Grenfell Tower – A Tombstone for Austerity?

Image from ‘The Grocer’

The disastrous, multi-fatality, fire in a London residential tower block exposes more than questionable building practice.  With any luck it may, just may, also finally drive a stake through the still twitching heart of Austerity.

On the night of 13/14 June Grenfell Tower, 24 storeys of flats in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, caught fire.  At the time of writing it appears the fire started accidentally in one flat on the 4th floor.  There are unsubstantiated suspicions of arson, perhaps because the block seemed almost to be home to many ethnic minority families, some of them refugees.  It is critically important that the Fire and Police authorities establish (and hopefully rule out) whether the cause was deliberate but the painstaking forensic work to prove, or disprove, arson has added to the slowness of the recovery operation.  This slowness added to frustrations which boiled over into direct action and the storming of the Town Hall.

Whatever the cause, the fire took hold and spread with astonishing speed and, despite heroic efforts of firefighters, the result has been scores of deaths and injuries and hundreds more made homeless.  The shell of the building will probably be demolished but perhaps part of it should remain, Reichstag-like, as a permanent reminder of the obscenity of Austerity: a symbolic headstone for one of the most unfair and divisive policies of our times.

Questions are being raised about the safety of similar high-rise residences, and especially local authority social high-rise residences, all across the UK.  As the initial shock subsided, anger appeared.  Anger directed at government (local and national), at architects, building contractors, indeed at anyone who represented authority who, however well intentioned, appeared at the scene to offer ineffectual sympathy and support.  This anger has already been seized on by groups who have taken advantage to promote a political agenda.

What we have seen, though, is the paralysis of parts of the local and national government system.  It seems unable to act in a coherent and effective way, and yet there are co-ordinated and rehearsed response plans for tragic events which result in mass casualties, like terrorism, a train or plane crash, or a sports stadium fire.  These plans derive from, or are refined because of, previous events where procedures were found wanting.  In this case, however, the authorities seem to have been totally unprepared and, worse, made incapable of responding by not having resources (physical, financial and especially human).  Faced with hundreds of people evacuated from the fire in their nightclothes, who had lost everything including the lives of family members, they appeared to not know what to do.  It was left to the community itself to respond with water, food, clothes and even shelter.  The immediate, and urgent, need to distribute casualties to hospitals across London, many of them unidentifiable or incapable of identifying themselves, led to mass uncertainty about the numbers, identity, and whereabouts of survivors.  The apparent systemic failure to track, and keep track of, people has added to the anger.  Furthermore, the event has exposed an uncertainty about who was in the building in the first place.  Some flats were owner-occupied, presumably sold off under Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” legislation.  Questions about who was entitled to be there, who may have been visiting legitimately, who was absent for any reason, who might have been ‘camping’ unofficially with friends or relatives, who may have been illegally sub-letting from the rightful tenant appear, so far, to be unanswered and perhaps unanswerable.  We may never know, and we may never even know the identities of those persons whose bodies are recovered.  If the building collapses spontaneously before all the victims are recovered, we may even not have a total number of bodies, never mind all the identities of victims.

At the heart of this is the housing crisis:  in a major city, with high numbers of transient people, there will always be some who ‘bend’ the rules.  It is inevitable.  However when housing provision is inadequate (in quality, quantity and affordability), the pressure to do so is increased.  Starved of funds to build, maintain, and manage housing stock many local authorities have been forced to pass on these responsibilities to arms-length groups or the private sector, a private sector primarily driven by profit rather than public service.  In the case of Grenfell Tower, the building was maintained and managed by The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO).  Ostensibly such an organisation is devolutionary: it is meant to improve democracy, to make the tenants themselves more directly involved in decision making, priority setting, maintenance and tenancy management.  It is meant to be more responsive than a town-hall based bureaucracy but, in reality, it devolves the management to people who may well be ill-equipped to handle it, leaving only a ‘rump’ of administrative expertise and support to liaise with them at the town hall.  And, of course, it is intended to save money.  This is especially a feature of post-financial crash local government: Austerity has seen local services closed down, or taken on by charitably funded volunteers.  Taking on a local library or swimming pool is one thing, running a large housing project is another thing entirely.  I have no way of knowing if this played a part in Kensington and Chelsea, but certainly local authorities across the country have been stripped of experienced housing officers, building inspectors and other professionals, like Architects and Surveyors, while their work has been sub-contracted.  In the case of Grenfell Tower it seems the building was recently refurbished, part of which was the over-cladding of the structure with insulated panels to improve the thermal performance of the structure.  There are suspicions, as yet unproven, about these panels being the cause of the rapid spread of the fire.  In due course we shall know if this is the case.  Even if they were, it may be that their specification was completely in accordance with the Building Regulations.  It may be that the work was competently carried out, and inspected, in accordance with the specifications though, given the state of the building now, it may be impossible to tell.  If that is so, then the Building Regulations may be changed.  If there were contractual failures, or unauthorised substitutions of materials, then the law will take its course – eventually.  Eventually is not good enough for the victims, their families, or residents in similar buildings the length and breadth of the UK.  The underlying question is whether an organisation like KCTMO is capable of effectively monitoring something like a complex building project, or its on-going management.  The more you break down and extend the chain of management, the more layers you build in, the more risk there is of failure.  What happens to accountability in these circumstances?

The tenants at Grenfell Tower, apparently, made repeated representations to KCTMO, to their elected council representatives and to their MP about safety concerns.  They claim these representations have been ignored.  When the inevitable public enquiry concludes, and reports, we may well find it isn’t only Building Regulations that are revised.

As the shock continues to subside, and recovery begins, people are asking what can be done to support all those directly affected: victims and relatives, emergency services workers, police etc.  I have heard pleas for on-the-ground community mental health workers to be deployed.  I have to ask where they will come from?  Surely not from NHS mental health services so eviscerated like every other public service by Austerity cuts that in normal times you can’t get an appointment for week or even months!  And as for rehousing the survivors in three weeks, as the government has promised; what about funerals?  The heartbreak of those whose traditions and religion require particular arrangements, which cannot be observed, is palpable.

No, everywhere you look in this tragedy you find the taint of Austerity that has been sucking the life blood out of our communities for years.  The aftermath of the fire has also exposed fault lines that run through ethnic, cultural, and class divides, and exposes the very centre of our political system to a charge of institutional disinterest and carelessness.  If not handled with great sensitivity, and determination, the consequences for our society may reach further, and last longer, than the immediate effects of the fire itself.  It would be tragedy heaped upon tragedy if another victim of this event were community cohesion.

Austerity: The Emperor’s New Clothes

During the Second World War, and the years of recovery afterwards, much of the world endured privations which, today, are almost unimaginable.  In pre-war UK society it was the norm for families to be ‘nuclear’, with one main source of income.  Post-war many families were without a breadwinner.  Children slept in the drawers of furniture, some went shoeless.  There was severe rationing.  Many were, quite literally, homeless having been ‘bombed out’.  Ordinary people experienced restrictions on their lives and aspirations which make our present use of the term “austerity”, to describe a deliberate political policy, an insult.  I am reminded of Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

The major difference between then and now is that the general population had a clear, in many cases very personal, cause for the pain and a reason to endure it.  During the war the economy was directed, it was not a free market economy, and it was directed to one purpose: winning the war.  The only people who made any money were the arms dealers and black market spivs, and the latter were subject to extreme penalties if caught.  Soon after WW2 the country elected a Labour government which directed the economy to peace, and creating a platform for social equality: universal free education, the NHS, mass social housing, which gave the population a pay-off for the pain. It had a vision of what the country could be like.

The so-called “austerity” of the years after 2008 was entirely different.  The world financial system collapsed, not under the weight of war but under unsustainable debt created by ‘loadsamoney’ gambling, and stock market speculation.  Unlike WW2, the cost and pain of our 21st Century “austerity” has not been borne equally.  The long term pay-off is not at all clear except to those who have imposed it.  It has had no vision other than to deliberately, and nakedly, deconstruct the state’s involvement in directing, and contributing to, the economy.  Its primary driver was ideological and its aim was to shift the responsibility of delivering almost all state service functions into the private sector for profit.  And as a result, for example, we have burgeoning private health care, housing, prisons, education (for those that can afford them) and, at the same time, the state providers of these services have been systematically starved of resources.  The gaps, where possible, are filled by charities and individual compassion.

In the wake of an unexpected rebuff at a General Election, for the Conservatives to be addressing why so many people didn’t vote for them, by changing leadership ‘style’ and, particularly by rethinking “austerity”, shows how far removed they are from really understanding the popular mood.  They do not seem to see, as we do, that if they can change economic policy now, just because of a poor election result, they could have changed course before.  If they can listen now, they could have listened before.  In my opinion it’s not “austerity” per se that the populace have rejected, it is the pointlessness of it except for those who have benefitted, and will continue to benefit, from it.  There is no ‘holy grail’ other than some nebulous notion of deficit reduction.  There is no gain worth the pain.  Until recently many young people, who apparently voted en-masse for something better on 8th June, had only ‘being famous’ as an aspiration to escape the future that was being mapped out for them.

The Conservatives simply do not, and cannot, ‘get it’ because they seem to be intellectually, socially, culturally, some even morally, incapable of grasping that we finally see the Emperor (and Empress) has no clothes.

 

 

 

 

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

You couldn’t make it up.  I almost feel sorry for Theresa May (TM).  Almost.  Since her decision to press ahead with business as usual, in an unbelievably inept statement in front of No 10, the house of cards has started to collapse.  I don’t know if the Conservative ‘grandees’ know what to do for the best: should they let TM carry on for a while or add to the pressure and ease her out?  She’s fatally wounded, but the party top echelons, and the rank and file MPs, need to be reminded THEY voted for her as leader after David Cameron resigned.  As a supporter of Labour the temptation to gloat is overpowering, but we need to be careful.  There is a real risk of economic collapse if the government can’t govern.  A run on the pound isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.  Foreign investment might desert the UK, not only because of the uncertainty of government, but also of an increasingly uncertain Brexit.  There’s no certainty that another election would help clarify things.

The situation in Northern Ireland is toxic, and made worse by the failed power sharing executive.  Sinn Fein are making hay, but it isn’t a huge leap of the imagination to see paramilitairies on both sides of the sectarian divide taking advantage (with or without encouragement of their political ‘wings’).

Who would take her place?  I hear the usual pro-Boris Johnson sentiment, but he seems like an accident waiting to happen (again, and again).  He appeared on camera yesterday (having been confirmed as Foreign Secretary) looking, frankly, like he’d been dug out of a rugby club booze-up rather than holder of one of the highest posts in the country.  Not Gove (whom he hates and May sacked in favour of Boris Johnson).  I think we might see TM ‘crack’ under the pressure (really or as an excuse) sooner rather than later and I don’t see the party going for someone young and untried in the perilous condition we find ourselves in.  I think we might see Sir Michael Fallon, currently Defence Secretary, step forward (with all due humility) and accept the heavy burden of office he didn’t seek.  If you believe that, you believe in Father Christmas.  All in all it’s a disaster, and while I can say “serves you right”, it’s really worrying.

 

OK, I was wrong, but not completely.

Well, I was wrong about the 2017 general election, and am happy to admit it.  Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party did a lot better than many expected.  My own predictions were pretty accurate, though; first of all I predicted the election would happen in 2017.  Secondly I predicted a Tory win, but without a clear majority.  I did expect the SNP would drop a few seats from its historic near monopoly in Scotland, but did not see the big resurgence of Tory vote there coming (without which we might be looking at a left-of-centre coalition not a right-of centre one).  I did predict a ‘coalition’, but I thought it would be with the LibDems again (despite what the LibDems were saying publicly, they had ‘form’).  Instead we’ve got the Ulster Unionists propping up the Tories, which is a pretty frightening prospect – I’ll write about this later in this post.

I was wrong about Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to reach the public.  As the campaign went on he did better and better; he played to his strength of public speaking and getting out into the country.  Even with the help of some blatant lies, a lot of hostile and smearing press coverage and, it has to be said, subtle (perhaps institutional) bias in the BBC, Theresa May showed she couldn’t do it, if anything she was worse than Jeremy Corbyn.  She couldn’t campaign, and being unwilling to debate and being seen to only speak at carefully staged meeting of party activists, she seemed detached, even aloof.  She provided an unlimited supply of ammuniton for a well organised social media campaign against her.

Good ‘on the stump’, Jeremy Corbyn did less well on camera, and showed he isn’t as fleet of foot as he needs to be – as has been seen time after time at Prime Minister’s Questions in th House of Commons.  Why is this important?  Well, for a couple of reasons.  First, Theresa May cannot survive as PM beyond (perhaps even up to) the end of the Brexit negotiations.  You can almost hear the knives being sharpened.  The timing of her departure is entirely dependent on how well the Brexit negotiations are perceived to be going. Her replacement is unlikely to be as inept or non-combative at the next election.  I predict another election will be fought at the time the Brexit negotiations are concluded – 18 months for Labour to get its act together. The Conservatives will not make the mistakes they did this time round.  Realising they shot themselves in the foot with an ill-considered manifesto, they already realise a more collegiate approach to policy forming is required.  Labour can’t count on many more ‘own goals’ from them.

Secondly, the secret weapon of Corbyn’s unassailable integrity can only last so long; the young and first time voters go ‘off the boil’ quickly.  They must be encouraged to remain active, engaged and ready to vote.  The part of the Labour party that tried to dump Corbyn and then, when they failed, turned its back on him, must rue the fact that he took them to within a whisker of victory.  They must be thinking “if only”, especially those that came close to, but failed, to winning a seat.  It’s good to see a few of his detractors have publicly recanted.

Now, to the ‘unholy alliance’ with the DUP.  The LibDems stuck to their, broadly, anti-Brexit stance and said “No deals”.  The only others left standing with enough votes to keep Theresa’s Tories in power are the DUP, The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.  During the election, one of the smears repeatedly thrown at Jeremy Corbyn was his alleged sympathy with the IRA (and others).  Even though this was shown to be misreported and taken out of context, some of that stuck.  The DUP are the political representatives of Ulster “Loyalism”:  their power also grows from the barrel of the gun, they are to the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Volunter Force (etc.) what Sinn Fein is to the IRA.  After the so-called Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to open armed conflict between Loyalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland, known as “the Troubles”, the two sides came together in a devolved power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly.  This institution collapsed just before the UK election was called, resulting in an election in Northern Ireland which has, so far, failed to restore functioning government there.  Suspicion and anger has returned, open (and armed) hostility might be only just around the corner.  Sinn Fein has 7 members elected to the UK parliament, but they have consistently refused to take those seats becuase they don’t recognise the authority of the institution over Northern Ireland (which they see as properly part of the whole of Ireland), and refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen.  How will Sinn Fein see the inclusion of its ‘mortal enemy’ in the government apparatus of Westminster?  They have, for years, believed the UK government is secretly “in cahoots” with the Loyalists. They are bound to think that the DUP is going to get concessions, and help, in exchange for keeping the UK Government afloat.  Even if they don’t really think this to be true, they are going to say it.  They have a constituency to maintain and you can imagine guns being dug up and oiled, on both sides, already.

In the context of an already extreme security threat, from ISIS etc., the last thing our already overstretched security services need is another, this time internal, threat to deal with.  The broader implications of this election result are therefore very, very worrying. “Strong and Stable” was Theresa May’s ‘tag line’; if nowhere other than Northern Ireland, things look considerably less stable.  And, as for strong….?

 

Election 2017 – A Wasted Opportunity

Having watched the televised, separate, public ‘interviews’ with Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, last night, I don’t know whether to be in despair or incandescent with anger.

I feel despair because, once again, Jeremy Corbyn showed why he is seen as unelectable as Prime Minister, even by some Labour supporters.  I’m a Labour supporter, and sometime activist and member of the Labour Party, but even I was unconvinced – and I voted for him as leader.  I cringed.  He did well on his firmest ground, unfairness, inequalities, lost opportunities: the socialist agenda.  He was utterly hopeless on defence and, especially, nuclear weapons.  He proved totally unable to step away from his principled stand, which is broadly that of a disarmer, into the here and now.  Instead of ducking the question and making weak (if correct) statements about avoiding conflict with dialogue, he could have pointed to Britain’s membership of NATO.  He could have said that, although our weapons are (questionably) independent they would, in reality, never be used outside of the NATO treaty.  He could also have said that many members of NATO do not have nuclear weapons.  He could have said that the UK’s nuclear weapons are a deterrent, not a first strike weapon and that, if they were to be used then the whole theory of deterrence would have failed.  He could have said that, as a last resort, they might have to be used.  He couldn’t have said, though it is true, that the UK has continued to develop other, equally horrible, weapons.  He could have made more of the passing reference to the Conservatives having eviscerated our military capability.  He could have mentioned the obscenity of food banks; he could have said a lot, but he’s not fleet of foot, not a cut-and-thrust, counter-punching, ‘street fighter’.  He’s too nice, and his unwillingness to answer a binary question just looked ‘shifty’, but his tenedency to look perplexed and irritated by some questioners was damaging too.  It was absolutely not good enough to answer a question, however loaded, about policy detail by telling the questioner to read the manifesto!  For one thing, it seemed like he didin’t know the answer himself.

I feel anger because, despite Theresa May having showed just how patronising, uncaring and unconnected she is, she will still be Prime Minister on June 9th.  Faced with personal and harrowing evidence of the impact of her, and the 2010/15, Conservative government’s, austerity policies all she could say is “I’m not going to make excuses (for bad treatment) but hard choices had to be made.”  Hard choices like funding cuts in Corporation tax by taking away benefits from disabled people?  She doesn’t know what ‘hard’ is: try having to decide between feeding your children or keeping them warm.  That’s a hard choice.  We know that money doesn’t grow on trees, Treeze, but what you do with the money available is what’s at issue here.

I’m in despair because the Labour Party ‘heavyweights’ have, for the most part, been invisible and unheard throughout the campaign so far.  The 2017 General Election could go down as the Labour Party’s worst own goal in history.  It’s not about Corbyn, it’s about Labour, you selfish dummies!  What a waste.  If only….