Even before we know the full human toll of the fire at Grenfell Tower, it is already clear the tragedy needs to result in a generation-defining debate about the capability, resourcing and responsibilities of local government.
These are harrowing times for the staff of Kensington & Chelsea RBC, as they have been for other public servants dealing with the blaze’s aftermath. Bodies need to be found and identified; victims rehoused; traumatised children and adults supported and replacement housing found.
While the scale of the tragedy would overwhelm any organisation, it is clear the initial response has been insufficient, with those made homeless often left in limbo, and there being a predictable shortage of emergency accommodation. Questions need to be asked about why other councils were not involved in the support operation for so long after the fire: a strong council is one that knows when it needs outside assistance.
The public inquiry announced by the prime minister will highlight the overlapping responsibilities and shortcomings of organisations including the council, Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, contractors and the Department for Communities & Local Government.
When residents complained about fire safety, they felt they were not listened to. With chilling prophecy, a Grenfell Action Group blog post from November warns “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”.
As recriminations begin two underlying themes will be austerity and inequality. We need to know why flammable cladding was used on the building to save a relative pittance and whether corners were cut as London’s social housing buckles under excessive demand. And there is a broader issue about the disempowerment of tenants, 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, with often perverse results. As public sector housing comes under strain, gleaming private sector edifices stand empty or under-used, unaffordable to many. The magic money tree appears to be unable to afford more expensive fireproof cladding on flats but it must fund the multi-million pound public inquiry that ensues from its use.
The Grenfell tragedy shows the need for an interventionist, accountable and properly funded local public sector. If a deprived local community can find the resources to rally round to help the victims who have lost everything, then society has the money and wherewithal to prevent tragedy in the first place.