My visit to Grenfell
- Samir Jeraj is Policy and Practice Officer at the Race Equality Foundation and former Green Councillor in Norwich
I visited Grenfell Tower as part of my day job in race equality the weekend that followed the disaster. It’s difficult to describe the level of destruction of the tower, the horror of hundreds of missing people posters across the neighbourhood, and the strength shown by volunteers. As someone who was a councillor elsewhere in the UK, I was shocked by the lack of local assistance from the council. It was all volunteer led. On Friday I joined protesters outside the Town Hall to show support for the community and their demands for immediate action.
The Grenfell Tower disaster exposes much of what is wrong with our housing. Deregulation and cuts have made housing more dangerous, and undermined the fire services who are there to protect us. It also exposes how divided and unequal we have become. People of colour and working class people are routinely and structurally excluded from decent and secure housing, and their voices unheard when they raise complaints. Housing is perhaps the biggest inequality in how we live, where and our life chances. Yet we know that there was much hope and talent among the residents of Grenfell. People with a bright future, people who cared for those around them and contributed to the community, lost because their safety and their lives are not valued by the system.
Attempts to improve housing laws since 2010 have largely failed. A private members bill on protecting renters from revenge evictions was filibustered out by two Tory MPs. Labour’s attempt to bring in a “fit for human habitation” clause into the last Housing and Planning Act were also rejected. Many observers noted that 72 MPs who were landlords voted against this. The landlord lobby has consistently campaigned against improvements in tenants’ rights and regulation, calling the move to protect tenants from revenge evictions a ‘charter for anti-social tenants’.
Moves to improve fire safety in tower blocks following the fire at Lakanal House were quietly sat on. The quality of the housing we have is also in question. Austerity is contributing factor: cuts to local government and to fire services mean that officers from both are less able to visit homes and take enforcement action against landlords that fail to comply with the law. And cuts to the number of firefighters mean, very simply, they are less able to deal with major events such as Grenfell when they occur.
We must continue to give and show support to the community in and around Grenfell, both now and in the months and years to come as they seek justice and rebuild their lives.
Where I live in Hackney, it is understandable that people who live in similar blocks are concerned. Hackney Greens have asked that Hackney Council make public all the current and future fire safety checks and reports, so we know what the dangers are and can campaign as residents to make our homes safer. Both the cladding on current blocks and the lack of sprinkler systems in others need urgent attention. Most importantly of all councils and landlords need to recognise that residents are the experts on where they live and must listen to them.
My thoughts are with the people of Grenfell, their families, friends and loved ones. Things must change if we are to prevent such terrible loss of life again.