Last Tuesday, Londoners woke up to see the desperate and horrific scenes of Grenfell Tower as a massive fire ripped through the council block in Kensington. Having reportedly been caused overnight by an explosion in a kitchen appliance, residents were trapped inside as as the fire rapidly spread throughout the building. No alarm systems were installed in the building, so it was left to the frantic attempts of fellow residents to get everyone out to safety. The official number of those who perished in the fire stands at 79 and is expected to rise further; those who were able to escape have lost everything.
With the feeling of senseless loss comes anger over how this could have been prevented had the authorities listened to the residents’ previous fire safety concerns. According to David Collins of the Grenfell Tower Residents Association, residents had repeatedly reported the need for protective measures, such as fire escapes, fire proof doors, alarms and sprinklers, to the Tenant Management Organisation of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea during the regeneration works. The local authority however dismissed these concerns, even when 90% of residents signed a petition to get the housing authority investigated on grounds of incompetence.
Despite protests, the regeneration did not include basic safety provisions; it did, however, include the putting cladding around the tower block. A low cost material, cladding was used to economically insulate and improve the appearance of the building. Indeed, according to a 2014 planning document, the aim was to “improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.”
But in cutting corners on cost, authorities ignored the fire risk that this combustible material presented. Having commissioned a BRE report last year into external fire spread, the Department of Communities and Local Government were well aware that “the use of combustible materials in cladding systems in tall buildings can pose a route for fire spread and hence a danger to life as shown by the case studies.” Keeping costs down and improving the aesthetic of the building’s were seemingly of greater importance to the authorities than the safety of the resident’s inside.
This seeming apathy for London’s poorest and most marginalised was felt in the immediate aftermath of the fire, as the victims’ grievances were met with a wall of silence from the government. The optics were poor – when Theresa May first visited the scene of Grenfell Tower, it was a highly controlled, private event in which she did not meet any of the residents. Wearing a suit her manner was stiff, cold and unemotional; as a leader she is known to be uneasy when confronted with difficult, personal stories from the electorate. In contrast, when opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn visited he was seen hugging and comforting residents and volunteers. Her tone was unable to strike a chord with those affected and she instead spoke in vague platitudes about understanding the resident’s need answers.
She did not, it seemed, understand why they needed her compassion. As a leader she is more comfortable in the presence with wealthy Tory donors, having been seen schmoozing at the Savoy for an event with high profile Conservative backers this week. In isolation this event would have been unlikely to raise eyebrows, it stands in sharp contrast with her unwillingness to meet those at Grenfell who are still unsure of where they’ll be housed.
Theresa May has failed in her mission to be seen as heading a party dedicated to fighting inequality; a voice for the the so-called “Jams”. Upon her election as P.M. on the steps of Downing Street she deliberately pitched to the have-nots, promising that “will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”, recognising “if you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise”. These well-scripted words now run hollow, and Theresa May’s actions instead spoke of a leader utterly out of touch with the very real struggles of ordinary people, ill at ease when faced with those facing genuine hardship and unable to lift spirits.
A public inquiry is insufficient. It is unacceptable that people are able to live in unsafe conditions, and that authorities are able to ignore fire concerns in the pursuit of cost cutting. It speaks to a system in which those without priviledge, financial or political capital, are left without a voice.
We also need a leadership that speaks for, and crucially to, all of its citizens – not just potential voters. Being able to connect and communicate with real people, with real problems should thus be a basic benchmark in which to judge good leadership, not the ability to charm the wealthy few into handing over greater wads of cash. As the fire has unfortunately all to clearly exposed, the image of Nasty Party is alive and well under her premiership.