When the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire reported live from the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire as morning broke on 14 June, she was joined by some local residents. The very first was Mahad Egal, a survivor of the blaze. He described with impressive clarity how he’d escaped from the fourth floor of the building with his wife and their two young children, matters that had concerned him before the fire broke out and terrible things he had observed. He spoke vividly yet calmly until, eventually, he was overcome by tears.
Another guest was Moyra Samuels, described as living 300 yards away. Samuels said of the tragedy: “In some ways it was, I feel, an accident waiting to happen”. Prompted by Derbyshire, she confirmed she had in mind a claim made last November on the blog of the Grenfell Action Group that “only a catastrophic event” that “results in serious loss of life” would bring about the “external scrutiny” of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) they believed was required.
As the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire gets underway, that piece of broadcast journalism and that blog post repay revisiting with the benefit of hindsight. By lunchtime on the day of the fire, the blogpost was being heralded far and wide as proof of a culture of contempt and neglect within KCTMO that had allowed the fire to occur. But while the blog had made a series of claims about lack of fire safety in and around the tower, none had suggested that the cladding installed as part of a refurbishment the group took credit for bringing about had the potential to go up in flames in the way it did.
The presence of Samuels on the scene is significant too. She has gone on to become active with the Justice for Grenfell campaign group and spoke at an event organised by the Socialist Workers Party, where she argued that the fire and its aftermath served as “a mirror of a neo-liberal system that is in crisis” and amounted to “an attack on the working class”. She urged an array of campaigns around levels of investment in public services to join together “in our communities”.
I mention these things, not to dismiss the safety concerns the GAG blog actually did express or to doubt the motives or sincerity of Moyra Samuels or her fellow campaigners. Rather, it is to note the instant prominence enjoyed by a particular type of politics in the response to the Grenfell catastrophe and to question whether this has provided either a really thorough diagnosis of issues Grenfell has so devastatingly raised or any clues to resolving them that truly reflect the desires of the sorts of communities Samuels had in mind.
The debate about London housing, especially social rented housing on council-owned estates, has long assumed the quagmire quality of a turf war, both literal and ideological, between two different kinds of conservative.
Entrenched on one side are the forces of Right-to-Buy and deregulation, arguing that the physical bulwarks of post-war municipal housing are ugly, financially unsustainable, bad for the human spirit, incubators of a harmful dependency culture, and, in a time when London government is practically obliged to capitalise on high land values and build at higher densities, also quite literally a waste of valuable space. Such thinking intensifies an urge to “regenerate” estates in the belief that large scale demolition and the construction of new housing with a greater tenure mix will automatically deliver a range of invigorating social improvements.
A big weakness of this case is that it can too easily underestimate the value of what cannot always be seen or weighed in gold. And it does not properly acknowledge cohesive, informal networks of families and friends, the importance of security and stability to people with little power in the world, or attachments to familiar bricks, mortar and next-door neighbourhoods that aren’t formed from the aesthetic or moral judgments of outsiders.
Across the battlefield, just as thoroughly dug in, are the forces of resistance to any such clearance – it would actually be a re-clearance, of course – of London public land and especially any selling of it to private interests. Where their opponents, at their most extreme, see estate communities as unhealthily introverted, perpetuating cycles of want, listlessness and criminality at unacceptable public expense, the resistors have a habit of romanticising those communities, overstating the extent and endurance of communal ties within them, and screening out discontents that can’t all be blamed on a betraying council or “the cuts”.
At its most extreme, this analysis leads to a sort of ideological expunging of many of the very people those proffering it claim they wish to protect. On any estate there will be people who want to move, people who want to stay, people who want the place left alone and people who think it’s high time it was knocked down. But only some of those people are useful for furnishing a grand narrative about privatisation or “displacement” or constructing a “social cleansing” story for receptive media. The rest seem to hold little interest for the second kind of conservative. Campaigners have repeatedly complained that the tower’s residents were not listened to before the fire and have not been listened to sufficiently since. But when it comes to it, how much listening do they themselves actually do?
This attitude scaled a surreal peak of presumption when the Radical Housing Network issued a press release insisting that Grenfell Tower be completely reconstructed so all survivors could return to it and carry on as before. Had it not even crossed the minds of this particular group that such an outcome might be the very last thing some survivors want? Does it not intrigue them just a little that two thirds of Grenfell households had been seeking a transfer at the time of the fire and why that might have been so? Is the only acceptable form of change the sort that makes things more like 1974?
Meanwhile, between these fundamentalisms lies a wide, uneven landscape of compromise, constraint, practicality and potential, progressive creativity. Realism, innovation and the ingredients of some sort of resolution to enduring conflicts about the settlement and control of urban territory can be found there. But it is also something of a no man’s land, scarred by monuments to renewal projects that failed to deliver what they promised and echoing with truths that are perilous to speak.
Down on the ground in North Kensington are shrewd, experienced people who’ve fought longer and harder for residents of Grenfell and its adjoining estates than just about all those now claiming to speak for “the community”, who have opposed the council’s redevelopment plans for some social housing in North Kensington, but have no illusions at all about the shortcomings of some of it either. They are quiet explorers of that no man’s land and have been too much ignored.
It is people like them, rather than the two kinds of conservative, whose help London most needs with finding a route through its social housing minefields, one that charts an optimal course between continuity and change by addressing two basic questions. What is the right solution for London? What do estate residents really want? The city needs to settle on clear answers to those questions and, where the answers conflict, the best ways to reconcile them. Building a truly progressive politics of estates will be no straightforward task. But recalling Mahad Egal on the BBC that morning has a way of concentrating the mind.