Grenfell tragedy compounded by Tory council indifference

31 Mar 2018
Last week, survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire called for Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) to be placed into special measures after it was confirmed that not everyone would be rehoused within a year of the fire.
This is a community traumatised by the loss of their loved ones a nd their homes — in what the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) calls the worst firein terms of fire deaths in living memory — and its views must be heeded.
Yet both the government and the council have been missing in action when it comes to properly listening and responding to the concerns of this community.
Health professionals estimate that the mental health of up to 11,000 people could be affected by the fire. The horror and loss caused is unfathomable and the disregard that has followed is unacceptable.
Writing to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Savjid Javid the community group Grenfell United explained why Kensington and Chelsea Council’s failure to meet targets “had to stop.”
Its letter reads: “RBKC has failed to meet the targets you set and it has failed the survivors,bereaved and the community,” adding that “promise after promise has been broken,” and concludes: “the government now needs to step in and put RBKC under special measures.”
Even the government seems to have lost patience with the failing Toryco uncil which, it was recently reported, has spent nearly £21 million in keeping Grenfell Tower survivors in hotel rooms.
The local MP Emma Dent Coad says that “without exception they [those ho used in hotels] want permanent homes which suit their needs, but are not being offered anything suitable.”
A recent report from the government’s official Grenfell recovery taskforce said that the council’s record on converting plans into actionwas “patchy,” that progress regarding rehousing had been “too slow” and confirmed that the government’s own deadline for rehousing all survivors by the first anniversary of the fire was unlikely to be met in full.
Not only does Theresa May’s promise in June to offer rehousing within three weeks lie in tatters, but so does the later promise to rehouse everyone within a year of the fire.
Briefing MPs on the issue in the House of Commons recently, Javid said that nine months on from the fire, just 62 out of 204 households had been resettled into permanent accommodation, saying there have been “totally unacceptable” delays in the process and admitting that “the suffering that these families have already endured is unimaginable.”
In total, 188 had accepted offers of temporary or permanent homes  and128 had moved in. Among these, there were still 82 households in emergency accommodation, mainly hotels, including 25 families and 39 children.
Javid also said that he expected the council to “take on board its recommendations and do more to listen to the community, to improve links  with the voluntary sector and to act on the feedback that it gets from the front line,” but all the evidence of the last nine months suggests this will not be the case, as Grenfell United have so poignantly pointed out in their letter.
Whoever Javid tries to blame, it’s clear that the government has failed to ensure its own promise is met when it comes to rehousing the victims of last June’s catastrophe.
As people in Grenfell join the silent march for justice each month o nthe monthly anniversary of the tragedy, it becomes clearer that the national government has failed to meet its own commitments.
And when it comes to the broader picture in terms of learning the l esson s of what happened at Grenfell, the government continues to refuse to implement improved fire safety regulations — despite the Lakanal House and Hackitt report recommendations — or to provide the extra funding to ensure that all local councils can retrofit their tower blocks with sprinkler systems that could help make them safer.
In response to a question by Jeremy Corbyn during the Budget last year, Philip Hammond failed to commit to this extra funding, while a sprinkler system is being retrofitted in Parliament.
If sprinklers are good enough for MPs, they are good enough for residents in tower blocks.
As of February, 301 of 314 high-rise buildings with Grenfell-style cladding have failed safety tests and only seven of the social housing blocks among these have completed cladding replacement.
There are thousands of towers in social housing schemes, student acco mmodation and privately owned blocks across the country in which residents will be sleeping uneasy.
Additionally, the National Education Union has also raised serious concerns that many new schools are being built without sprinklers, despite guidance to the contrary.
In terms of Grenfell, Labour believes that what the government must do now is give a reasonable timescale when it comes to rehousing.
The government needs to take affirmative action in the face of the continuing failures in this area and house the survivors immediately.
If this means taking the council into special measures to get this moving, then they should listen to calls from the community and do it.
Nationally, the government must set aside vital funding for local authorities and housing associations, allowing them to fit sprinklers into tower blocks and protect the lives of tens of thousands of people across the country. It should also end its reckless cuts to our fire and
rescue service.
The government’s lack of urgency is painfully apparent, but Labour is not complacent and is committed to investing in our housing and safety.

* Originally published in 'The Morning Star.'

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