Grenfell Tragedy: Lessons We Must Learn

Grenfell Tower: It is hard to know where to start. A terrible tragedy, criminal investigation, political scandal, unimaginable panic fear loss and disruption. And absolutely justifiable anger.

Some have questioned whether moving so quickly to questions of political responsibility and blame is appropriate given the scale of this awful event.

The redoubtable Steve Bell’s cartoon from yesterday, one day after the event, of the burnt-out tower block with a Conservative logo on top raised eyebrows as being too much politics too   soon.

I  understand the reservations, but what may have been precipitate in the morning certainly became appropriate by the end of the day: the Prime Minister’s extraordinary visit to the site, deliberately avoiding residents who had suffered this terrible calamity was either the worst piece of political advice given in recent times, or emotional immaturity of unfathomable depth. The Guardian newspaper’s editorial comment on this lack of leadership is breathtakingly savage… and accurate.

While the Prime Minister herself has legitimised political point scoring is here, what practically could and should be done? There has been much comment on social media about the “Homes (Fit for Human Habitation)” bill, and the 72 Conservative MPs who voted against it in early 2016.

I was very closely involved in the process of drawing up and then supporting Karen Buck’s admirable private members’ bill through the Parliamentary process.

It is worth noting that the primary reason for the collapse of the bill was that it was talked out at its second reading by one Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley. I am happy to take the Corbyn doctrine of desisting from personal attacks in politics, but Mr Davies strongly tempts me to make an exception. His conduct and wrecking contributions to important pieces of social legislation are quite despicable.

However, even if the bill had passed last year, I do not believe it would have forestalled this tragedy. The time between that  and this is too short.  But commentators are right to point at those who voted against the measure because it is revealing of a particular view about society and regulation. And also about housing

It is already common ground, I think, that there were there was a collection of shortcomings, oversights, and  mistakes (whether intended or not) that lead to the fire and its consequences.

But the impact of this event shows just how interconnected and integral housing is to a functioning society-both on an overall and individual level.

Consider the knock-on effects of what happened at Grenfell Tower: The need for rehousing, the disruption to transport and education, public health issues, adequate resourcing of social care, and emergency services.

Housing really does sit in the middle of a complex, wide ranging social and political web. That’s why provision of adequate, secure, affordable housing is so important. The multiplier effect good housing has across society as a whole is unmatched by any other element.

So the enormity of this event, and the challenge of learning and then implementing the lessons from it, justify the  demands already made for a public enquiry. This needs to be convened quickly and with appropriate terms of reference. It should not turn in to something of Hillsborough or Bloody Sunday proportions.

There is a real danger of key issues in this complex situation being kicked into in the long grass. But it doesn’t have to be this way: think of the Cullen Report into to the Piper Alpha disaster, for example.

However, whatever the outcome of the public enquiry, of a criminal investigation or the Fire Brigade’s  ongoing search to understand what actually happened here, it is absolutely clear that the concerns of residents were not respected or even properly considered. Another example of people who were “overlooked ” or ” left behind”  – unbearably painfully and disastrously sadly so.

Last week’s general election and the fantastic response of the community in west and northwest London shows that this is not how we as a country wish to continue to live. Politicians who are not able or willing to hear this clear message will surely very quickly lose any public trust or credibility.

Addressing the policy consequences of Grenfell Tower will not be necessarily easy or straightforward. But surely residents must now become as integral to the debate as, say patients are on a journey to becoming in our health service.

And the time now must have come for housing itself to move away from being a commodity – with supply, management and trade predicated on maximising financial returns – and instead move decisively to be like gas, electricity and water: A vital utility that is fundamental to a civic, decent, economically productive society.

If you have read this far, and whether you agree or disagree, please consider making a donation to the British Red Cross Fire Relief Fund  to support the survivors of this terrible event. Thanks


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