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A tragedy that targeted the poor

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Commentary on the long-term impact of the Grenfell Tower blaze.

While it is too early to speculate on culpability for the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it is clear the inferno will have immense repercussions even beyond its horrific human toll.

The images of the burning block with doomed victims still inside, silhouetted through windows as they awaited their grim fate, are among some of the most upsetting, from the Western world at least, since 9/11. It is impossible not to be moved.

These are harrowing times for the staff of Kensington & Chelsea RBC, as they have been for other public servants dealing with the aftermath of the blaze. The building needs to be declared safe for recovery teams to enter; bodies need to be found and identified; families need to be rehoused; traumatised children and adults need to be supported and replacement housing is required.

The impact on the council and its staff will not abate any time soon. Theresa May today announced a public inquiry would take place which will raise difficult questions for Kensington & Chelsea RBC, Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, the Department for Communities & Local Government and contractor Rydon, which refurbished the block, among others.

There will be much poring over the overlapping responsibilities, cultures and abilities of all of these organisations, debate over building standards and quality of building materials, especially with regards to the cladding used to insulate the building.

Whoever is held responsible, it is undeniable that many of the residents of Grenfell House had concerns about safety that they believe were not listened to. The website of the Grenfell Action Group catalogues a series of complaints about fire safety within the block.

With chilling prophecy, a post from November last year states: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

The group accused Kensington & Chelsea RBC, which owns the block, of colluding with the tenant management organisation. They also published pictures of potentially dangerous build-ups of rubbish within the building. We will learn much more about the confusing relationships between local organisations in the public inquiry.

As the recriminations from the tragedy begin an underlying theme will be austerity. Were corners cut on safety due to cuts? Is London’s social housing buckling under excessive demand? Did fire service cuts impact on its ability to fight the fire? Are social housing residents becoming increasingly disempowered, for instance by losing access to the legal aid that could have challenged safety standards?

The victims of Grenfell were predominantly the poorest residents of one of the richest boroughs in London. Many were recent immigrants; many were those left behind by the city’s economic boom; many were those whose toil in unrewarding service sector jobs is the essential counterbalance to the more visible symbols of wealth creation.

Public sector cuts have hit these people most. There is a growing body of opinion that austerity has run too far which contributed to the Conservatives’ poor election performance. How can a society as rich as ours have huge pockets of poverty? Where is the logic in the magic money tree potentially being unable to afford more expensive fireproof cladding on flats but the cash having to be found to fund the multi-million pound public inquiry that ensues from it? What is the impact of Kensington & Chelsea RBC’s £85m shortfall in its housing maintenance budget?

Ranging from the size of our national debt to the need to buy-off Democratic Unionist Party support, there are many reasons why money cannot be found for English local services. But the Grenfell tragedy shows that there should be no scrimping on safety standards and an intense need for an interventionist, proactive, accountable and properly funded local public sector. And if a deprived local community can find the resources to rally round to help the victims who have lost so much, surely broader society has the money and wherewithal to prevent tragedy in the first place?

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