Opinion

The Grenfell Tower Fire and Social Inequality

Kundan Sawlani explores the social inequality behind the tragic Grenfell Tower fire.

By Kundan Sawlani

The destruction of Grenfell Tower and the appalling effects it has had on the lives of so many people who had lived there has shown us one thing: the most disadvantaged in our society suffer most from the mistakes of the most powerful.

The borough of Kensington and Chelsea has exemplified this perfectly. Residents were living in a death trap in one of the most deprived areas in the UK, situated within the wealthiest constituency in the country, where the average house is worth millions. The multiple warnings from residents had fallen on deaf ears. The changes made were purely cosmetic, with the aluminium and polyethylene panels installed not being fire resistant, and being put up so the wealthy people in the borough did not have their views ruined by an unattractive building.

The Grenfell Tower residents may not have fully understood the risk they were facing with these panels, but they did understand that their building did not have adequate fire alarms and sprinkler systems, as well as procedure for evacuation in the event of a serious fire. The wealthy landlords were colluding with the local council to leave the residents powerless to make any change. This ignorance of the poorest in our society was not just a fault of the local council. Our government has continuously refused to enforce building regulations and has looked to scrape local authorities’ budgets to the bare bones. They have made it so all councils, including Kensington and Chelsea, feel inclined to spend as little as possible on the people that lived there.

However, the blame cannot all be put on the Conservative government. Under Tony Blair, Labour continued to espouse the Thatcherite aims of transforming Britain into a country where social housing was largely removed as it was largely problematic in a ‘property owning democracy’. Though the party instigated the Decent Homes Standard programme under which the majority of social housing was refurbished in the time Blair was in power, this was only done when residents had agreed to have their housing stocks transferred to housing associations of social landlords. More recently, councils throughout London are threatening social housing, arguing that there is no alternative to full scale demolitions of estates, despite campaigners showing that low cost renovations to the estates are possible. For too long, governments have overlooked the importance of social housing and the adverse effects the destruction of it has to those living within it.

In regards to social housing, tower blocks are generally seen as the least popular form of housing. This is partly due to the difficulty and high costs in maintaining them. Previous tower block disasters, such as Ronan Point in 1968, had further diminished the reputation of these tower blocks, and led to people on social housing waiting lists refusing tower block housing. There is a social perception of high-rise tower blocks that cannot be shaken and it is this social perception that highlights the social inequalities we are seeing in situations such as Grenfell. Research by geographer Danny Dorling has shown that the majority of social housing flats above the fourth floor are occupied by black and minority ethnic people. This is not just an indication of the fact that more BAME people are more likely to be working class by wage and occupation, but also an indication of the fact that they are more likely to be discriminated against – be it tacit or outright – when allocated social housing.

It is this idea that high rise tower blocks are mostly inhabited by the worst off in society which has allowed people to justify insufficient safety mechanisms within these buildings. By doing so, they have treated the poorest in our society as second class citizens, creating a hierarchical structure within our society. What Grenfell has shown us is that when inequality is allowed to flourish, and adversely affect those near the bottom, the effects can be criminally destructive. Governments, both local and national have allowed the idea that being poor makes you second class fester for too long within our society. The privileged have lived by the mantra that their money can buy them their safety, their security, and mean that they don’t have to listen to those at the bottom. Continuing to do so will be very dangerous indeed.   

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