IN THE 1990s Tory grandee Lord Heseltine declared that his party would make “a bonfire of red tape” – getting rid of rules and regulations that hindered maximum profit-making and including health and safety regulations.
In 2009 Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, declared that “safety fears” were “making the UK safe for extremely stupid people”.
And in 2011 the then Prime Minister David Cameron said: “I will kill off safety culture; we need to realise, collectively, that we cannot eliminate risk and that some accidents are inevitable.”
On Wednesday morning 14th of June we saw the terrible consequences of their endeavours as the giant Grenfell tower block in Kensington became a flaming inferno in a very short time, because in a cheap cosmetic ‘renovation’ two years ago it had been fitted with flammable plastic and aluminium cladding. This type of cladding has been involved in several fatal fires and is now banned in many countries.
The block was owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), but control and administration had been outsourced to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) who supposedly manage all social housing in RBKC on the Council’s behalf.
Responsibility for fire safety inspections was also transferred to KCTMO from the fire brigade as Boris Johnson was making drastic cuts to the London Fire Service.
Tenants had complained for years, over and over again, about fire safety issues and dangerous electrical surges that destroyed some of their appliances. They formed the Grenfell Action Group (GAG) and ended up being threatened with arrest if they did not stop “harassing” the council and its agents.
“All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time,” they said.
The fire that started it all was a small one in a kitchen, which the fire brigade dealt with quickly. They were packing up ready to go when they noticed that the cladding on the outside of the building had caught alight.
From there it quickly turned into the worst fire disaster in Britain since the Blitz. No one is certain about the total number of deaths. The media are giving an estimated number of 79, but local residents and survivors say that the figure is much higher. Firefighters were unable to reach the top eight floors of the 24-storey building and informal estimates of those still missing are in the hundreds.
Since the fire, both the RBKC and KCTMO have effectively gone into hiding. It has been left to local charities, churches and mosques to provide emergency accommodation for survivors. Local residents and retailers rallied round at once providing much-needed bottled drinking water, food, clothing, toiletries and other necessities for those who had nothing but their nightwear.
They waited in vain for council officials to turn up to arrange accommodation and help, until eventually neighbouring local authorities stepped in to the breach. Kensington and Chelsea is the richest borough in the country, but it has totally failed its low income tenants and seems to be paralysed.
The survivors, friends and neighbours descended on the town hall in a rage rarely seen in Britain to demand justice for the victims – but rather than come out and meet them the council boarded up its building and hid.
In the same way, Prime Minister Theresa May has seemed afraid to meet the angry bereaved. The newly elected Labour MP Emma Dent Coad and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visited the scene and were able to bring some genuine comfort and sympathy to the survivors.
Corbyn has demanded that empty luxury properties in the borough bought purely as investments should be commandeered to house those who have lost their homes but May has rejected the idea out of hand.
The survivors desperately need to be rehoused within the borough and close together. They have a terrible process to go through in coming to terms with the tragedy and they will be able to comfort each other as no outsiders could. Yet they fear the council will use the opportunity to rehouse them far away, all around the country.
The firefighters too – who had to make terrible decisions about who to save and who to leave; who gave over their own breathing apparatus to victims on the verge of death and risked their own lives – will be haunted for life by the horror and they need help. But the London Fire Service has cut its counsellors down to just two.
The union Unite has promised to provide legal assistance for all survivors seeking justice. The union had many members living in that block.
We must demand that the council and its agents come out of hiding and face the survivors and the bereaved in court. We must also demand the Government fund local authorities throughout Britain to remove that fatal cladding from tower blocks wherever it is in place and fit sprinklers and fire alarms into all tower blocks.