The unresolved tragedy of Grenfell Tower

Chloe Gashi scrutinises the failures of the government surrounding the Grenfell scandal, and argues that more needs to be done to protect underprivileged urban residents.

The Grenfell tragedy on June 14th, 2017, took seventy two lives and left seventy people injured. The fire that engulfed the block of flats in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea lasted for fourteen hours before it was fully extinguished. Some families were able to make it out of their homes, leaving behind their belongings, while others were trapped inside. In the local community and beyond, the incident has left many scarred years later. This article aims to look at the social disparities and urban inequalities in Grenfell Tower and the surrounding area by taking into consideration its location, demographics, and the events leading up to the fire.

Grenfell Tower was situated in North Kensington in an extremely affluent part of London. Unlike most properties in the area, the tower was made up of social housing units accommodating primarily lower-income residents of minority ethnic origins. Similar housing situated not far from Grenfell, such as Lancaster West Estate, houses a similar demographic of residents. According to an article by the Guardian, the majority of those living in these housing units are migrants who came to the UK during the Windrush period, migrants fleeing countries of war and instability, and unaccounted for and undocumented residents. The fact that just seven of the seventy two people that passed away that night where White Britons, demonstrates how the fire disproportionally affected those of ethnic backgrounds. However, the Grenfell fire is just one of many examples in which minorities, particularly those of low socio-economic status, have disproportionately been at the receiving end of poor political-decision making in the UK. Indeed, in Kensington and Chelsea, this becomes grossly apparent. 39.3% of residents in the borough are White British, while ethnic minorities make up a far smaller percentage, with 4.1% identifying as Arab, and 10% as Asian and 6.6% as Black in the 2011 consensus. The bottom third of those living in the borough, many of whom live in social housing like Grenfell tower, earn just £20,000 a year while the average income is £123,000 per year– more than six times higher. The proximity between extreme wealth and poverty in Kensington and Chelsea is staggering. A report found that average incomes can “drop ten times as you cross a street”. When considering the geography of the borough, the vicinity of these contrasting communities given the very large wealth gap, the differences in quality of life, and the physical placement of the richer and poorer residents, underpins the urban inequalities present. The tower was situated in one of the richest boroughs in the world. Yet, the polarity in the quality and price of housing is striking as not far from the tower are the mansions and luxury apartments of Kensington and Chelsea each of which upholds a value of millions of pounds. This highlights the highly unequal socio-economic context in which Grenfell tower was situated.

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From an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to brush the tragedy off as an unfortunate disaster. In reality, the residents of Grenfell had already shown concerns about fire safety many years prior – since 2013. These concerns continued, especially after the renovation of the tower in 2015 saw cladding applied to the building’s exterior. After the fire, many of the residents of the tower expressed on social media platforms and news reports that they believe the cladding was put into place to make the tower appear more aesthetically pleasing compared to the million-dollar mansions just a few streets south. However, the most prominent reason that the residents emphasised their concerns with the cladding was due to its highly flammable nature, which is believed to have acted as a catalyst in the tragedy leading to the fire on the fourth floor traveling all the way to the twenty fourth floor. Nevertheless, very similar cladding is still present in six hundred other blocks of flats similar to Grenfell. People having to live in these conditions is unjust. People should not fear that they will die in a fire in their own home. When looking at the contrasting types of houses in the area, Grenfell had dangerous cladding despite residential concerns around fire safety. In contrast, the luxury houses nearby did not obtain the same cladding. Why is that? The government failed to ensure that the tower was safe to live in after the cladding was put in place, which led to the fire becoming so destructive. This begs the question, if the residents were White/British or had a higher annual income, would anything have been different? Would the fire still have happened to that extent?

After the disastrous tragedy had occurred, besides the courageous efforts of the firefighters, the backbone working towards helping those who had lost their homes was not the government but rather the local community. The flood of donations from all over London being organised by volunteers of the local community was the main source of help for the large majority of survivors. Support from well-known artists such as Adele and Stormzy was welcomed. However, this cannot be said about the PM at the time, Theresa May, who had to be escorted in and out of the site due to security concerns, given the local communities legitimate frustration and outrage with how Grenfell was treated before and after the fire. The failure of the government still rings true today, three years later, as there are still seven families who are yet to be housed due to their ‘painfully slow response’ (Justice4Grenfell, 2020; 1). The Grenfell inquiry is still open, and the community is adamant about putting those in charge of placing the cladding and not listening to residential concerns to fault. What happened to the residents of Grenfell tower was utterly unjust and reveals just how much still needs to be done to dismantle and socio-economic inequality in the UK. This tragedy has shed light on how more should be done by the government to prevent another unfortunate disaster similar to this from happening. It has also shown that the inequalities and the neglect of this community led to a preventable incident becoming a fatal misfortune that will be remembered for years to come.

Three years on, the community holds a silent march on the fourteenth of every month to remember those who lost their lives that night. The case of Grenfell cannot continue to be just an example of how the government failed the underprivileged. Things must change.

Baker, D. 2012. Census 2011: Kensington And Chelsea. [online] Rbkc.gov.uk. Available at: <https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/Census%202011%20-%20December%20Release%20Summary.pdf&gt; [Accessed 12 June 2020].

Gentleman, A., 2017. Grenfell: Grenfell Tower MP highlights huge social divisions in London. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/nov/13/grenfell-tower-mp-highlights-huge-social-divisions-in-london&gt; [Accessed 20 June 2020].

BBC News. 2018. Grenfell Tower Fire: Who Were the Victims? [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40457212&gt; [Accessed 12 June 2020].

Justice4Grenfell. 2020. Kensington And Chelsea Council Has Been ‘Painfully Slow’ In Rehousing Final 7 Families Left Homeless After Grenfell Blaze. [online] Available at: <https://justice4grenfell.org/2493/&gt; [Accessed 12 June 2020].

MacLeod, G. 2018. The Grenfell Tower atrocity. City, 22(4), pp.460-489.

Rice-Oxley, M., 2018. Grenfell: The 72 Victims, Their Lives, Loves and Losses. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/14/grenfell-the-71-victims-their-lives-loves-and-losses&gt; [Accessed 13 June 2020].

The Guardian. 2017. Does Your Tower Block Have External Cladding? [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/22/does-your-tower-block-have-the-same-flammable-cladding-as-grenfell&gt; [Accessed 12 June 2020].

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