Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
A firefighter at the Grenfell Tower inferno said that the sight of people jumping from the burning building was the sort of horrific event that might occur in a slum, but not in one of the wealthiest parts of London, if not the world. The fire, which has shaken the capital and the political establishment to the core, is an epoch-defining moment. This is not just because of the devastating loss of life but because it has shone light on the hidden catastrophe of social housing provision in the UK.
Unlike other disasters, such as Aberfan, Hurricane Katrina or even 9/11, the difference with Grenfell is that it was predicted by the now widely-spread and horrifyingly prescient blog post by the Grenfell Action Group in 2016, warning that ‘only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO’.
So who are the KCTMO? Since the fire, blame has focused on Kensington & Chelsea council and following government pressure, the council’s chief executive Nicholas Holgate resigned. But the Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), which is the company responsible for the 10,000 social homes in the borough, has accepted no responsibility. In a statement the company said: ‘We are aware that concerns have been raised historically by residents.’
The obscurely named KCTMO is what is known as an ‘Arms Length Management Organisation’ or Almo for short. Over the last 20 years, control of housing has tended to pass from local authorities to an opaque and confusing mix of different bodies.
The process began under the Conservatives in the 1990s but gathered speed under New Labour’s modernisation agenda, which aimed to transfer 200,000 homes a year from councils, claiming it was in order to meet ‘Decent Homes’ standards. Most homes transferred to housing associations, but the other two ‘options’ councils had for meeting Decent Homes targets were Almos and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), both of which critics saw as stealth privatisation.
PFI housing projects have come in for repeated criticism for imposing very high debt repayments and for poor condition work and it now appears that similar refurbishment to that carried out by the KCTMO was part of a PFI project in Camden. The cladding on the Chalcot’s Estate in Camden, where tenants were evacuated following the failure of safety tests, was installed by Rydon, the same contractor responsible for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
The government has been shown to have ignored the advice of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire and Safety Rescue, which repeatedly called for a review of regulations that should have flagged up these safety issues. But as academic and housing expert Stuart Hodkinson points out, on a PFI project, it is the PFI contractor itself that is responsible for carrying out the safety checks.
At Grenfell Tower, Rydon, the contractor appointed by the KCTMO, was responsible for introducing the cladding which is seen as central to the uncontainable spread of the fire. Both Rydon and the KCTMO came in for repeated criticism from the Grenfell Action Group long before the fire, to the point where residents refused Rydon access to their homes.
The fallout from the fire was paralysis in government and chaos on the ground. On the ground a power vacuum has been reflected by a failure to provide adequate replacement housing and counselling for all those affected and traumatised, with the impact spreading far beyond the fire. The complex web of non-accountability played the same role after the fire as it had before.
For example, the extensive complex of neighbouring low rise homes, which were dependant on the tower for a communal heating system, are still without gas and hot water – and residents fear the impact of asbestos known to exist in the tower. Meanwhile, nearby Latimer Road station closed, according to Transport for London, ‘due to the risk of falling debris’ from Grenfell Tower’, but disbelieving residents who live far nearer in the shadow of the tower’s skeleton have been told they are safe to return to their homes.
Across the community there is huge distrust of the authorities, as a result of the ongoing lack of accountability and now over suspicions that there has been a cover up over the real numbers of dead, with many community leaders claiming that the figure is more likely to be in the hundreds rather than the official death toll which has remained for weeks now at 80.
Rather than initiating coordinated emergency measures to provide reassurance and safety it appears that none of central or local government – including the new emergency task force – or the KCTMO are equipped to deal with the continuing crisis. Instead, it is spreading as recently installed cladding on tower blocks all around the UK fail fire safety tests, with the result that residents being moved into temporary accommodation are fearful about what will happen to their homes.
At such a sensitive time, it is has angered many housing activities and communities that London mayor Sadiq Khan suggested that the answer might be to demolish tower blocks, feeding into a pre-existing and increasingly vicious battle in London over ‘estate regeneration’.Critics claim this is little more than social cleansing, as housing estates of low and high rise housing are demolished and replaced with largely luxury apartments with limited amounts of affordable housing, while existing residents are displaced.
For these communities, it is clear that it is not the tower blocks themselves which are the problem (although it is very understandable that Grenfell residents themselves may not now wish to be rehoused in high-rise accommodation). Instead, this disaster, and the associated failings now emerging on other housing estates, reflects the loss of democratic accountability in housing and the abject failure to listen to residents over the last twenty years – which is also reflected in the failure to listen to all those tens of thousands of residents on housing estates who do not want to see their homes demolished.
It is no surprise that no one has suggested that the 300 or so new towers of luxury apartments mushrooming over London be demolished, even though the government has now said private landlords should also test cladding for safety. As the chimera of luxury apartment towers sold to foreign investors come to define London’s skyline, it appears that the failure of accountability at Grenfell Tower is sadly a more accurate representation of life for many ordinary Londoners.
'Docs Not Cops' write that we must resist attempts to make our NHS any less universal
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum