My Grenfell Comment Piece
Three years on, the spectres raised at Grenfell Tower have come to pass
As London and the world awoke on 14 June 2017 to the smouldering wreck of a tower block and a mounting death toll, a howl of pain and disbelief echoed through our communities.
How could this happen? How did a fire in a fridge become an inferno that killed 72 of our fellow Londoners? How, three years on, are there still hundreds of tower blocks wrapped in the same aluminium composite material cladding that spread the fire from flat to flat and floor to floor at Grenfell?
We look back on that tragedy from the midst of others. The coronavirus pandemic has led to more than 50,000 excess deaths in the UK. Over 6,000 Londoners have died with the virus.
Our society is blighted by the illness of racism, too. More than nine in ten victims of the Grenfell Tower fire were non-white or non-UK nationals. Black and minority ethnic people are more likely to catch and die from coronavirus. The Black Lives Matters protests of recent weeks may have been sparked by the murder of George Floyd in America, but they are fuelled by the injustices of our own country.
I warned at the two-year commemoration that the Grenfell Tower fire had exposed weaknesses in the capacity of the British state. A Government that showed itself unable to rehouse the survivors in good time, or to fix the scandal of flammable cladding, was not one well prepared for a crisis.
Since the fire, the fragile capacity of the British state after a decade of cuts has left the Government pushing string trying to get buildings fixed. It is shocking that a state which once built 250,000 homes a year now cannot fix the walls of a few hundred.
The confluence of long-term inequality and an immediate failure of Government was revealed by the Grenfell Tower fire. Deregulation, privatisation and cuts meant that an ordinary event could lead to tragedy. And it increased the chances that such a tragedy would hit people already bearing the weight of social injustice.
These same dynamics are evident in the response to coronavirus, from the high-end of test and trace to the basics of personal protective equipment. Infectious disease prevention spending by boroughs fell by two thirds from 2015 to 2020. Black and brown people, over-represented in key worker roles, and living in multi-generational households, were obviously at risk thanks to social inequality. Instead of being able to protect people in more vulnerable groups, the stripped-out capacity of the state left them exposed.
Three years or thirty years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, it will never become less shocking. The mourning of those left behind and the trauma for those who survived and served on the night will not be diminished. What has become clearer, is that Grenfell was symbolic of wider problems this country faces. It is well past time the Government faced up to them.