I watched this incident with more than usual interest. I worked in the ambulance station around the corner from this building, for more than twenty years. I have been inside on numerous occasions, to deal with the many 999 calls generated by such housing density in one place.
The area is North Kensington, close to better-known parts like Notting Hill, Holland Park, and Portobello Road, all accessed with an easy walk. Not far from that tower block, you will find houses that would cost millions to buy, alongside similar tower blocks in the same street. So, it is an area of great financial inequality, as well as one of the most racially diverse in London.
Blocks like Grenfell Tower once seemed to be the answer to clearing slums, and providing basic housing for ordinary working people and their families. After all, high-rise living is just as popular with the rich, who are willing to pay small fortunes for better-quality apartments in very tall blocks all over the city. But these blocks were not the same as those destined for the wealthy. They were built with costs in mind; rooms just big enough, the minimum level of outside space around them, inadequate car-parking, and a visible lack of safety features.
Inside, there were lifts big enough to take a coffin when necessary, but only a few people at a time. They didn’t always work either, which left the elderly and infirm trapped on higher floors, unable to manage the stairs. There was no ornamentation, no art on the walls, and no concierge to supervise the huge block. Much later, they became little more than a ‘dumping ground’ for the local council to house refugees, immigrants, and people discharged from mental health institutions. Inside the poorest standard of accommodation available, they placed the poorest and most vulnerable people.
Even during the much-vaunted refurbishment of this block, corners were cut, and costs saved. Warnings were ignored, alongside the pleas of those living there. It was never a question of if something like this was going to happen, rather than how soon it would. Since this tragedy, many questions are being asked, and the blame game has started in earnest. The council officials seek to exclude themselves from blame, by stating that they gave over the running of this property to a private company. The government ministers concerned seek to exclude themselves from blame, by putting the emphasis on the council itself. It has emerged that there was no contingency plan in place, to deal with such an event. It has also been stated that adequate fire precautions would have been ‘too expensive’. There is even the chilling likelihood that the number of fatalities has been deliberately played down, as many of the occupants do not have the language skills necessary to state their concerns.
Can you just imagine if this had happened in a luxury apartment block overlooking the river? Or maybe inside an iconic building, like The Shard? What if all those killed and terribly injured had been rich and influential people? Would they have had to try to occupy the council offices to get answers to their questions, or to arrange temporary accommodation? Those are rhetorical questions of course, and we all know the answers.
Poor and ordinary lives don’t matter. It’s as simple as that.