Commentary on the impact of a tragedy
Latest on Grenfell: Boroughs step in as Khan criticises K&C’s fire tower response
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“The initial response was simply not good enough on the ground. People are angry, and rightfully so.”
So admitted Eleanor Kelly, Southwark LBC chief executive, on behalf of the Grenfell fire response team which is made up of representatives of London’s local and regional government, Whitehall, the police, fire service and British Red Cross.
Inevitably the scale of the Grenfell Tower blaze has proved testing for the public sector. While the fire and health services have been praised for their immediate response, the coordination of support to the victims of the blaze has been troubled.
Traumatised residents who have lost all of their possessions have been offered little certainty about where they will be living in the short or medium terms or about their financial position. One resident was reportedly given emergency accommodation in an old people’s home, despite the fact that he was not old himself. Many Grenfell residents perceive that no one has been in charge of the operation.
Downing Street has now announced a £5m support package, with each household receiving £5,000 but the perception is that this is too little too late.
According to the latest figures, 201 families are in emergency accommodation of whom 113 are classified as homeless as a result of the blaze. It is clearly a major undertaking.
Anger boiled over on Friday when Kensington Town Hall was invaded by protestors. But this fury has many causes, both relating to the short and long terms.
As London mayor Sadiq Khan (Lab) put it over the weekend: “They are angry at not just the poor response in the days afterwards from the council and the government but the years of neglect from the council and successive governments.”
The poorest people in one of London’s richest boroughs are those who have been hit. The issues of inequality and poverty loom large in the debate about Grenfell Tower. The public inquiry will look at whether the block’s refurbishment was done on the cheap. But there is a broader issue that the poorest – well, the poorest and many more besides – are being left behind in London’s property boom.
And Kensington & Chelsea RBC has rowed back from its previous commitment to rehouse all the victims of the fire within the borough. Many parts of London have previously been the focus of social cleansing debates as falls in the amount of social housing have combined with continued high demand.
In her capacity as chair of London Councils’ housing directors group, Kensington & Chelsea’s director of housing Laura Johnson spoke to LGC in 2015 about some of the pressures the capital is under. Its local authorities would be open to doing deals with councils in other areas to offer housing placements to the homeless, she said.
“We are extremely sympathetic about the pressures on [boroughs outside London]. The problems result from the growth in private rented market … Welfare reform is making it increasingly difficult for families on benefits and subject to the benefit cap to find affordable accommodation,” she said.
In addition to London boroughs, Luton and Watford BCs, St Albans City & DC and Brighton & Hove and Cambridge city councils all told LGC at that time that they housed households in temporary accommodation outside their areas.
The pressure will be on boroughs within London to find a solution to the housing of Grenfell Tower’s residents. However, it seems likely that there will also be a growing debate about the standard and availability of housing for those in most need of it.
The plan to fund the extended right-to-buy through the sale of higher-value council homes, which was likely to disproportionately impact on tenants in boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea, did not feature in the Conservative manifesto. The manifesto also spoke of councils being key actors in the provision of housing.
However, the combination of right-to-buy shrinking housing stock, high private sector prices intensifying demand for social housing and cuts and financial constraint hampering the ability of councils to offer housing provision seems certain to mean that housing will only increase as an issue.