Four years and three months of trauma have unfolded since the Grenfell Tower fire which claimed the lives of 72 people in London’s North Kensington. Those with the power to facilitate justice and recovery have chosen alternative courses of action, victimising residents while protecting their own narrow power interests. So, it is unsurprising that the final betrayal looms.
The Government seems as though it is on the brink of disregarding the bereaved, survivors, wider community, even the notion of the sanctity of life, in deciding the fate of the Grenfell site, without consulting those most affected.
A leak to The Sunday Times a fortnight ago broke the news that the tormented structure is to be “torn down” due to unspecified “safety fears”.
The leak came from “senior Whitehall sources” who described the plan to fell the Tower as a “fait accompli”, making a mockery of the Government’s own Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission which has worked to “ensure that the bereaved families, survivors and North Kensington residents lead decision-making on the long-term future of the Grenfell Tower site”.
There is resistance locally to the Tower being taken down. Not just because there is no expert consensus on it being unsafe but, more importantly, many among the bereaved consider it to be the burial ground of their loved ones; a sacred place.
This latest insult to the victims is no anomaly. From the outset, those with power have cynically contradicted their own performative pronouncements of ‘change’ to deny the victims the means to rebuild our tight-knit community.
A month after the fire, newly installed Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) Leader, Elizabeth Campbell, used the word “change” 11 times in a speech to survivors. At the same meeting, one of those survivors pleaded with the council: “I beg you, do not play a game with us. I beg you, do not tell us lies. I beg you, do not waste our time.”
But Campbell’s claim of change has not converted into action and the desperation of the community has endured.
Theresa May also promised action when she was Prime Minister, with new homes to be offered to survivors within three weeks of the fire. RBKC’s 1,200 long-term empty homes, 9,300 second homes, and 6,000 homes owned by companies registered in tax havens were not utilised. Instead, the council – overseen by the Government’s Gold Command and Grenfell Taskforce – made survivors endure excruciating waits to be rehoused, often offering inappropriate flats.
Sajid Javid, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary at the time of the fire, declared in its aftermath: “The legacy of Grenfell can and must be a whole new approach to the way this country thinks about social housing… It demands nothing less.”
In 2018, RBKC followed suit, stating that the Lancaster West estate, the site of Grenfell Tower and a target of RBKC’s rapacious social cleansing before the fire, was to become a “model for social housing in the 21st Century”. By 2020, this vision had been downgraded to “a model 21st Century improvement programme” with the estate receiving no more money per property than other estates in the borough.
With the local authority missing in action when the Tower burned, the local community stepped in to provide emergency support and relief. Yet, in 2018, with local children suffering from trauma, RBKC cut £1.1 million from its youth services budget. Gold Command and the Taskforce made no intervention. The Government was silent again when, that same year, RBKC attempted to sell-off one of the area’s last remaining community centres, Canalside House – only stopped by a grassroots campaign.
The council scrapped its Grenfell Scrutiny Committee in 2019 following a ‘consultation’ attended by 15 people. Attempts to democratise life in the borough have been blocked by the local Conservative Party, that dominates the wealthy central and southern areas but has no mandate in the north of the borough.
While the streets around Holland Park – a mile from Grenfell Tower – have flats that sell for £10 million, North Kensington is sliding backwards across a range of indicators. A Moroccan man residing there can expect to live for 20 years less than white British man in the south. Infant mortality has risen alarmingly in the north since the Conservative Party’s austerity campaign, the 2009 rate almost tripling by 2019.
In this context, the local and central Government’s response to the fire has been little more than public relations spin. It has safeguarded its authoritarian grip over this borough of obscene wealth, royals and oligarchs but has done nothing to empower those so devastated by the Grenfell atrocity.
Taken individually, each betrayal can be rationalised as a mistake. Taken together, they represent the systematic abuse of the Grenfell victims.
North Kensington is now a neighbourhood frozen in time, at the exact moment when 24-hour news crews departed the scene in 2017. Lives have continued, further elections have been fought, but the trauma is still lodged in our bodies. We cannot undo what happened, and we are still waiting for justice.
Those with the power to improve our lives have only worsened the torture by repeating the soothing ‘change’ mantra, calculated to ensure that whatever is offered to the community by way of empowerment remains illusory, superficial and, ultimately, humiliating.
With all other attempts by the community to engage with the Government having ended in frustration, the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission represents the last hope of controlling the legacy of Grenfell.
With 10 representatives from the community (five next of kin, three former Grenfell residents, and two Lancaster West residents) the Commission’s stated aim is to “develop a community-led vision for the memorial” which will then be implemented by the Government.
Staffed and run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (now the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities), it has been handicapped from the outset.
The Memorial Commission has suffered from the inevitable consultation fatigue of RBKC’s four years of ‘community engagement’. Just 17% of Grenfell households and 4% on the rest of the estate voted to elect the community representatives.
No checks and balances on Government power exist. On the fate of the Tower, the Government is the strongest player.
At a Memorial Commission meeting this year, I advised the co-chair and the community representatives to review the terms of reference as a matter of urgency. Without decision-making power, their function is merely to facilitate the Government and council with a masquerade of ‘consultations,’ ‘change’, and ‘community-led’ ‘co-design’.
The Sunday Times story exemplifies that power imbalance. By undermining the community’s ability to decide, the Government is stripping us of our most basic dignity.
Primarily, it has not explained the ‘safety concerns’ that exist in relation to the Tower and why, if they are so serious, the children of Kensington Academy are back at school in the shadow of the structure. It is understood, with second opinions gleaned from other architects, that at least 10 of the 24 floors of Grenfell Tower could be preserved and incorporated into a fitting memorial.
There is plenty of discussion in North Kensington about the fate of the Grenfell site. The community should be empowered to decide how to honour those lost, rather than being hamstrung by the machinations of government.
Differences of opinion on this personal and sensitive issue exist, but there is also an apparent consensus on the site becoming green; a place of nature and tranquillity, open to everyone, a symbol of hope, peace and dignity.
As well as being the UK’s most traumatised area, North Kensington is the country’s most polluted, dominated by the A40 Westway flyover, which was imposed on the local population in 1970 and causes one in 12 local deaths with its pollution. An immersive experience of nature, using the Biofilic design movement, would facilitate reduced anxiety and depression, would be welcomed in this concrete jungle.
Why not be ambitious? Smaller cities than London have shown what is possible: Singapore’s solar-panelled Supertrees; Paris’s rooftop urban farm; and, perhaps most presciently, Milan’s Vertical Garden, built in a tower block.
There is no shortage of imagination and inspiration here in North Kensington. But to create something impressive and effective as a memorial, an empowered local community is a prerequisite. We need a safe space to implement the will of the people – without leaks, games, spin, insults and pain. If we are disenfranchised yet again, the memorial will be insufficient to honour the scale of the loss and pain.
There must be no “fait accompli” regarding the way we, as a community and as a nation, honour the victims of Grenfell. The site must never become a reflection of establishment control; devoid of imagination and empathy, a symbol of class war and indifference.
The legacy of the Grenfell Tower can and should be a break with the past and become a green sanctuary representing the vibrancy of North Kensington.
By Tom Charles @tomhcharles
Photo by Melanie Juno Wolfe / North Kensington Community Kitchen
This article was first published by the Byline Times @BylineTimes on 23rd September 2021