Claims that residents of Grenfell Tower were not listened to by the authorities about a range of concerns preceding the fire, including fire safety, have formed one of the most powerful and troubling themes of its aftermath. The assertion by the Grenfell Action Group on its blog last November that “only a catastrophic event”, most likely a “serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property”, would, as it put it, “expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord the KCTMO [Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation]” has received international media coverage. Allegations that the TMO, Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKC) and many local politicians in general have been deaf to the voices of Grenfell residents for years have been widespread. Justified or not, they add tragic urgency to the issue of who speaks for small communities in the capital, particularly those in less prosperous neighbourhoods, and how what they say is responded to.
The prominence of the Grenfell Action Group in the emotional debate that has followed the fire is itself significant. Describing itself as “working to defend and serve the Lancaster West community”, which includes Grenfell Tower, it is a campaign entity set up in 2010 to oppose the building of a new school and leisure centre on local green space, and which believes its efforts have contributed to a number of improvements for residents (including RBKC’s funding the refurbishment of the tower, which ended up entailing the installation of its fatally combustible cladding).
The group’s tone has been strident and accusatory since its launch, ferociously attacking Labour and Conservative councillors alike. It carries no membership details and is written anonymously. That is not to say that the group’s views and experiences are invalid, or that they do not merit close consideration by the public inquiry and any other investigations into Grenfell that might take place. On the contrary, although I can find no mention on its blog of any fire risk created by the tower being clad, numerous other claims about fire safety are too serious to be ignored. At the same time, the fact that the action group and people who describe themselves as supporting it, notably housing activist Pilgrim Tucker, have been widely accepted by the media as representing residents’ views underlines the absence of a more transparent and official body filling that space.
Such roles are conventionally performed by formally constituted, elected tenants and resident associations (TRAs), which are recognised by boroughs as key points of contact for engagement with residents, be they of council-owned housing estates or streets of private dwellings in affluent conservation areas. A residents’ association for the tower was formed, reportedly a couple of years ago on the advice of the then MP for Kensington, Victoria Borwick. Its now former chair, described as also having been one of the administrators of the Grenfell Action Group blog, has claimed that the TMO didn’t listen to it. However, if there is a current chair of the association, there has been no public appearance by that person. Traces of other representative organisations can be found online: a Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association; a Lancaster West Tenant Resident Association. How active or otherwise these are is unknown, at least to me.
It is also unknown if a close and harmonious relationship between resident representatives, the TMO and the council could have prevented the creation of the conditions that enabled the fire to become so lethal. Given that the contentious cladding turns out to have been used on buildings all over London and that the precise reasons why it caught fire and spread so fast continue to be under expert investigation, my guess is that it would not have. However, the many expressions of powerlessness made directly by local people to broadcasters and others have sent a resounding message that many have felt neglected and ignored. That is a grave state of affairs and one likely to be found in many other parts of the capital.
How can it be rectified? How can the needs, hopes, fears and basic, practical concerns of people who live in communities that face many disadvantages be better articulated and responded to? TRAs, pressure groups, trade unions, faith and school communities, public meetings and tuned-in local councillors can all be part of the answer. But there is always the danger of only the loudest or most sophisticated voices being heard while others are drowned out or not raised at all.
Grenfell has brought home in a terrible way just how difficult it is even to exactly know who lives in a housing block, on an estate or, for that matter, along a residential street, let alone to learn and understand what they want from a landlord or from providers of all sorts of local services, or from a neighbourhood as a whole. The very use of the term “the community”, though a necessary shorthand, can have the effect of over-simplifying what that group of people thinks and feels, concealing nuance and variation and screening out its less audible members. And, of course, not everyone in such groups – in any group defined by the place where its members live – greatly desires to be seen or heard or especially identifies as part of a community. There will be residents who’ve been around for many years, but others who are just passing through. For some, much of the attraction of cities lies in the invisibility provided by crowds. Loners like London too.
Such factors underline the difficulties of bringing people with little power and London’s structures of governance closer together. They also underline the value of doing so more effectively. A friend, steeped in decades of wisdom about how the capital’s layers of democracy succeed and fail, suggests that focus groups might be a good idea. Though tainted in some eyes as a tool for helping politicians hone devious messages (which can indeed be the case), they are essentially a mechanism for helping a cross-section of a population explore its own thoughts, organise them and convey them more clearly. They help you get your head straight so that others can better take your perspectives on board. Why not focus groups for estate residents? Perhaps some already exist. Why not councillors and council officials taking their results seriously?
A beautiful thing about London is the amount of healthy social glue there is amid such human churn and diversity. But you can never have enough of that good stuff, especially if you exist at the margins. A reinvigoration of civic empathy is required. Who could give that ideal shape and force? Maybe it’s a job for the mayor.