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One month after Grenfell: A catalogue of Conservative failures Open in fullscreen

Tom Charles

One month after Grenfell: A catalogue of Conservative failures

Government statistics show that Kensington and Chelsea had 1,399 vacant dwellings in 2016 [Getty]

Date of publication: 14 July, 2017

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Comment: Despite the community response and the millions donated in charity, North Kensington is still hostage to Tory policies, writes Tom Charles.

One month on from the Grenfell Tower fire that incinerated scores of people in West London, destroying lives and traumatising a community, there is no sign that the Conservative national and local governments have learned lessons in compassion and competence.

As North Kensington marks the day, the community faces an appalling truth: For the UK national government the council of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the politics of class war take priority over the provision of restitution, dignity and justice.

Empty homes

Treatment of residents on the Lancaster West estate, of which the tower is a part, has been unacceptable for many years. I was a resident there until 2014, and was glad to leave as it appeared that the council was presiding over the estate's managed decline. Many others have now been forced to leave in the most horrific circumstance.

Government statistics show that Kensington and Chelsea has 1,399 vacant dwellings (3 October 2016 figure) at its disposal. This number will shock but not surprise the population of North Kensington as we wait for decent homes to be offered to Grenfell survivors.

While others around the UK may express bafflement at this, the mismatch between means and delivery is a daily reality in the richest borough in the country. 1,399 empty properties comfortably outstrips the needs of the Grenfell survivors.

I was a resident there until 2014, and was glad to leave as it appeared that the council was presiding over the estate's managed decline

There has so far been no suggestion from government that these properties will be used to help deal with the unprecedented disaster and only 14 families had been rehoused at the time of writing.

In addition to its housing stock, Kensington and Chelsea boasts a budget surplus estimated at £300 million but on the ground, little has been done for the victims. The official opposition Labour party have noted the stark contrast between what they are told by Prime Minister Theresa May and the credible information given by people in North Kensington, detailing the many failings of the official response.

Spin

High ranking council officials and politicians have stepped down since the fire, none willingly, but only when forced to by pressure from central government. The policy is clear: Do as little as possible until the pressure begins to tell.

There is a lack of initiative and imagination, widely understood in North Kensington to be a lack of humanity. A potential flashpoint will come on the 19 July when the council is scheduled to meet. The campaign group Justice4Grenfell has demanded that the prime minister disband the council cabinet. This is unlikely to happen by the 19th, and the Conservative cabinet will be in for a hostile reception.

As parliament coasts towards its summer recess, tension among the residents of Kensington and Chelsea are still running [Getty]

One reason for the hostility will be the election of Elizabeth Campbell as the council's new leader, a politician so out of touch that she has never been in a high rise flat, and in a radio interview would not be drawn on whether the council would use its budget surplus to provide decent housing.

Plus ça change – the more the Conservatives tinker, the more apparent it becomes that nothing substantial will change and the litany of insulting moves grows.

Recess

Parliament's long summer holiday begins next week and it seems that the Conservatives want to kick Grenfell into the long grass of their rural constituencies. But there is no long grass in which to shield their deficiencies in West London.

There is a power in the raw truth around the Lancaster West estate. But the purveyors of truth have a number of problems: Firstly, they are a traumatised population; secondly, survivors are scattered around West London, without ways and means to coordinate, and thirdly there is a lack of reliable information, brought about by the collapse of the council as a functioning authority.

Read more: Victims of social cleansing, Grenfell community deserves dignity, now

What paltry official information is being provided, is not trusted.

In to the power vacuum have stepped voluntary and community organisations and individuals with talents and experience to offer. Therapists are active in the area, but they are organised by volunteers, not the authorities.

Stupendous amounts of money has arrived in the form of charitable donations, but there is no evidence to suggest the money, clothes and food are reaching the intended targets. The government was happy for charities such as the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation to take up much of the slack, having received millions in aid money for Grenfell. The Foundation alone has received £4.5 million in donations, but how effective is this if victims still cannot realise their most basic need: shelter?

Charity

The fetishisation of the Grenfell victims and survivors has been going on for weeks. They are a means for the wealthy to feel good, rather than people with needs, rights and wishes.

1,399 empty properties comfortably outstrips the needs of the Grenfell survivors

The moulding of their victims in to charity cases by the council and their supporters appears to be taking place with both the perpetrators and victims only dimly aware of it. Simon Cowell of the X Factor, who lives nearby, got in on the act with a quickfire charity single, which has had 6.5 million hits.

Six million singalongs but just 14 homes provided. Charity is important, but is no match for the serious delivery of government responsibilities. As the hot summer wears on, especially as Notting Hill Carnival arrives, an explosion of resistance in North Kensington is possible.

The lack of governance has been accompanied with the lauding of the community. On day one this was perhaps pertinent, now it is irrelevant as the dignity of the community is at stake. Platitudes for the people are a safe way for people to feel good without threatening the social order.

Platitudes for the people are a safe way for people to feel good without threatening the social order

In North Kensington, so vibrant compared to the south of the borough, community has been harnessed for use as a colourful backdrop to the daily lives of the rich.

Keep praising us, but we know we're not at Glastonbury enjoying peace and love, we're in North Kensington, our neighbours don't have homes and our children are traumatised.

The context of the Grenfell Tower was brutal class war, waged by the very rich against the less well-to-do for many years, documented by Grenfell residents among others, and there is no hiding from this fact. The Grenfell victims are being treated in a way that the Conservative politicians would never accept for themselves.

Starting point

After one month, it is appropriate to acknowledge that the starting point for all campaigns and all calls for justice must be that the hundreds who perished cannot be brought back.

At times it is surreal to think of the blaze and the horrors, as if we are waiting for somebody to change the channel, or to wake us from the nightmare and give us a reassuring hug. But that isn't possible, the awful memories cannot be erased and the people and the area will never fully recover.

Six million singalongs but just 14 homes provided

From such a starting point, the community can stay united and seek justice. It can also seek change, in housing, immigration and the social cleansing long since underway.

The Conservatives know this, and are playing the long game. There will be no sea change in any of these areas while Theresa May can still desperately cling to power.

While £1 billion was delivered by Downing Street to the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland a few miles from parliament, the victims of an entirely preventable disaster are waiting for more crumbs to be thrown. This is austerity taken to an extreme.

Disaster austerity

Labour has an opportunity to distinguish itself. In the Grenfell Inquiry debate on Wednesday, the government was on the back foot, with Labour MPs questioning why the Grenfell victims must go on suffering when such straightforward solutions are available.

The relevant Labour shadow ministers, for the Home Office, Justice and Housing, have set out that if Labour comes to power, all victims will be re-housed in Kensington and Chelsea, relief payments made with no impact on potential future benefit claims and an unambiguous immigration amnesty with indefinite leave to remain guaranteed would be offered.

All of this would be a welcome change. But as we mark a month since the disaster began, we must also mark a month in which Conservative power has wreaked so much damage in North Kensington and caused so much unnecessary additional trauma, to the victims, survivors, their families, the Lancaster West estate, every single local schoolchild and every adult living nearby.

So much of this upset and trauma could have been avoided had the national and local governments responded in a way that was commensurate to the scale of the problem.

Whether the cause of the total failure in humanity from the Conservatives is political, pathological, a reflection of their incompetence, or a combination of all three, the fact is that they remain in power. And while they are, North Kensington must endure its most arduous time.


Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
 

 

 

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