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The Grenfell Tower  Disaster: The Aftermath Part One

Gerry Fitzpatrick

8 July 2017

It's hard to find a parallel in history which has had the effect on the general political atmosphere to the same extend of the Grenfell Fire has had in Britain. The New York Triangle Fire of 1911 has some parallels in the way the deaths of the 140+ young workers and immigrant seamstresses was quickly accepted as not being a “tragedy” but avoidable slaughter after it became known that the doors to the fire exists had been  locked by management to protect their stock from thefts by staff.

In one of its investigative articles on the Grenfell tower disaster The Guardian newspaper gave one particular harrowing detail of how the building’s safety was mismanaged. It reported that prior to the fire there had been a number of power failures followed by power surges - causing most or all electrical appliances in the building to produce smoke. This could explain how the fridge freezer started the fire.

Astonishingly, at the same time as the flammable cladding was being fitted to the outside of the building -  on the inside of the building on the only internal stair case and escape route, was being fitted with new exposed gas main pipes. This meant that as the fire was being transferred to each floor externally by the cladding - it was also being spread internally by gas main. By contrast the disaster has shown that the self-organization by the residents and their supporters and neighbors, have demonstrated what a civil society can do – even with very few resources. In fact it has shown what has to be done after the moral paralysis and gathering political collapse of the Tory party marketeers.

The public have now learned that all the agencies – the local council, the London government  and Westminster  had been made aware of the recommendations of the corner’s report into the deaths of residents that occurred in Camberwell south London in 2009 when six people died. The corner’s report into those deaths found against the council, the contractors, and the flammable cladding that had been used. The implementation of its recommendations - to change the building regulations to prevent the same thing happening again - were kicked into the long grass by in incoming the Lib-Con government. According to the chief fire officer since that time no changes have been made - even when he and the Westminister fire safety committee has met several times to remind the government to make the legal changes that were and are necessary.

Given that it usually takes several years before a government accepts there has been wrong doing those changes are not going to made any time soon. For the simple reason it would mean those who were and are still being affected will be able to make significant damage claims. That is why the May/DUP government and Kensington Tory council will not say that the cladding that was used was illegal. Nor are they likely to as the persons responsible for the inaction were none other than the current prime minister who was then home secretary and her current chief advisor who was the housing minister.

Strong and Stable Government?

From the start the Tory Council and  government’s continued mishandling of the disaster was shocking but “not surprising” as the head of the tenants association was reported as saying. But we need to accept what is now obvious: it has become impossible for this government or its councilors to be take full responsibly to act with genuine humanity. Rather as the current Tory housing minister said when pressured about his party’s culture of indifference and neglect of the poor and the generous help it has given to rich tenants, “no one could have foreseen this tragedy” when it is now accepted that the tenants had campaigned long and hard against the inadequacy and failures of the work that had been done which had transformed the block as they said into a “fire trap”.  Still the management committee: Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization refused to take their own tenants complaints seriously and as one person had said many months before the fire:

“[T]he conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents   will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation”.

So what happened had been foreseen.

Tory Denial and Hysteria

The self congratulation of the Tories in appointing May as their leader delivering a “hard brexit” by “strong and stable government”, has after the election and the fire, transformed the party’s internal regime into a finger pointing rabble, the public face of which moves between denial and hysteria. The denial being the immediate response to criticism and the hysteria being expressed against those who dared to question that response. In an interview with BBC radio, one councilor interviewed delivered a pro tory tirade insisting and repeating, that council officers had been “excellent!” “excellent!!”.

When it had been unclear where the survivors of the fire were to go, another Tory spokesperson was just as hysterical in another BBC interview in opposition to the suggestion made by Jeremy Corbyn that victims of the fire should be rehoused in vacant properties. “This”, he loudly insisted was a ridiculous idea  which was “only done in war time” at all other times property rights must be respected.

The denials and the hysteria didn’t stop there, when it had been discovered that after seven and more years of cutting services, Kensington council had run a £200m surplus, which it had used to give Council Tax refunds to some of its richest tenants, the council spokesperson when challenged about this said “some of the money had gone to the Borough’s schools and Libraries”, which must have come as surprise to the workers who work there as they had been trying to manage since the first round of Tory cuts in 2010. Since that time the pace of the cuts has increased - as has the number of schools appealing to parents directly to spare what money they can to help keep their school open. The majority of Kensington and Chelsea tenantry received no refunds while Grenfell residents were still being charged rent and rates for their flats weeks after the flats no longer existed.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Following the demonstration at the Kensington and Chelsea Council offices by tenants and their supporters it was alleged by one Tory councilor that “outsiders” who “liked doing that sort of thing” were responsible. This indicates how much of a threat to the established order the Grenfell fire is seen by the government and its supporters.

On the other hand doubts about the remit and effectiveness of a public enquiry have been raised after it was found that the judge appointed to be its chairman has a record of not supporting tenants who did not want to be rehoused outside of London. A Public Enquiry is a political management tool as we have seen here in the North and provides no resolution to societies underlying problems. It is important to accept that as the weeks and months go by the consequences of inaction coupled with years of neglect  - will make for a political aftermath that will be all most impossible for anyone to stop. However, what can't be denied is that the disaster has transformed the perception of the Tories. Now all those appointees past and present who wanted themselves to be seen as a “safe pair of hands” can’t wipe the blood off them.

To be Continued

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