Friday, 21 July 2017

The Grenfell Tower Fire

I am 50 years man and boy a Londoner. Let me paint you a picture of my once fair city. The West side has always been regarded as the richer part. People say they're going 'up West' when they're going shopping or out for entertainment. From the shops of Oxford and Regent Streets, the cinemas of Leicester Square, the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue, all in the West End of the centre of London. Keep moving west just beyond Marble Arch that marks the beginning of this West End, and you soon leave the borough of Westminster and arrive in the even more expensive borough of Kensington and Chelsea, known as a Royal borough because of a clause in a monarch's will, even though it only holds one Royal palace compared with Westminster's two. RBK&C has some of the most expensive real estate in London, in Chelsea, Belgravia, Notting Hill and Kensington, which are also supported by exclusive upmarket shopping areas in Knightsbridge, Sloane Square and the King's Road. Harrods is located here.

But in the northern margins of the borough, lies an enclave of poorer communities, around Ladbroke Grove, Kensal Rise and North Kensington. Densely populated, mainly in high rises. centred around a raised major trunk road the Westway, which carries you out of the area as fast as possible into the West End.

The raised Westway and tower blocks
This area is culturally diverse and vibrant. It is the creative heart and soul of the Notting Hill Carnival (the council are trying to neuter this, moving it inside an arena or commercialising it in other ways). It was the launching pad of punk rock, with members of the Clash living in squats off the Portobello Road, while Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren ran his shop "Sex" with Vivienne Westwood, located on the Kings Road. The Jam were not even from London, but affirmed their punk credentials with the cover of their album "The Modern World" being photographed under the Westway. While 'Dystopian Modernity' author JG Ballard's works are suffused with the Westway skyline, whether in "Concrete Island" (based on the Westway itself), or books like "High Rise" and "Crash". There was also in the 90s what was called London's frontline of drugs, on the infamous All Saints Road. North Kensington is a symbol of soulless urban modernity and blight, yet it has always forged a community who have used that to spark off their creative imaginations and to utterly transcend their surroundings.

I lived on Ladbroke Grove for two years (above a funeral director's) and worked in the area for about 16 years, splitting my time between a record shop just off the Portobello Road and their skateboard warehouse on Latimer Road (a stone's throw form Grenfell Tower). During my time there, the local Council twice waged war on parts of the community as they sought to further gentrify what was already an expensive area of Notting Hill. Portobello Road is the site of a world famous antique market, but it only runs over the weekend. For the rest of the week, a small section of Portobello Road plays host to a fresh fruit and vegetable market, who also ran their stalls at the weekend an island deluged by the antique stalls. The Council decided they wanted rid of the fruit stalls. First they shut the public lavatories so that the stallholders on their feet all day were inconvenienced to the maximum. Sympathetic shops and pubs allowed them to use their facilities instead. Meanwhile 7 minutes down the road the local residents commissioned a top architect to design them a public convenience and produced the so called "Turquoise Island" with a flower shop woven into its structure.

Compare & contrast, these are the Portobello toilets closed by the council

When the Council targeted the stallholders more directly, wanting to remove them in favour of more antique stallholders, I was involved in a community campaign to defend them. I volunteered our shop's photocopier for producing the leaflets (without seeking permission of my bosses) and stallholders came in and out frequently to get or drop off their petition sheets, standing out like a sore thumb among all the punks and techno DJs picking through the record racks. I attended local meetings and we won this particular round. I haven't been to Portobello for 10 years or so, and wonder if the fruit stalls are still there or not.

What has any of this got to do with the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy? It's indicative of the attitude of the local Council, who have for ideological reasons undertaken a policy of the economic equivalent of ethnic cleansing, to drive the poorer residents from the area, because its most valuable resource is land. Land for building houses on, in the costliest property area throughout the whole of the UK. But to restate, it's not solely an economic greed, it is also ideological. This all started in the 1980s, when Left and Right were diametrically opposed to one another on either of the far ends of the spectrum. The Right were in power under Margaret Thatcher, with a multi-pronged programme to change the face of this country. The Parliamentary Left were in no shape to offer effective opposition, instead their power base was centred on the major urban metropolitan local councils, including at the time, the Greater London Council which was a unitary body for all London. The Thatcher government disbanded the GLC and returned responsibility to each individual London borough. At the same time, they attacked the funding of local councils and starved them of the means of providing their services. The drive was to privatise everything, such as rubbish collections to traffic wardens. Councils were further starved of funds, through the Right To Buy policy, whereby their housing stock was sold off to those tenants who applied to buy it from them at discount. Councils lost the rental incomes from houses they no longer owned and although the sales income was initially given to the councils for building replacement housing stock at a level of 75% of sales proceeds, this was continually reduced so that councils received less and less return for their sold off properties. This was ideological in that a whole upper strata of working class people were creamed off by being invited to join the property-owning class, twinned with invitations to become share owners by buying the heavily underpriced stocks as nationalised industries were sold off and privatised. This was an ideology of converting traditional working class Labour supporters into middle class Conservative voters. Though it suggests a class egalitarianism, it was only achieved at the expense of those who weren't able to buy homes and shares, who were to come to subsidise their more fortunate neighbours through cutbacks to the services they needed. More of which below. The Conservatives also deregulated the housing market, lowering the standards for house conversions, having cheap money and credit to facilitate mortgages and constructors taking out loans. London had a housing boom which has changed its economic and cultural landscape forever, like Paris, New York and Tokyo making it almost impossible to own a house now without significant funds and turning it into a de facto city-state. My first flat was an ex-council property, we bought it off the tenant who had purchased it at a 30% discount before selling it on immediately to us, making a nice tidy profit on a windfall that fell in her lap.

Before I consider a specific initiative by Conservative local councils, I just want to finish the story of national forces on the state of housing. Once Thatcher left power and Tony Blair came in for Labour, make no mistake, he did very little - despite huge 100+ majorities in Parliament - to reverse the policies of the previous Conservative regimes. Right to Buy had run out of steam anyway, since those who could afford to buy had done so by now. Deregulation was not reversed, standards within selling property remained low. Credit was still cheap, so that now property was regarded as much as an investment as it was the place for you to live and call home. The budgets of local councils were not refloated, low public housing stock not significantly replenished. Let's be clear about this, Labour failed the most distressed communities that the Conservatives had created. And when the Conservatives returned to power under David Cameron, the UK economy and level of debt was in a very parlous state. Austerity became the watchword, with cuts to every aspect of the public sector. The commodification & privatisation under Thatcher was even more central to Cameron who looked to make budget savings. Rather than go after their allies in Big Business to make them pay appropriate tax, they trimmed and slashed services already at critical levels. This includes the many aspects that notionally fall under the responsibility of local councils, but had in fact been contracted out to private firms and agencies whose primary motivation is profit. Add to that that Cameron declared war on what he called the health and safety culture and standards slipped even more off the bottom of the scale. Everything was done on the cheap, with little scrutiny since the numbers of inspectors had been cut as a cost saving, while ideologically there was not only no appetite for due oversight, but downright hostility to it.

So now we return to the local council level. Despite its property riches, London is a Labour city. Consistently since 1997 it has voted for a majority Labour representation, with the sole exception of two terms as London mayor for Conservative Boris Johnson. The Conservatives are in the main restricted to the richest central boroughs and those well-off suburbs around the fringes of the city. Three of the central boroughs are Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea and Wandsworth. In the 1980s, bolstered by Right To Buy and the property boom sending house prices shooting up, the Conservatives undertook the most ideological (and craven) of policies to try and ensure these boroughs remained Conservative in perpetuity. While the poll tax that replaced the local rates system of local taxation went up in most London boroughs to try and make good the shortfall of government funding, in these three boroughs the poll tax was at negligible levels. This was subsidised by an incentive from central government, allowing the councils to run a low level of local taxation. But in Westminster it went further. The then council leader Dame Shirley Porter ran a clandestine scheme of "Homes For Votes" , trying to socially engineer parts of the borough to make them guaranteed Conservative wards. This was a more naked, far-reaching expression of the class cleansing that RBK&C were envisioning in the next door borough. On the border between the two, was the Harrow Road tower blocks which were condemned for containing asbestos, yet still undesirables and the homeless were moved into them, immortalised in song in 1988 by RBK&C squatters World Domination Enterprises in their song "Asbestos Lead Asbestos". Eventually Porter's regime were taken to court for their flagrant gerrymandering and found guilty. Like all good patriots with a stake in their country, Porter immediately fled overseas to avoid sanction and financial punishment. Wandsworth at a Parliamentary level has two Labour MPs and one Conservative, RBK&C for the first time in history returned a Labour MP a fortnight ago as one of its two MPs. Westminster also has one MP from each Party. So the Conservative initiative has not taken, Londoners have retained their independence of mind.

And finally to the Grenfell Tower fire. All the above factors feed into this tragedy. Private management of housing, austerity and cutbacks (though RBK&C has a contingency fund of £300 million so that it has no excuse for being too cash strapped), and class cleansing. RBK&C didn't have to be as blatant as Westminster, since it was under less threat of losing control to Labour and its poor and impoverished were already grouped together in a specific locale of the borough, that of North Kensington. Every council has a legal requirement to house the 'unintentionally homeless' and because those that could buy their council homes have, this means that all councils now only really house the most vulnerable and needy members of society. Look at the survivors of Grenfell Tower on TV, or consider the list of names of the missing and unaccounted for and this is abundantly clear. In some places such areas might be considered ghettos, but not here so diverse was the local population, truly representative of all continents of this earth. But they were vulnerable, mainly economically rather than social and cultural. The Council just did not care or value them like it did its private householders. Local residents had warned for years about the deficiencies of their housing, including safety issues. No sprinklers. Shortage of lifts and so on. They were ignored and palmed off as troublemakers. The Council allowed their private contractors to 'upgrade' the fire safety of Grenfell Tower with a cladding material that saved the measly sum of £6,250 on the total budget. If the death toll is of the likely order of 100, that works out to be £625 saved at the cost of each life. Read that and weep. Really really weep. The sight of people waving for help on the top floors and babies being thrown out windows to those down on the ground, echoes the imagery of the Twin Towers during 9/11. Our terrorism was not based overseas and the low level campaign against residents was to unsettle rather than terrorise, but our terrorism is named corporate manslaughter. It is a campaign waged for profit and ideology that has been running since the 1980s and the people responsible must be brought to justice. It is time for all people's lives in this country to have a genuine equal value, rather than this faux rhetoric of Thatcherite egalitarianism, or Cameron's "we're all in this together". If Britain isn't moved by this tragedy towards a whole different way of thinking and regarding of our fellow citizens, then we have not only missed an invaluable opportunity, we are actually lost as a nation for good. 

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