Grenfell ripples

It’s shameful to know that almost 8 months after the Grenfell Fire, so few of the survivors have been rehoused. Back in August many felt that the council whose deliberate actions were responsible for what would have been a small, contained fire instead rapidly engulfing the whole block with terrible loss of life were failing to take appropriate action either to care for the survivors or to find them new homes, that they were dragging their feet and failing to cope. But that they still have done so little seems quite unforgivable.

Many local people felt that there should have been some urgent temporary action – such as taking over a number of the large empty properties as a temporary solution to finding decent accommodation. The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is a wealthy borough with huge reserves. There appears to be no possible excuse for them having families still living in cramped hotel rooms almost 9 months after the disaster.

One empty block of flats was Duke’s Lodge in Holland Park, on of Britain’s wealthiest streets, just 15 minutes walk away. The residents of the 27 private flats there lost a battle to stay after the owners, the Candy brothers decided they could make a killing by knocking it down and putting a few luxury homes in its place. But the council refused them planning permission and the block and its grounds were on sale for £70 million.

It’s difficult to tell how feasible it would have been for the council to refurbish the block and put in people from Grenfell, but it did seem the kind of response that might have been appropriate. The small protest outside by the Peoples Republic Of North Kensington, including former Grenfell Tower resident Ian Bone of Class War along with others from Class War and local residents, was more about raising issues than providing solutions.

The protest became more interesting when a car pulled up in front and a woman got out to talk with the protesters. She was one of the displaced residents, and told them about their fight to stay in Duke’s Lodge, and of the £40,000 she had spent on interior decoration of her flat.

It isn’t just the local council, the RBKC, that have failed in their response. Prime Minister Theresa May was quick to come up with promises, including help for other councils with tall blocks with the same dangerously flammable cladding, never intended for use on high buildings. So far, none of the promises has been kept.

On the following Saturday, Focus E15 Mothers led a march from Ferrier Point in Canning Town to a rally at Tanner Point in Plaistow, two Newham Council tower blocks with the same cladding. Without a proper expert inspection it is hard to know whether they face the same risk as Grenfell, where the failure to have proper gaps, unsafe gas installion and other defects in the work carried out on a previously essentially safe building as well as lack of proper maintenance and limiting the emergency access made Grenfell a death trap.

Obviously the residents of these towers are worried about their safety, and Newham Council also seems to be dragging their feet over the issue. Newham has for years been run by Mayor Robin Wales, and is essentially a one-party state, which has often seemed to care little about the housing needs of its local residents, while encouraging many new blocks of high cost housing to attract a wealthier population.

One of several great scandals of Newham Council over the period of Wales as Mayor has been the Carpenter’s estate, a popular council estate close to Stratford Station. Newham saw its potential for development and around 2004 began forcing tenants to move out. It met with rather more resistance than it had bargained for with many people not wanting to lose their homes or to be relocated in the distant reaches of the borough or further still out of London.

Various schemes fell through, with protests at University College London helping to persuade UCL to drop its plans for a campus there. In September 2015 Focus E15 Mums celebrated the first anniversary of their fight against LB Newham’s failure to provide local housing for local people and opened and occupied one of many shamefully long empty council properties on the Carpenters Estate in Stratford. It gained national publicity, stimulating a great deal of discussion about the housing crisis, putting the issue firmly on the national agenda. Under pressure the council made a number of promises about using some of the empty housing stock on the estate, which they have largely failed to keep.

Focus E15 – who hold a weekly protest on Stratford Broadway and also support people in their fight to get rehoused by Newham Council and fight evictions – have since visited the Carpenters estate a number of times, and it was there the march ended there with a picnic with other housing campaigners.

There is now some hope that Wales’s feudal reign in Newham may come to an end. Last year he managed to engineer a vote that would have seen him as the unopposed Labour candidate by using the votes of a number of affiliate organisations (some of which have almost no membership in the borough) to outvote the various membership branches who wanted an election, but things have moved on and with greater opposition from members there is a real chance that a new candidate will be selected, and council policies will change to better serve the people of Newham.

Fire Risk Tower Blocks
Duke’s Lodge for Grenfell


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