Grenfell Tower tragedy throws a grim light on society’s values

By Savi Hensman
June 18, 2017

The scale of the devastation caused by the Grenfell Tower fire is gradually emerging. 58 people are missing, presumed dead, the number likely to rise, while some of the injured are in critical condition. Many survivors are bereaved and have lost their homes and possessions.

There are ways in which this tragedy has shown people at their best. The Muslims (largely young men) awake because of Ramadan who helped rouse residents, firefighters who kept battling the flames and saving lives though exhausted, the health staff and churches, mosques and community centres caring for survivors and the many people who have volunteered or donated, have been deeply impressive.

Yet as information emerges about why the fire spread so fast and risks to residents’ lives which went unaddressed, there has been anger as well as shock and grief. This has been heightened by central and local government’s lacklustre response.

Meanwhile those of us who are in social housing have been reminded that we are vulnerable and perhaps, in some cases, regarded as disposable. Thankfully I live in a different part of London and not in a high-rise block. But my mother used to teach in a school five minutes’ walk from the blaze and I know several people now living in the neighbourhood.

Meeting needs for support and justice

The physical and psychological needs of those affected, especially the injured, bereaved and homeless, need to be addressed. This includes the emergency service workers who have witnessed terrible scenes or have  been dealing with others’ trauma.

This includes holding the government to its initial pledge – on which there has been much wavering – that those displaced will be rehoused locally. In the longer term, this should mean secure tenancies for those who had these before. To tear people who have already lost so much away from community connections would be cruel in the extreme (and potentially expensive in long-term health consequences).

The causes also need to be addressed and any attempts by the powerful to buy time until public attention has shifted to something else, resisted. This is not only about justice for the victims, and the right of the bereaved to truth, but also protection for others at risk from similar factors.

Those responsible should be held to account, including, if appropriate, criminal charges. At the very least, anyone whose reckless behaviour contributed to preventable deaths should be removed from office. Punishing a few low-ranking officials or building supervisors to fend off public anger, while leaving top decision-makers to carry on as before, would be unacceptable.

Other tower blocks with similar cladding or other fire safety issues should be promptly made safer. And in general the safety of buildings used by large numbers of people ought to be addressed before a further tragedy could occur

Underlying factors: what kind of society is this and who counts?

However society as a whole ought to ask itself about the assumptions and values which underpinned the catastrophe.

These include the idolisation of profit – and, arising from this, the belief that the rich are better than others and should be further rewarded. Disdain for those on low incomes, who have presumably been refused blessings by this ‘god’, also stems from this notion.

Austerity policies have been pursued, despite warnings by economists of the damage to the economy that would result. Tax cuts and loopholes for the rich and large corporations have coexisted with harsh cuts in public services. Schools are crumbling, higher education is too costly for many. People needing social care have been left isolated and sometimes undernourished and in squalor, without even basic needs met.

To further bolster profits, the former Prime Minister David Cameron pledged in 2012 to “kill off the health and safety culture for good”. Despite warnings about the impact of a “bonfire of regulations”, the government was determined to press ahead. Public opinion was divided, with some in favour because they bought the line that it would assist the economy.

The wealth of the super-rich was shooting upwards. Meanwhile people in ordinary jobs often found their pay falling in real terms, while those unemployed or too sick to work could face sanctions and be left without food or fuel. Though government propaganda tried to justify this, horrific accounts of those starved or hounded to death began to appear in the local and national media.

Public health specialists warned that austerity would probably lead to thousands of preventable deaths. This has been borne out over the past couple of years and it is possible that life expectancy may keep falling, despite advances in medical science. Yet until recently, even opposition politicians often went along with such policies for fear of losing votes.

Against this background, it might have seemed acceptable to wrap a block in combustible cladding, largely to improve the view for prosperous neighbours. The cost of safer materials and sprinklers might have been minimal. But in such a political climate, keeping low-income people safe might have seemed a low priority.

And when local people complained, ignoring them or even threatening legal action might have appeared quite reasonable. After all, to those in charge locally and nationally, a sensible, business-friendly approach meant focusing on the bottom line.

Overcoming divisions

That many Tower residents were from black and minority ethnic, including, refugee, communities, might have been an additional factor. Racism and xenophobia, though largely unconscious have, been on the rise lately,. While many of the powerful have friends from minority ethnic communities, others who are of both the ‘wrong’ ethnicity and ‘wrong’ class may be negatively viewed or simply overlooked. It would also appear that quite a few residents were disabled.

Perhaps an additional factor was the widespread hostility to people in social housing, especially in London and other areas with rocketing property prices. It was frequently claimed, untruly, that our rent was subsidised.

In fact council and housing association tenants pay our way. But because we do not pay extra to line a landlord’s pocket, or match the spending power of (often overseas-based) property companies, this may be considerably less than the ‘market value’.

To claim that this is a subsidy is rather like saying that libraries are absurdly expensive because, if councils used them as casinos, they could rake in money. In contrast sales to tenants under 'right-to-buy' laws are actually heftily subsidised. But in a world where ‘market forces’ are sometimes deified, not-for-profit housing is an unwelcome reminder that homes can be primarily for living in, a kind of heresy.

Understandably people paying extortionate private rents might feel jealous. But if all social tenants were turfed out, there would be even more competition for scarce accommodation and rents could be higher still. Policies designed to meet housing needs, rather than drive up property values, would be a better solution. This might include more social housing, which also serves as an asset for the public.

Some Labour as well as Conservative councils have been pursuing policies involving, in effect, social cleansing. Housing has been ‘redeveloped’ and largely replaced with ‘affordable’ housing which may be up to 80 per cent of market rents. In Kensington and Chelsea, the average monthly rent for a two bedroom property is about £4,000 according to some estimates, far more than most people’s entire net income. Many poorer families have been displaced.

In the case of Grenfell Tower, the council might perhaps be tempted to use its destruction as an opportunity to ‘improve’ the area by shunting out some low-income residents. It is important to make sure that this does not happen.

Likewise cuts to the fire service, which could have made matters even worse had not firefighters pushed themselves to the limit, should not be allowed to continue. NHS service reductions – including the proposed sell-off of most of Charing Cross Hospital, which treated some of the injured – also ought to be checked.

In a UK where even ordinary people are so often divided, that so many have reacted in such a caring and generous way may have taken some politicians by surprise (I admit I did not expect this either). The ‘business as usual’ approach has proved politically inept.

There is a risk that for those not immediately affected, as the shock and horror fades, so will the solidarity. The usually unspoken assumption that some lives are of little worth, or that a healthy economy demands human sacrifice, may again take hold. So in the weeks and months to come, it is important to remember what happened, keep supporting those affected and to ask awkward questions.

* See also 'Property rights and Christianity' by Bernadette Meaden


© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.