A horrific fire at a 24-story residential building in London has left at least 79 dead or missing. The tragedy raised inevitable questions about maintenance and fire protection, but it also highlighted fundamental concerns about British society, in particular the growing inequality that marks life in London and a seeming indifference among officials to lives of the poor.
Grenfell Tower was built in 1974, a square 120-unit concrete tower that is located in a part of London that also is home to some of the most expensive property and wealthiest residents of the city. The building is public housing and, as is typical of such residences, has become increasingly crowded as rents increased. Grenfell Tower was home to an estimated 600 people, including many foreigners living in small, crowded apartments with families of six (or more) crammed into two bedrooms.
Investigators have not determined what started the fire, although there are reports a faulty refrigerator may have been the trigger. Numerous complaints had been raised in recent years about the building’s lack of safety features: It had just one external stairway, no central alarm or sprinkler systems, and it had been wrapped in cladding during refurbishment that was not fire-resistant — to save money — and may have accelerated the blaze.
The fire spread fast, leaving little time to escape. The death toll, which may never be known given a lack of information about residents and the scale of destruction, was exacerbated by standard advice for such fires, which is to only evacuate if the fire is in your unit. (Most modern buildings are built to contain fires and smoke for up to an hour and there is concern that a mass evacuation would block stairways and access for fire crews.)
In the aftermath of the fire, there was sorrow, horror and mounting rage: sorrow among the victims, horror among those who were forced to absorb the scale of the tragedy, and ever-growing anger directed toward authorities whose seeming indifference to conditions at Grenfell Tower produced the tragedy. London Mayor Sadiq Khan charged that the disaster was the result of “years of neglect from the council and successive governments.” Last year, a group of citizens called the Grenfell Action Group warned that it would take “a catastrophic event [to] expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Office), and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict on tenants and leaseholders.”
In the aftermath of the fire, video has surfaced of former London Mayor Boris Johnson (now foreign minister) telling a Labour member of the London Assembly to “get stuffed” after being questioned about fire safety. Numerous Conservative Party officials, including the fire minister, are on record voting against a Labour motion to make homes “fit for human habitation,” which would have required, among other things, electrical safety checks.
This callousness takes on more significance given the proximity of extraordinary wealth to Grenfell Tower; the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, one of the wealthiest enclaves in one of the most expensive cities in the world, is a neighbor. There is widespread belief that the cladding that shrouded Grenfell Tower was put in place to protect the sensitive eyes of wealthy neighbors rather than the building itself.
This jarring juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is part of a larger social narrative in the United Kingdom. The rising cost of living in London is largely a function of exploding housing prices, which have grown 600 percent in the last 20 years; rents are projected to increase 25 percent in the next five years. At the same time, weekly median income after housing costs of renters has fallen 28 percent. Meanwhile, public housing is steadily shrinking. In 2001, a little more than half of Londoners living in poverty had public housing; 10 years later, that number had fallen to 39 percent.
The tensions introduced by this dynamic are evident in the stunning poll result last week, in which Labour made a remarkable comeback against the Conservatives. (It is worth considering the outcome of that ballot if the vote had been held after this tragedy.) Similar sentiment — that the government no longer represented the ordinary British citizen — produced the Brexit vote.
Now, the anger is more palpable, more focused and more tinged with grief. British Prime Minister Theresa May was berated for failing to meet families of victims and instead was sympathizing with emergency workers. May announced last week a £5 million fund to help victims’ families, but for many that is a poor response to years of neglect and active efforts to ease government regulation. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower, the worst such disaster in British history, demands a reassessment of the attention given to the poorest and most vulnerable in British society — and a similar reckoning by other governments.