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Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change

The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

June 18, 2017
4 min read

Justice for Grenfell protesters. Photo: Wasi Daniju

Injustice and greed. Those are the common themes in every story about the horrific Grenfell Tower fire. There are so many questions to be answered – it feels like we don’t know where to start. This is a defining moment where years of bad policy have come to a head. Talk to residents and protesters and you will find that most do not trust our politicians and media to deliver justice for this man-made atrocity. An inquest, rather than a government controlled public inquiry, is important to establish exactly what happened in a transparent way, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking this will be enough.

It is not just income inequality that this tower represents, but inequality in voice, power and justice

Journalists and commentators – even those that previously argued inequality was declining or not important – have decided that the charred building of Grenfell Tower, in the richest borough in one of the richest cities in the world, is a symbol of inequality. It is not just income inequality that this tower represents, but inequality in voice, power and justice. When I saw the building, I felt physically sick.

There should be no debate – this is a scandal of epic proportions that sits across economic and social policy, from fire regulations to public spending cuts and housing, and from the local level all the way up to prime ministerial level. And not just those there now – the architects of austerity such as George Osborne and David Cameron have had a hand in getting us to this point, as have all those who failed to ensure adequate investment in our social housing for the past three decades.

How can we get justice?

But the problem is deeper still. We have demonised those living in council estates for years – think of every exploitative documentary you’ve watched about housing estates and the tabloid articles depicting council house tenants as alcoholics, criminals, people with five children from three different dads. Not children with hope, families making things work despite low incomes and as places with a strong community spirit. We have othered council housing tenants so much that they have been dehumanised. It is in this context that the decision was made not to spend an extra £5,000 on fire resistant cladding.

So undoing the damage that got us to this point will take more than fitting sprinklers in the 99% of council housing tower blocks that don’t have them; more than listening to the thousands of tenants’ associations such as that at Cressingham Gardens in Lambeth to ensure their concerns are taken seriously; more than Gavin Barwell being sacked for not ensuring the recommendations from the Lakanal House fire were taken forward; and, even more than stopping the social cleansing of London that has seen tens of thousands of families pushed out of the city.

Justice for the lives lost in the most horrific way imaginable can only come if we promise to redesign our economic system to put people before profit, and if we finally ensure we have representation of all socio-economic groups in our politics and our media with a promise to stop reinforcing negative stereotypes. It’s also time for everyone to examine their own prejudices.

We all have a part to play in challenging the pervasive inequality behind the Grenfell tragedy. Let us start by making a collective pledge to never let something like this happen again.

This article was first published by CLASS.

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