Grenfell five years on: The fight goes on for safe homes

by Paul Kershaw, Enfield and Lea Valley Socialist Party and Chair, Unite Housing Workers’ branch

“The true face of the Tories, as representatives of the profit-seeking capitalist class, has been laid bare. Theresa May’s own empathy-free response is just one element. People are sharing widely the video of Boris Johnson sat in City Hall scoffing at complaints about fire service cuts”. These words were published in the Socialist in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. The absence of progress in the five years since underlines the ruling capitalist class’s contempt.

Grenfell demonstrators
Grenfell Tower 2017
Photo: James Ivens

640,000 people still live in 345,000 unsafe flats, according to the Sunday Times. Just 6% of flats with flammable cladding have been fixed. Cladding manufacturers Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan all made misleading statements on the panels that spread the fire. Together they have made £6.5 billion in profit since the fire but paid nothing to compensate survivors or to strip their products from unsafe homes. They deny liability and no one has been charged with a crime. The privatised Building Research Establishment failed to hold them to account. The case for nationalisation is clear.

Tory war on health and safety

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry has documented both the cynicism of construction firms and decision making by politicians. The Tories cut services and mounted a war on health and safety regulation before the fire and in its aftermath. Local politicians and ministers were keen to cover up the lack of support for survivors.

Survivors and the bereaved were left without support or information. Some, searching for loved ones, were threatened with arrest. Working-class people from across London offered support as did trade unions, including Unite.

Grenfell demonstration 2017
Grenfell demonstrators, 17.6.17
Photo: Mary Finch

Requisition empty homes

The inquiry has found that Kensington and Chelsea council treated survivors as “would-be leaders of revolt” in official meetings. As the lack of support and levels of neglect became clear, outrage only grew. Jeremy Corbyn’s call, supported by the Socialist Party, for empty homes in the area to be requisitioned for those made homeless, gained a powerful echo.

The government recently rejected an important recommendation from the inquiry, that landlords should be mandated to have Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) for disabled tenants. Disabled people were disproportionately likely to die in the fire, and legal action against the government has been launched by disabled tenants organised in the Claddag group. Housing associations and local authorities should publicly commit to prepare PEEPs and not wait for the courts.

Councils must fight

After the fire, the Socialist Party called for councils to immediately inspect safety on every housing estate and invest urgently, with no excuses about cuts, in ensuring safe materials, adequate exits and space. We said Labour councils should refuse to pass on further cuts, and London mayor Sadiq Khan should reverse cuts to London’s fire service.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn’s radical call for requisitioning empty homes was not developed as a concerted campaign and right-wing Labour councils have continued with austerity policies rather than fighting the Tories. Corbyn raised the idea of an alternative, but it was not translated into action by Labour councils. The Fire Brigades Union leader, Matt Wrack, is right to warn that little has changed despite the inquiry. Unions should support tenant and resident groups fighting for safety; this can develop into a powerful force. Such a movement could be one of the strands that come together to form the basis of a new mass workers’ party, a vital part of the fight for safe affordable homes for all.