Fire on the 9th Floor of New Providence Wharf, London. Fire on the 9th Floor of New Providence Wharf, London. Photo: Main Photo - Mattbuck, WikiCommons. Inset Photo: Screen capture from ITV London news report shared by NLC. Links for both attached below.

Residents forced to live in death traps nearly three years on from Grenfell is a damning reminder that under capitalism, profit always comes before lives, writes Alistair Cartwright

If you thought Grenfell’s special combination of government callousness, contractor’s greed and industry under-regulation couldn’t possibly repeat itself, think again.

Residents of New Providence Wharf in Poplar, East London, were left shaken and angry last Friday (7 May) after a fire that spread over three floors of the 19-storey building came dangerously close to catastrophe.

Two people were hospitalised for smoke inhalation and firefighters had to rescue over thirty. Many others escaped only after the alarm was sounded via community WhatsApp groups.

Friday’s fire was one of a string of incidents involving flammable cladding that both pre-date and follow on from the Grenfell tragedy. Just a week earlier, cladding caught fire at Crystal Court housing association block in south London. In November last year, a blaze tore through a similarly clad high-rise student tower in Bolton, leaving 220 in need of emergency re-housing.

The latest fire shows that even when disaster is looming down the tracks – with the desperate passengers shouting at the tops of their lungs – even then, those at the helm will refuse all pleas to pull the emergency brake, and in fact keep shovelling more fuel into the furnace.

Who pays

Just like Grenfell, residents of New Providence Wharf had demanded multiple times that property management company Landor, a subsidiary of the block’s developer, Ballymore, take immediate steps to remedy safety issues. The only difference in this case is that the specific problem of the cladding, panels of which can contain as much fuel as 5 litres of petrol, was of course already public knowledge.

In the tussle over who should pay for the removal of dangerous cladding, Robert Jenrick’s Ministry of Housing (of ‘cash for planning’ infamy) and the likes of Ballymore have finally resolved to end the deadlock by making residents shoulder the costs.

The shortfall between the government’s £1.6 billion special fund and the true overall cost has been estimated at £13.4 billion. In a building like New Providence Wharf, the bill stretches to over £2 million, or £4,000 pounds per household. For many leaseholders this means a choice between bankruptcy and living in a death trap. Meanwhile thousands of social housing tenants, whose voices have been ignored for decades, have been evacuated into temporary accommodation.

And all the time Ballymore’s profits ride the crest of a housing boom that is being constantly inflated by government subsidies. Founder Sean Mulryan and the company’s two other directors cashed out £1.18 million in dividends last year, as profits rose 12% to £97 million, following a bumper year in 2019 in which profits nearly quadrupled.

If anyone can afford to pay for residents’ safety, it is Ballymore.

The unbearable lightness of reality

It would be easy to blame the situation on inefficiency or incompetence. Leaseholders are quickly learning to live with the same frustration that renters have known for years, and the suspicion that among estate agents, property managers, local authorities and developers, capacity as much as responsibility has become a mythical object.

And yet it can’t be said enough that incidents like Grenfell, New Providence Wharf, Lakanal House and many others, are only accidents in a very limited sense. While no individual arsonist will ever be found to pin the blame on, the fact is these terrible fires are the direct result of a way of governing and doing business that boils down to a series of opportunistic deals in the midst of universal wreckage.

The famously strong constitution of the Tory elite, the Bullingdon boys (known for trashing restaurants just for the hell of it), when it comes to other people’s suffering, is only half the story. Because there is also something slightly peculiar and very disturbing about this government’s inability – and that of their friends in the corporations – to see the reality bearing down on all of us, and even on them.

What creates this inability, or to put it another way, this ability to choose to not see, is partly the fact that the Bullingdon boys and their friends live quite literally in a different world. (While New Providence Wharf burns, Johnson is getting his house redecorated on Tory donor money). But even more than this, we should recognise that for Johnson and company, material reality only weighs so little because the market seems to weigh so much.  

The fear of Ballymore and other developers lapsing into bad debt as happened in 2008 (the company ended up owing £2 billion to mostly Irish banks), is simply much more tangible to Johnson and company than the possibility that dozens of people could lose their lives in a fire. As a result, overspeculation must be covered by constantly extending and inflating the market. Tax receipts (in the form of stamp duty) are written off and new mortgage devices are hastily assembled.

And as inequality spirals and riches pile up next to ruins – a process built into the fabric of contemporary cities – further accumulation seems like the only plausible insurance against collapse. As Marx said, ‘Après moi, le déluge’ (after me, the flood) becomes the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation.

We are living in that flood now. Grenfell made it known and Covid reaped its full consequences. New Providence Wharf is a timely and tragic reminder.

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Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.

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