Today marks two years since the Grenfell fire, a predictable (for it was predicted) and, as we now know, completely preventable tragedy. Yet still today thousands of residents of Britain’s tower blocks are sitting in unsafe accommodation.
Despite government promises to remove the dangerous external cladding that allowed fire to travel the full height of the building, consuming the lives of 72 people as it scorched the landmark housing block, there are still 221 similar towers clad in similar materials with work on its removal still yet to start.
The government is paying £200m to see that dangerous aluminium composite material stripped away from privately-owned developments. It’s the least we can expect from the government that has stripped so many tenants – whether in social housing, private rent or even leasehold owners – of the trappings of security. Of a home.
The fact that it has taken two long years for so little action to be taken – while thousands sit it out in dangerous accommodation – is not just about the slow-turning cogs of bureaucracy (though of course that does play a major part). It is also a symptom of how little interest politicians are now taking in the state of people’s homes – and the diminished lives people are condemned to live in them.
Three years ago things were somewhat different. Back before the Grenfell fire, before the Brexit referendum and the demise of David Cameron’s botched attempt at liberal Conservatism, for a short period of time the housing crisis was the hot political issue.
Homelessness, after decades under careful management, was rising fast. The cost of renting, and the poor quality of so much of the private housing market, was under discussion. People were getting angry.
MPs on the right, in particular those representing relatively affluent seats, began to warn that middle-class parents whose adult children simply could not get on the housing ladder were getty angry on the doorstep. These new grumblers are the ones whose views, at least in the old world, end up shaping politics: floating voters in the centre ground, the ones with articulate voices who live in the seats that are described by pundits and pollsters, rather sickeningly, as the ones “that matter”.
Meanwhile the government was also raising the rents for those who would previously have been allocated social housing, offering new tenancies with an “affordable rent”. To whom, many asked. That too attracted vocal criticism.
Some minor attempts at capping the excesses of the private rented sector followed, including an end to exorbitant agency fees. It felt then, for a while, like something significant was happening: after years of discussing housing in purely economic terms, as units and assets and output, the concept of the home had returned to politics. A correction in the deep inequalities in the British housing market seemed possible, because it was what the voters wanted.
Then, Grenfell. A moment that disabused people of their hopefulness. Those who do not have the financial means to exercise choice in their housing can find themselves in grave danger. The slow official response to Grenfell demonstrated bleakly another shift that had taken place: the politics of public responsibility has been abandoned.
It’s not only in housing that we see this dynamic. It’s there in the disintegration of the welfare state from a functioning, though flawed, support network into the unfit, collapsing Universal Credit system. We see it in the rise in children whose families rely on food banks to keep them fed, as those who require benefits forced to wait five weeks to receive an income. It’s visible in the withdrawal of children’s services, community centres, and disability support – all with terrible consequences.
According to the IPPR think tank, there have been 120,000 deaths since 2012 that could have been “prevented” were it not for the effects of austerity on public health.
So today the terror of the Grenfell fire lives on, not only for those who will spend their lives dealing with the trauma they experienced, and not just for those who are condemned to sit it out in properties they know to be unsafe, waiting for the prime minister’s promised help. It lives on for all of us who expect – indeed hope – for a government that considers the welfare and safety of its people to be its primary function.
Grenfell, and the two years since, have told us that we still don’t have that.