Zeyad Cred, who lived one minute’s walk from Grenfell Tower, didn’t understand the expression “my heart skipped a beat” until he saw the burning block in the early hours of 14 June last year, he said in a BBC documentary shown this week. Images of the fire, trapped residents silhouetted in the windows, and the blackened husk that remains beneath the scaffolding – topped for Thursday’s anniversary by a banner with the green heart that is the survivors’ symbol – will surely never leave those who saw them. Shock ricocheted around the city and far beyond.
The next day, the Guardian compared Theresa May to George W Bush following Hurricane Katrina. Just a week after the general election failed to secure the mandate she sought, the prime minister’s inadequate response to the tragedy appeared to confirm every doubt about her. Twelve months on, the government has shaken off this torpor. Last month Mrs May agreed to appoint a panel to work with the inquiry’s chair, Martin Moore-Bick. On Monday, the housing and communities secretary, James Brokenshire, invoked Winston Churchill when he called Grenfell one of Britain’s “darkest hours”, and repeated a promise to consult on banning combustible cladding.
It is the inquiry’s job to decide, along with the police and courts, where the blame lies. The fire service; Kensington and Chelsea council and tenant management organisation; the contractors and manufacturers involved in the refurbishment; safety inspectors; ministers who oversaw the weakening of regulations over several decades and promoted complex procurement processes: all must answer for their actions. In light of past mistakes, not least the failure to heed the many warnings – local, national and international – that could have prevented this fire, the Grenfell campaigners are more than justified in demanding that the government should commit now to implementing the inquiry’s recommendations.
We cannot bring their 72 loved ones back. We can build them a legacy that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of liability for this fire. The situation regarding hundreds of other blocks with Grenfell-style cladding is mired in confusion, with court cases likely to drag on for years. But the problems go deeper. What the disaster and its aftermath brought home in the most savage way is that we have lost our bearings with regard to housing. Ever since right to buy enshrined home ownership as an ideal, renters have been second-class citizens. The many homes sitting empty and lightly taxed demonstrate that making money, not providing shelter, has become the point of housing. Slashing regulation, because this boosts profits, has been the priority – even at the expense of safety. When a coroner recommended tighter regulations and the fitting of sprinklers, following a cladding fire in which six people died at Lakanal House, south London, in 2009, ministers did nothing.
But if the direction of travel has been unchanged since Margaret Thatcher, the balance of power has tilted ever more sharply in favour of landlords, with the bedroom tax and criminalisation of squatting among other changes introduced since 2010. Rightwing politicians and thinktanks proclaim that living in central London is a privilege, not a right – even if your grandparents grew up in the neighbourhood, you work there and your children are in a local school. Demolitions and transfers to the private sector of homes that were once state-owned have picked up pace, forcing thousands of people to relocate, including leaseholders who exercised their right to buy only to find their properties bought back by councils using compulsory purchase orders.
Three decades of public policy has failed even on its own terms, with home ownership rates collapsing. There is no quick fix to the problem of price inflation. There are ways to protect renters. In January, London MP Karen Buck won government backing for a bill that will force landlords including councils to make homes “fit for human habitation”. Building control and fire safety must be overhauled and enforcement strengthened. Democratic accountability must be restored, and residents balloted where regeneration is proposed. Developers must be challenged and the stranglehold of the big housebuilders broken. Above all, councils must be freed to borrow to build.
It’s not hard to see how Grenfell’s botched refurbishment could feed arguments in favour of demolitions, and questions about the desirability of high-rise living will not go away. But the tragedy can also teach us a lesson about the value of social housing per se. Nye Bevan, who was housing as well as health secretary in the 1945 Labour government, spoke of the desirability of doctors and farm labourers “living in the same street”. Mixed communities are part of the point of subsidised housing, and Grenfell thrust this fact into the heart of public debate. Confusingly, Kensington and Chelsea became a symbol of polarisation – with its poor north and rich south – but also of how the principle has endured: this was still one borough after all, and cabinet ministers lived down the road. Though there were vulnerable people among them, Grenfell’s 350 ethnically and religiously mixed residents were not, as some early reports suggested, the wretched of the earth: they were busy, happy families, with jobs and friends and hopes and children – 18 of them among the deceased – who were excelling at school.
It won’t arrive with the same fanfare as the NHS’s 70th birthday. But next year marks the 70th anniversary of another key postwar achievement: the 1949 Housing Act. This most battered pillar of the welfare state urgently needs rebuilding. Being sorry for what happened at Grenfell is not enough.