Demonstration after Grenfell Tower fire, 16.6.17, photo by James Ivens

Demonstration after Grenfell Tower fire, 16.6.17, photo by James Ivens   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

After Grenfell – Join the fight for safe homes

Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party

Grenfell two weeks on…

As survivors, local residents and workers struggle to come to terms with what happened at Grenfell and begin the fight for justice, so many more issues are raised. So too for residents of tower blocks around the country.

Rehouse survivors locally – take over empty property

Most immediately for survivors, of course, is dealing with the horrific trauma itself. This is made worse by the continuing failure of Kensington and Chelsea council, shoving some survivors from pillar to post, splitting up families and evicting them from hotels.

The fight to be rehoused locally goes on. Over 150 households are in hotel rooms; 364 households are in emergency accommodation.

There has been much talk in the press of the offer of luxury housing to survivors. This is very far from requisitioning some of the 1,399 properties deliberately left empty in the borough, largely owned by super-rich speculators.

In reality the homes on offer are already designated as “affordable” and without access to the luxury facilities – known colloquially as having “poor doors.” In any case, they do not meet the number required.

Spend the £300 million council stash!

The belief that the Tories are not doing enough goes on, with just £5 million provided by the government.

It includes emergency payments of £5,500 each, plus a £1 million grant to the Red Cross. £500,000 has gone on hotel bills alone.

Compare that to £1 billion to ‘bribe’ the DUP.

These paltry figures are matched by the donations made by ordinary people, and dwarfed by the staggering £300 million in the coffers of the council.

Grenfell Fire demonstrators, 17.6.17, photo Mary Finch

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

The chief exec of the council has been the sacrificial lamb. But we have to demand not just that council leaders resign, but that the £300 million is immediately used!

Local issues that need urgent action include the ongoing lack of heating and hot water for the blocks around Grenfell, which came from boilers in the basement of the tower.

And residents around the tower are still asking if their homes are safe from the destruction of the tower itself, given that nearby tube stations were closed for safety reasons. They have been left in their homes without information.

No cover-ups! Jail the killers

As the inquests begin, the torment of still not knowing how many and who are dead goes on, amid widespread suspicion of facts being hidden.

Fear of a cover-up is much wider than that of course, as criminal prosecutions begin and the dreadful dealings start to be exposed. In the view of many, this was corporate murder.

It has come out that Arconic, the company that supplied the panels, had ‘rules’ that the polyethylene-filled cladding was not suitable for buildings over ten metres high. Yet it knowingly sold them to the contractor refurbishing Grenfell Tower.

Arconic said on 26 June that it was discontinuing ‘Reynobond PE’ cladding, blaming “the inconsistency of building codes across the world.”

This does not reflect that these death-trap panels are banned in many countries and in reality should never have been supplied for building at all.

Complex conflicts of interests are being revealed. Two Shelter board members have resigned following criticism over the housing charity’s quiet response to Grenfell.

It turns out that ex-chairman Derek Myers is a former chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council.

And ex-trustee Tony Rice is chair of Xerxes Equity, the sole owner of Omnis Exteriors – the company that sold the cladding used on the tower.

Residents rightly demand full disclosure: impound the council’s documents, seize computers and remove shredders so that nothing can be destroyed.

In addition to the inquests, we demand an independent workers’ inquiry, led by trade unions and residents, which would not cover up crimes and failings in the interests of protecting profit and the profiteers.

Fight for safety everywhere

The response of authority at all levels around the country seems to be an unholy mix of paralysis and panic, as clearly they fear a rebellion if they are exposed.

The government has written to councils and housing associations instructing immediate checks.

Testing of cladding has started around the country. So far 100% of the 95 blocks tested have failed cladding tests. Tests are being extended to the cladding on schools, hospitals and government buildings. We demand private landlords carry out checks too.

Damningly, every block tested so far has failed on some fire safety requirement. The government must commit to funding, and councils mustn’t wait – do the work now and demand the government underwrites it!

No safety – no rent!

But of course it’s not just about testing cladding. Where safety checks are happening, they reveal broken and missing fire doors, gas problems, and inadequate fire alarm systems and escape routes – aside from the fact that only 1% of blocks have sprinklers.

How do we know if an estate is safe? Tenant organisation is vital – trade unions should help build joint action.

No to council “drop-ins” to dissipate people’s concerns over tea and biscuits – we demand full accountability and public debate.

We suggest that residents organise to demand immediate fire safety checks and for all information regarding materials and checks to be made public on landlords’ websites.

If this is not forthcoming, we need to fight – including being prepared to withhold the rent.

If it is really necessary to rehouse residents temporarily while emergency work is done, alternative accommodation must be suitable to the needs of residents. Many are older, or have young children, or pets.

Demolition, regeneration and social cleansing

Some people, understandably including some directly affected by the Grenfell disaster, want tower blocks demolished.

But we have to be wary of those calls being backed by property speculators who see an opportunity.

David Cameron famously wanted to demolish 100 estates. The experience of ‘regeneration’ is usually social cleansing.

Land is handed over to the private sector, existing tenants and leaseholders are shunted out with little right of return, and working class areas become gentrified. Grenfell-area residents have rightly demanded that the land remains in public hands.

In the 1980s, the socialist city council of Liverpool led by supporters of Militant (now the Socialist Party), in defying Tory cuts, democratically asked residents what they wanted.

On their wishes, and only on their wishes, the council demolished tower blocks to build council houses.

As an absolute minimum there should be a moratorium on all regeneration until safety is assured and open to public scrutiny, and until residents have the right to vote.

Capitalism kills

This terrible tale of profit before working class lives is an indictment of all the policies of privatisation, cuts and deregulation pursued by Tory and New Labour administrations at national and local level.

All those right-wing Blairites who gleefully pursued the policies of their Tory masters – of sell-offs of housing, privatisation of public land, demolition and regeneration leading to social cleansing, replacement of council control with ‘arm’s-length management organisations’ – should hang their heads in shame.

Any councillors not prepared to stand up to Tory cuts should step aside for those who will.

The tragedy exposes the effects of privatisation and savage cuts to health and safety, research, and of course to fire and health services.

Deregulation of housing included reduced rules for housing associations, and the relaxation of planning rules.

Current legislation does not demand annual fire risk assessments. In parliament, Theresa May claimed the government had acted on the recommendations following the fatal Lakanal House tower block fire in 2009. But building regulations have, in fact, not been reviewed.

We demand a million new council homes, under democratic control. No demolition or regeneration that leads to privatisation or social cleansing – we demand a residents’ vote.

We demand rent controls that cap the level of rents. We demand the end of the bedroom tax, benefit cap and ‘universal credit’. Scrap the Housing and Planning Act.

A socialist housing plan would include nationalising the banks, land and building companies under democratic working class control.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 27 June 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

Read more – urgent action needed

Previous reports and analysis