Doctor, activist and local resident Mona Kamal describes the genesis of a tragedy
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO),and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders…It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice”
These are the chillingly prescient words of the campaigners from the Grenfell Action Group in a blog post written in November 2016.
They warned the council and the estate management company of multiple fire hazards: of failing alarms, of the lack of sprinklers and of faulty electrical wiring causing frequent power surges and small fires. They warned that the wholly cosmetic refurbishment of the building, including the addition of cladding to create “a fresher more modern look” to improve the view from surrounding luxury flats, was a serious fire risk.
Rather than heed these warnings the council responded with legal action against the group. Today, these failings, including the cladding which is believed to be responsible for how quickly the fire spread, resulted in a fire that engulfed the entire building within minutes, killing at least seventy-nine and leaving at least 600 homeless.
In so many ways this appalling tragedy epitomises the social inequality within our borough and shamefully exposes the real priorities of the predominantly Tory Council. Kensington is one of the richest boroughs in the country, yet also the most unequal. Whilst home to London’s most unaffordable properties it has one of the highest rates of overcrowding and has the highest rate of out-of-borough placements for homeless people, which has seen the poorest in the area moved out, often outside of London away from their families and social links, resulting in a ‘social cleansing’ that’s perceivable to all of us in the area.
Since 2010 there have been cuts to local services in Kensington amounting to £83.7 million with the local community witnessing closure of nurseries, of homelessness prevention schemes, of local A&E departments and the attempt to sell our beloved North Kensington Library to the nearby fee-paying Notting Hill Prep School for their own private use.
These cuts are being implemented by a borough which readily pours millions of pounds of council taxpayers’ money into subsidising projects like the Holland Park Opera to indulge the wealthiest residents.
The relentless calls to address the fire safety hazards in the building and degree of negligence by the tenant management company mean that this chain of events cannot be dismissed as an accident – the accountability for this tragedy goes all the way up to the Conservative government, which has consistently voted against tenants’ rights.
Last year, an amendment to the Housing Act tabled by Labour to introduce a legal requirement for landlords to ensure their homes are fit and safe for human habitation was voted down.
Amongst the Tory MPs who voted, 71 were themselves private landlords, a shameful conflict of interest (akin to shareholders in private health companies voting on policies to sell off NHS contracts) that must not be tolerated in any democracy.
Many people were shocked when a seemingly affluent area like Kensington swung to Labour. But the residents who live with the effects of such gross inequalities and have been fighting these cuts in recent years were not.
There is growing anger at the tragic human consequences of austerity cuts which are becoming more and more visible. This and the confidence built over the inspiring election campaigning now need to be harnessed to hold this government to account and to demand that they step down- if we can rid Kensington of the Conservatives then it can be done across the country.
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