I woke up on Wednesday horrified to see the ongoing fatal fire unfolding at Grenfell Tower in Kensington. I visited the area on Thursday and saw the huge volunteer operation taking shape, but also very little of the council officers or organised aid for the victims and many traumatised residents.
The faces of the missing people on the posters all over the area are the faces of Londoners on that estate who were working together to try make their lives better. Among them whole families wiped out and many many children. They are same Londoners as the hundreds who are struggling now to get a proper emergency response, working hard to organise aid to the homeless survivors and trying to find names for the dead.
The extent of the loss of life was obvious the first moment I saw Grenfell Tower still smouldering in the early morning on Thursday. The upper floors a tomb, burned to a husk. My sadness for the people inside is mixed with absolute fury that this could happen. And fury is the right response, when we realise that residents in the block were onto some of the problems that may have led directly to this disaster, and when we hear about how they were sidelined and ignored.
Reading the blog of the Grenfell Action Group made my blood run cold. Not just because of the detailed way they had set out the fire risks they worried about, but because that is such a familiar story. They were treated like troublemakers, threatened and ignored for raising problems.
This kind of treatment is something I see far far too often in my work. Whether it’s for new heating on an estate in my council ward or for the resident groups I’m working with fighting regeneration and estate demolition as an Assembly Member, including in the next door Silchester Estate.
This is how residents who try to get involved in their housing are treated far too often and it has to stop. There are so many groups of residents organising themselves across London who struggle and fight to get their voices heard.
A penny pinching choice to use flammable cladding is being implicated – if that is what happened it is a true scandal and the people responsible must pay a heavy price.
I’ve spoken to the media this week a lot about the lessons we were supposed to have learned following past fires. The 2009 Lakanal House fire in Southwark claimed six lives and lead to recommendations from the Assembly and from the Coroner that there should be safer cladding and new building regulations on what could be used in towers, a better fire risk assessment regime (after the rules were changed to a ‘self certification’ system in 2005), and for full transparency for residents with councils publishing fire risk assessments online and making certain every resident knew the fire escape plan.
In addition the coroner recommended sprinkler systems should be retrofitted to tall residential buildings.
These recommendations were not enforced by the Government, and councils were only given the option to follow what they said about transparency. Many, including my own council in Camden, have not. These are failings that people need to be held accountable for in the inquiries and investigations that follow.
But the outcome of this cannot just be about better standards of building. A purely technical response to this would be very wrong.
We must treat the disease that led to these deaths not just the symptoms. And the disease is the attitude of our authorities to people who live in social housing.
Right across London – not just in Tory councils I have to say, and not just in places where arms length companies manage homes – residents are being treated as troublemakers and pests if they try to get involved in how their homes are provided, improved and managed. This has to stop. Council tenants need much more respect.
Things can change, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has the power to help. For any change that needs planning permission he has the power to make resident decision making mandatory.
However, his draft guidance on estates does not do this. He has rejected so far our calls for binding resident ballots on changes to their estates, but the final version of his guidance can be different – and hundreds of us have written to him to say it must be.
The Government, too, can make it the law for residents to be the ones who decide. DCLG can give them the right to basic information on safety, the right to respect from their landlords and the right to make decisions on their homes.
In Camden I’ve been asking the council questions and posting the results on my Facebook page – I’ll keep updating that when new information comes in.
And in the Assembly, before this disaster I had already tabled an oral question to the Mayor about his estate regeneration guidance. At Mayor’s Question Time this Thursday I’ll be asking him how he will help give residents more of a say over their homes, and why he’s been pushing demolition rather than simply improved safety in a recent Observer article.
Here’s some of the things I’ve said to the media this week. I also spoke at the demonstration on Friday and hope that the demands of residents for more support and to have their voices heard in future are fully met.
BBC Radio London – Weds
Today progamme BBC Radio 4 – Thurs
Guardian – Thurs
Victoria Derbyshire programme BBC News – Thurs – what the local Labour councillor says about the residents asking for funds to get their own independent fire checks done is really damning.