London’s Grenfell Disaster is An Indictment of Austerity

The fire’s victims were caught in the crosshairs of public cuts and a housing crisis.

Amar Diwakar July 6, 2017

Seventy-nine people have been confirmed dead and dozens still missing after the Grenfell Tower block was engulfed in flames on June 14, 2017. The 180 families left homeless by the fire face difficulty and hostility from wealthy residents in the process of resettlement. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Britain awoke June 14 to yet anoth­er cat­a­clysm, as the ash­es set­tled around what was once Gren­fell Tow­er, a rough­ly 200-foot-high block of pub­lic hous­ing flats in London’s most afflu­ent neighborhood.

The systematic dismantling of the state through privatization, deregulation and corporate tax cuts has left behind a starkly unequal society that is mired in wage stagnation and a social housing crisis.

The Gren­fell infer­no was the dead­liest fire in Britain since the coun­try began keep­ing records at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, claim­ing at least 87 vic­tims, with only 21 iden­ti­fied and a defin­i­tive fig­ure not expect­ed until 2018. That the charred remains of those who per­ished are not giv­en the cour­tesy of for­mal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion has only stoked pub­lic out­rage at a tragedy fueled by inequal­i­ty and austerity.

In the after­math of the blaze, author­i­ties con­firmed that cladding tiles used on the tow­er had failed safe­ty tests, poten­tial­ly spread­ing the dead­ly fire. Tests con­duct­ed since have revealed that cladding from 190 tow­er blocks in 51 local author­i­ty areas across Eng­land have sim­i­lar­ly failed, and there remains a 100 per­cent fail­ure rate in fire safe­ty tests on cladding used in pub­lic high rise buildings.

Pub­lic anger has grown pal­pa­ble since it became evi­dent that, unlike the Unit­ed States and Ger­many, the British gov­ern­ment declined to ban the cladding used at Gren­fell. Thanks to cuts to local coun­cils, and the Tory government’s zeal­ous com­mit­ment to slash­ing red tape, build­ing inspec­tion has been gut­ted and pri­va­tized. The recent refur­bish­ment of Gren­fell was sub-con­tract­ed, and a fire-resis­tant cladding alter­na­tive was jet­ti­soned in favor of the cheap­er option.

The fact that pub­lic safe­ty was sold off to the cheap­est bid­der is part of a much larg­er problem.

The sys­tem­at­ic dis­man­tling of the state through pri­va­ti­za­tion, dereg­u­la­tion and cor­po­rate tax cuts has left behind a stark­ly unequal soci­ety that is mired in wage stag­na­tion and a social hous­ing cri­sis. Pub­lic pro­tec­tions have been ema­ci­at­ed by years of bud­get restraint fol­low­ing the 2008 finan­cial crisis.

These cuts are tox­ic in a sys­tem where respon­si­bil­i­ty for vital safe­ty deci­sions is so dif­fuse. Min­is­ters are in charge of reg­u­la­tions while coun­cilors fund man­age­ment com­pa­nies at an arm’s length.

Labour leader Jere­my Cor­byn high­light­ed the role of pub­lic cuts, claim­ing the tragedy had exposed the dis­as­trous effect of austerity.”

Grenfell’s incin­er­a­tion was also the prod­uct of neg­li­gence and dehu­man­iza­tion. As the Niger­ian writer Ben Okri pow­er­ful­ly cap­tured in his ode to Gren­fell, They did not die when they died; their deaths hap­pened long before. It hap­pened in the minds of peo­ple who nev­er saw them. It hap­pened in the prof­it mar­gins. It hap­pened in the laws. They died because mon­ey could be saved and made.”

Those who lost their lives were also caught in the crosshairs of an afford­able hous­ing cri­sis in a city where prof­it trumps social wellbeing.

In prin­ci­ple, prop­er­ty devel­op­ers are oblig­ed to include a quo­ta of social hous­ing in their devel­op­ments, and local author­i­ties are sup­posed to reserve up to half of all builds for it.

In prac­tice, how­ev­er, devel­op­ers have skirt­ed these mea­sures and declared quo­tas an imped­i­ment to eco­nom­ic growth. The relent­less dri­ve to force the poor out of rich or gen­tri­fy­ing Lon­don com­mu­ni­ties has result­ed in an immense project of social cleans­ing. Prop­er­ty is an essen­tial vec­tor for the con­sol­i­da­tion of class advan­tage in Britain.

Had the res­i­dents of Gren­fell not been rel­a­tive­ly poor ten­ants of social hous­ing, it is like­ly their poor con­di­tions and griev­ances wouldn’t have been as overlooked.

The dis­as­ter adds to a dread­ful month for There­sa May, fresh off an elec­tion that saw her Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty squan­der their par­lia­men­tary major­i­ty and forced into a coali­tion with the theo­crat­ic Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union­ist Par­ty.

After a tepid response to the Gren­fell tragedy, May sought to calm the community’s out­rage by announc­ing a pub­lic inquiry. How­ev­er, many are deeply mis­trust­ful of how tru­ly inde­pen­dent and effec­tive the probe will be.

Fol­low­ing a week of apa­thy and inac­tion, Con­ser­v­a­tive mem­bers of Par­lia­ment respond­ed to stri­dent calls from res­i­dents, sur­vivors, pro­tes­tors and the Labour oppo­si­tion to req­ui­si­tion six­ty-eight flats in a £2 bil­lion lux­u­ry com­plex in the heart of Kens­ing­ton for those made home­less. The gov­ern­ment released £202,000 from an emer­gency fund to the 180 fam­i­lies affect­ed, some of whom are tem­porar­i­ly housed in hotels.

How­ev­er, with­in hours of the government’s deci­sion, a hand­ful of res­i­dents in the high-end com­plex expressed their hos­til­i­ty to the pro­nounce­ment, com­plain­ing that prop­er­ty val­ues would plummet.

Why protest against sur­vivors of cor­po­rate manslaugh­ter gain­ing access to hous­ing? Because class advan­tage is exclu­sive. If the finan­cial cri­sis taught us any­thing, it is that the rich are socio­path­i­cal­ly opposed to even the tini­est con­ces­sion of their class advan­tage. Banks and pri­vate inter­ests can engage in reck­less behav­ior, safe in the knowl­edge that they won’t be held to account.

The 99% is not afford­ed such clemency.

The cat­a­stro­phe vis­it­ed upon Gren­fell is only the lat­est indict­ment of a mar­ket-dri­ven cal­lous­ness that accu­mu­lates abun­dance for a few and mis­ery for the rest. As Andrea Gib­bons poignant­ly affirms, A home should not be what kills us.”

Amar Diwakar is a writer and researcher. He tweets at @indignant_sepoy and blogs at Splin­tered Eye.
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