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 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.”