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The Grenfell fire must be the end of this Tory government – our lives are not safe in their hands

When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice

June 18, 2017
6 min read

Protesters call for justice for Grenfell. Photo: Wasi Daniju

Much will be written of the government and the local authority’s responsibility for this crime. We know already that recommendations from various inquests and inquiries were ignored, or laid aside and given scant attention.

All the hedge fund operators, the financiers and lawyers will arrive at their high rise offices on Monday with total assurity that they are safe, working in buildings that are scrupulous in their adherence to the latest health and safety design and technology. In stark contrast, no such assurance can now be given for those who live in high-rise blocks, housing a huge section of the population.

We know cuts in local authority budgets have ensured corners are cut in all areas and that responsibility in this case was sloughed off to a managing company. We know that all the budgets are scrutinised for the least costly options – that presented with alternatives that may require increases in expenditure, it is always the lowest options that are chosen.

In the case of Grenfell Tower, the decisions on the refurbishment will rightly be scrutinised. What were the reasons for the cladding itself? Was this merely ‘tarting up’, as one of those watching in horror early on Tuesday morning told Five Live? Was it to ensure greater energy efficiency, or just to ensure that aesthetically the block was more pleasing to look at from the private towers being erected in the plum areas with high land values, Chelsea and South Kensington?

The Financial Times reported that new flats were carved out of existing spaces in the refurbishment, and as we know building regulations have largely been abandoned and spatial requirements have been severely eroded. The density of people in the flats has increased.

Unimaginable in the swanky blocks

There were no sprinklers fitted. No central fire warnings. People relied on one staircase to provide the only fire exit. This is unimaginable in one of the swanky blocks in that forest of towers that now litter the landscape around the City, Battersea and Chelsea.

But the response of Kensington council and the government was disgusting. The fears are evident. Fears that no one will be found responsible. Certainly the way the Tories have procrastinated on previous reports as part of their ideology of cutting back on all questions of regulation and safety. Even in the FT, the editorial on Saturday 17 June said: ‘Finally this should serve as a warning to anyone in government who still believes in deregulation, measured on an absurd “one in three out” numerical basis, as an ideological goal.’

There are real fears too that families will be dispersed and the community broken up. If they wish to be rehoused in the area it is essential this is provided for, as it is where they have friends and families. It is obvious that for children who go to nurseries and schools in the area, it will be there that they will be able to gradually pick up their lives amongst their friends and their teachers. Schools must play a major role in permitting them to reestablish some form of normality and this will require extra funding and resources from increased social support to counsellors. This will be needed not just for those who lived in the tower but for all those who live in the area and who will be suffering from the most severe shocks and traumas.

Tories responsible

We know that the Tories will rightly be battered for their ‘handling’ of the events, as it is they who are both locally and as a government directly responsible for the terrible state of the fire regulations and standards in public buildings.

There are many spin offs from the cuts in the fire services. One which will have affected community services is that before the cuts, fire crews would do ‘drop in’ assessments of the premises of buildings that were used by community groups. A woman who has a responsibility for a series of community groups in North Islington said that these visits were very useful. They would not be punitive but would be face-to-face discussions between fire crews and staff about what was required and how they may be able to implement any changes, all being aware that for many community organisations there was so little money.

Such discussions were supportive. However since the swingeing cuts to the fire services all such drop-in visits finished and fire assessments have to be done by private contractors – at a cost.

Coming only four days after the results of the elections were announced, the aftermath will bring focus on the Tories’ policies only more sharply. Under their policy of austerity there has been the sacrifice of public services of all types whilst their support for the wealthy is clear. Private housing, private education or private health is welcomed yet there is a lack of any concern or determination to provide for the many the decent housing, schools or hospitals required. All such services are provided without any democratically elected control.

Raise standards immediately

In response to this horrendous fire, Theresa May offers a measly £5 million hand out. A totally inadequate sum when faced with the impact of this fire not only on the residents but also anyone living in the area or in a tower block anywhere in Britain.

What about these who are living in similar towers? Is central government going to legislate for immediate housing regulations that will ensure all public housing is refurbished to the highest possible standards? Will they be prepared to fund instant works? Will they legislate for the highest standards of building regulations?

Last year the May government removed the requirement to build sprinklers into new school buildings, which had been law since 2007. Will this be reinstated?

From all that we know of the Tories determination to remove any regulatory systems, our lives are not safe in their hands. They have to go. We must build the anti-austerity demonstration on 1 July.

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Jane ShalliceJane Shallice is a writer and activist

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