Camden evacuation – residents expose fire risks – Blairites duck responsibility

Action needed now to secure adequate rehousing

Grenfell Fire demonsrators, 17.6.17, photo Mary Finch

Grenfell Fire demonsrators, 17.6.17, photo Mary Finch   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Bob Labi, Camden Socialist Party

It took tower block residents expressing their fears and complaints at a public meeting called after the Grenfell horror to get Camden council to order fire checks on five tower blocks on the Chalcot estate in north London. Within 24 hours the fire brigade declared four out of the five blocks unsafe, mainly due to issues with gas pipes and fire doors, and an immediate evacuation was ordered on Friday night.

This confirmed the longstanding fears and complaints of many residents who, at last Thursday’s meeting, had demanded to know who at the council had signed off the 2006-2009 work to refurbish the tower blocks.

The Labour council, while mobilising staff to help residents and bringing in contractors to immediately begin repair work, could not answer residents’ many questions of what will happen to them. While the council said “we’re encouraging all residents to stay with friends and family if they can, otherwise we’ll provide accommodation”, many residents felt left in the lurch.

The local council, led by Blairite Labour councillors, sought to sidestep the questions of who is responsible for this crisis and why it was not discovered before.

Council doesn’t resist cuts

Recently the Camden Labour councillors elected unopposed a new leader who previously worked for the so-called “Faith Foundation” that Tony Blair set up after he resigned as Prime Minister. In the few weeks since the general election Camden council has continued on its course of cuts. Days after the election it voted to close four day-care centres and raise £3.8 million by introducing charges for 800 people receiving home care and a £5 a journey charge for the vulnerable people who need to be taken to the borough’s one surviving day-care centre.

When Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, personally ordered the closing of Belsize fire station one street away from the Chalcot estate, tower block residents were prominent in the local opposition. While the Labour Party then opposed the closure, once it went through in 2014 they dropped the case.

So unwilling are the Camden Blairites to do anything that could be seen as challenging capitalism, they agreed, six days after the Grenfell fire and three days before the Chalcot evacuation, to give the new owners of the Belsize fire station planning permission to turn it into 16 luxury and two “affordable” flats.

The idea of rejecting this planning application and calling for the renationalisation of the building so that it could once again be a fire station does not seem to have entered the pro-capitalist Labour councillors’ heads. Indeed this planning application was agreed without any discussion.

Occupy, compulsory purchase, requisition

The local Labour MP is in this pro-capitalist mould. Speaking while the evacuation was underway, she made no mention of Jeremy Corbyn’s call last Sunday to occupy, compulsory purchase, or requisition empty properties to provide alternative accommodation for the homeless and displaced.

But this is not surprising as in the election some, but not all, of her canvassers went door to door explaining that she did not support Corbyn. This approach led to her being described at a borough-wide meeting of Camden Labour Party members last week as trying to appear as an “independent” rather than a Labour candidate.

The Grenfell tragedy and the growing scandal of Chalcot and the rising number of tower blocks being discovered to be dangerous is a grim testament to both capitalism and the ruling class’s gangsterism and contempt for the ‘rest’.

The story behind the building of the Chalcot blocks is an illustration of capitalism providing good housing for the rich and more basic housing for the working class, even though today, after the selling off of council housing, the blocks’ residents are now a mixture of council tenants, private owners and private tenants.

Four of the blocks were built in the mid-1960s as part of speculative redevelopment which involved knocking down existing, basically good, housing in a wide area to allow the building of luxury town houses and the tower blocks. The developers were so pleased, they named one of the private roads they built after a local Conservative councillor.

Grenfell murders

The growing scandal that the Grenfell murders have exposed shows the absolutely critical need for working people to come together to act, to demand immediately local rehousing and the meeting of all financial costs this evacuation will bring to the residents. As Corbyn has indicated, action must be immediately taken to seize control of and put the displaced, poorly housed and homeless into properties being held empty for speculation or simply as “investment assets”.

Trade unions should help the residents build joint action to demand that housing faults are rapidly repaired, for democratic control of social housing and for a crash housing programme to provide low rent, high quality social housing.

To achieve these things an active movement must be built to fight for these demands, and to fight at next year’s local elections to replace the Blairite Labour councillors with councillors prepared to fight the cuts – councillors who stand for real improvements as part of a struggle to replace this society fundamentally run by and for the rich.

Update added on 27th June:

There is increasing anger as the full scale of the Chalcot estate’s internal defects becomes known, something which has been exposed only because of residents’ anger. Now it appears that at least 1,000 fire doors were missing when the Fire Brigade inspected the buildings on 23 June.

It seems that in 2004 the then Labour controlled council initially included fire doors in the specifications for the estate’s refurbishment. But this requirement was later removed, presumably to cut costs, before the £66 million, PFI financed, works were carried out between 2006 and 2009. While Camden council was run by a LibDem/Tory coalition between 2006 and 2010, it seems that the refurbishment contract was agreed by a Labour administration.

There are reports that repeated safety reviews, most recently in December 2015, called for the installation of fire doors in the Chalcot blocks at an estimated cost of £800,000. The sole Green Party Camden councillor commented that “Camden has not yet published these risk assessment documents despite requests since last week. If the serious risks that have led to the evacuation are in them I, along with thousands of residents, will be wanting answers as to why they weren’t put right.”

This developing scandal can become a test case for the Labour Party. Will councillors who have been involved in blocking the implementation of safety measures be allowed to stand again as Labour candidates in next May’s council elections?

At the same time there are also increasing calls for the reopening of the closed local fire station. Reflecting this pressure, and wanting to appear to be doing something, the local Labour MP on 26 June asked, in the House of Commons, the government to “support the re-opening” of the fire station. However she did not propose any concrete steps to secure this goal, something that could start with calling on the local Labour council to reverse its 20 June agreement to the station’s redevelopment into luxury flats.

More and more the Grenfell disaster and the growing building scandal are becoming a deadly symbol of the effects of austerity and also the failures of both Conservative and Blairite Labour councils. Lessons can and must be drawn from this as part of building an active movement that defends the interests of and fights for working people.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 24 June 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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