Friday 23 June 2017

Grenfell Towers tragedy

A week after the Grenfell tower fire the political fallout shows no sign of slowing down.

As of today at least 79 people have died and the Chief Executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate has resigned and leader of the council Nicholas Paget-Brown is under pressure to step down as well

It is without doubt a national tragedy and I agree a 100% with those people who have claimed it is our equivalent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When Katrina struck the US city of New Orleans, it revealed the stark reality of how race and class in America played a major role in who escaped the city and those who were left behind.

The Grenfell tower fire has revealed similar uncomfortable truths. The fire claimed the lives of some of London's poorest residents living in one of the richest boroughs in the UK.

Anyone living in London or familiar with the city will know there are areas where huge amounts of wealth and poverty exist next to each other. In many respects London has always been like this, going all the way back to the 19th Century. The book 'A tale of two cities' by Charles Dickens immediately springs to mind when you think about London and Grenfell Tower.

There's no doubt that the tragedy and its aftermath is a failure of both local and central government. It's clear that the poorest in our society, those on low incomes and towards the bottom of the social scale have been ignored for too long. Residents had repeatedly complained to the council about safety measures at the tower block but their concerns were ignored.

When you consider why the tower had lethal flammable cladding, no sprinklers fitted into the tower and just one inner staircase as an escape route, it comes as no surprise that residents had previously urged the management company - Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) to improve the buildings safety - their concerns were ignored.

I recently read that in November last year, a resident's organisation the Grenfell Action Group warned on its blog that it believed "only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord" and end the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders"

After the fire had started, some residents stayed in their flats as they had been told to do so in the event of a fire - this guidance ultimately cost some residents their lives.

The response from both local and central government has come in for heavy criticism. Theresa May again showed her political weakness by failing to immediately meet with residents of Grenfell Tower. Such things are important and do matter as being a leader is about capturing the public mood at such moments and having the ability to clearly show empathy. Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council have not come out of this any better either.

The response has raised lots of questions about the state's role in providing a safety net for the country's poorest and most vulnerable people. I've heard comments saying that the tragedy is being made too political by opponents of the government; but how can this event be anything other than political?

Since the election of Margret Thatcher in 1979 and the advent of the new political consensus (I have to use the term neo-liberalism - it's such a cliche now) our ideas on the role of the state and what the state should do has radically changed. Fewer people now live in social housing and for those that do, the role of the state in providing maintenance, services and regulatory standards has diminished.

There's a growing feeling that the state needs to take a more active role and responsibility in many areas of society; whether it's in the economy or public services. This partly explains the rise in support for Jeremy Corbyn.

The tragedy comes at a time where it feels like the country is in turmoil. We've had a General Election which resulted in a hung parliament and not the expected Tory majority. We now have a weak minority government with a lame duck Prime Minister. During the election we had terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and we still have the issue of Brexit to deal with.

If feels like the country is in crisis. That there are forces developing that are leading the country to a new era of doing things. Perhaps this is what it was like towards the end of the 1970s. I was only a small child at the time but from everything I've heard and read, it felt like the country was coming to the end of a particular chapter which of course it was. It was the end of the 'Consensus post-war Period that was about to be replaced by Thatcherism.

I wonder if in years to come whether the Grenfell fire will be seen as part of a development that led to a new era of British politics and society. Only time will tell.

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