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Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower. Photo: Loz Pycock / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked below article

The fight continues for justice for Grenfell and to demand change from a government that continues to put the needs of private profit ahead of the lives of working people, writes Mona Kamal

A few days ago, someone said to me that “Grenfell was not unique” and that after 150,000 deaths due to Covid-19 the loss of 72 lives in the fire was no longer as significant. This was not only distressing to hear, it is dangerous because it is precisely what the government, Michael Gove’s Memorial Commission and Kensington and Chelsea Council want the community to believe, that they are being forgotten. This is of course completely untrue.

The fire was a seismic moment in North Kensington and the country as whole shining a light on the inhumanity of our social housing system, the extremes in wealth and poverty across London and the recklessness and greed driving deregulation that meant people could legally be housed in unsafe properties to ease the way for speedier profit making.

Despite all of this there is no indication that the government is interested in learning the lessons, and the arrogance and high handedness that characterised the Council’s deadly refurbishment of Grenfell is characterising the decision making around what now happens to the tower, which we have been told is becoming too expensive to keep up and needs to be demolished.

There should be no decision to demolish the tower before the legal process concludes. The tower is not only a burial ground, it is a crime scene and the community has been given no assurance that demolition will not hinder future criminal prosecutions which we have been told will not take place before 2027 if at all. Having been assured in a meeting with Michael Gove in his role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities that no decision would be made to bring down the tower without consultation with residents, the message received from the RBKC is that there is a working assumption that a decision to bring it down will be made as early as 2023. 

Demolishing the tower, making it disappear without the meaningful resolution that comes from justice risks preventing survivors from processing their traumatic experiences and from healing. What the evidence shows us (from conflict zones at least) is that it is a sense of continued injustice that maintains trauma so we cannot accept this idea that demolition is for the benefit of the community and our healing.

We do need to consider though who does benefit from demolishing the tower. The tower is a concrete example of social murder. It is a constant reminder to the council of their role in the death of 72 residents and their callous disregard for the residents whose wellbeing should have been their priority. We cannot deny that this is about optics for them. From the morning of the fire the council have prioritised public relations over meeting the needs of the community. Last month as part of phase two of the enquiry we heard how Kensington and Chelsea Council declined outside help from neighbouring boroughs as “that would look like they couldn’t cope” even though they were fully aware that the scale of the disaster was beyond what they could manage on their own (all while taking the time to attack individual bereaved and survivors as “would-be leaders of revolt”).

Becoming a councillor in Notting Dale, the North Kensington ward where Grenfell Tower stands has further highlighted the disconnect between people who live in the area around the Tower such as myself and those who are making decisions about our lives. Something that has become increasingly clear to me is that “consultation” is a pretence. It has become an exercise where certain voices are amplified in order to rubber stamp a decision that has already been made, in order that the council and the government’s Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission can say that decision making is ‘resident lead’.

Despite repeated assurance that all decision-making must now be taking into account the wishes of residents, we are seeing the opposite. For example, after promising transparency and accountability, the council has hindered thorough community lead scrutiny of their Grenfell recovery plans by scrapping the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee against the clear wishes of residents and have failed to publish full and transparent reports on all Grenfell spending.

There is a fight to scrutinise and hold to account a council over their ruthless neglect of the poorest in the borough whose safety was worth less than the £293,368 the council saved by choosing the cheaper ACM cladding. It’s also worth noting that during summer 2014, when Kensington and Chelsea council’s planning department was rubber-stamping the decision to switch from fire resistant zinc to the cheaper cladding, the £100 million+ they had in cash reserves due to such ‘efficiency savings’ meant that the UK’s richest council was able to give tax refunds but only to the wealthy in the borough.

There is a fight to demand change from a government that refuses to learn the lessons and continues to put ideological cuts and the needs of private profit ahead of the lives of working people. But above all there is a fight to protect the legacy of the 72 dead, we owe it to them to establish the full truth of what happened, to ensure the memory of what happened that appalling night is never erased and to ensure an atrocity such as this never happens again.

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