Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long

Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

July 11, 2017
6 min read

Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city, published by Penguin. Details at

  share     tweet  
Photo: Natalie Oxford

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.’

At arm’s length

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.

Power vacuum

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.

Towers not the problem

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Anna Minton is the author of Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the 21st century city, published by Penguin. Details at

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali