should have funded immediate removal of dangerous cladding two years ago - it must do so now. The Tories have belatedly pledged £200 million, but this is inadequate.
Claw the money back from irresponsible private landlords. If they refuse, or residents demand it, take them into public ownership. Property management must come under the democratic control of residents.
Fight the cuts!
Labour councils must refuse to pass on any further cuts. Stop all privatisation of housing, repairs and renovation! London mayor Sadiq Khan must reverse all cuts to the London Fire Brigade and other Labour authorities must do the same.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell must call for this immediately, and pledge a Labour government to reimburse any council which uses reserves and borrowing powers to make homes safe and reverse council cuts now.
Build council homes
Jeremy Corbyn was correct to say that there is no solution to the housing crisis that does not start with a mass programme of council house building. He has stated that council house building needs to return to the level of the late 1970s.
That requires a return to grant funding instead of attempting to get crumbs from the private developers' table. The land and big construction companies should be nationalised under democratic working-class control to facilitate this.
Capital controls would stop international speculators driving up housing costs while leaving homes empty. Nationalising the banks and financial system would guarantee that resources can be mobilised to meet housing need, as part of a democratic, socialist plan for the economy.
But local councils can begin today. They have powers to requisition those empty homes now, and must use them. Using the same reserves and borrowing powers that can reverse the cuts, they should start building council homes straight away.
In The Socialist 12 June 2019:
Safe homes for all
Nationalise to stop closures
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party reports and campaigns