Lancaster, rising

No amount of rolling coverage and headline pictures can prepare you for seeing the scorched frame of Grenfell Tower in real life. From the end of Ladbroke Crescent its top is visible above a sweep of blanched Georgian houses, and as you come on to the Lancaster West estate it becomes larger, larger than life, with the texture of cracked dry earth and an acrid smell still lingering.

It still seems difficult to believe that the tower is gone.

I knew the Lancaster West estate and surrounding buildings fairly well, if not intimately. I was at school with some of the residents, including a man whose strength and courage during the horror has now been recognised nationally. I hung out in the blocks a handful of times — I think — and when involved in youth work and youth politics, I would walk from our building near Latimer Road, through the estate to see friends on Ladbroke Grove, and sometimes play in the leisure centre on Silchester Road. As I passed it was all football and cooking smells and conversations through open doors and windows, full with life, with community, with brightness. I didn’t remember the names of the blocks because I didn’t need to; they were constants, waypoints, big and squat and unbreakable. They wouldn’t be going anywhere.

They shouldn’t have gone anywhere. In theory, one could subject a tower block to withering shellfire in a warzone and it still would not set the whole building ablaze at once. We do not know what happened precisely yet, and why the fire unfolded quite so quickly and lethally (although intuitively, packing plastic foam in aluminium on the outside of a block seems absurd.) We are being told conflicting facts from different authorities. What we do know is that somewhere along the line, people made decisions that led to this situation. There are dots to be joined between these people, and the context and institutions in which they operated. So this horror is necessarily political, for it concerns a state-run building and the actions of politicians and civil servants and their contractors and subcontractors; at the Town Hall on Hornton Street, at the GLA on the banks by Tower Bridge, and in the personal office of the Prime Minister. People there understand that; the former chair of the residents’ association gave a searing interview on BBC News on the morning of the fire.

A week ago, in the aftermath of a brief moment of triumph when Kensington elected a housing campaigner as its local MP by a slim majority, I wrote about the hidden poverty across the town, where life expectancy drops a decade between streets. That inequality has now been drummed home in the worst way possible. A series of decisions made by a series of incredibly wealthy people, above and over the heads of those they affect, have had a cost that doesn’t bear thinking about.

Kensington and Chelsea has not witnessed a civil disaster on this scale in a long, long time. But in far smaller ways, we have witnessed the callousness and incompetence of the local political class. I grew up two miles south of Lancaster West in a basement flat carved from a former mansion, left to rot and controlled by a rogue landlord. Environmental health officers declared it uninhabitable. Town Hall bosses could not — there is no more delicate way to put it — have given a shit.

It’s the same attitude that caused them to yell at the parents of children with special educational needs to “shut up” in a meeting following a series of disasters on school transport. The attitude that caused them to cut local services while bolstering their reserves and pet projects. That caused them to go to the European courts in defence of removing overnight care from a disabled woman. The attitude that caused them to ignore, browbeat and bully residents who raised complaints on the Grenfell and so many other properties across the borough in a list of cases that make for several weeks’ worth of reading.

That attitude is not only present in the Town Hall ignoring residents’ complaints or the TMO allowing cheaper (and more flammable) cladding to be installed. It exists also in the Prime Minister’s chief of staff holding up the fire safety review, the-then housing minister Brandon Lewis advising against compulsory sprinklers in case it discouraged developers, and ministers boasting about cutting fire safety regulation. It exists in the office of Boris Johnson as mayor, cheerleading the smearing of our fire service in order to justify closing ten London stations and selling them for luxury flats while firefighters broke down in tears.

I hope and believe that elected public servants across the political spectrum would not have countenanced such a great risk had they any inkling of the potential consequences. But their casual disregard, their cavalier approach, has set a context in which people go unheard, and in which our most desperate demands are subordinated to the whims of the wealthiest. There are more bitter planning arguments about billionaires’ eight-storey basements for their cars than about public safety in tower blocks. Families are routinely dispatched to other parts of the country via the benefit cap. The sensibilities, the livelihoods, and ultimately the lives of the rich — whether ancien regime aristos or absentee oligarchs — are put first. This is a tragedy of class, with race present in the mix, and people on the streets of Notting Hill are very keenly aware of this.

There will be every attempt to make it something else. But in prior cases like Aberfan, Orgreave, or Hillsborough, the spread of information was slower and in smaller morsels. The whole truth of those cases has taken decades to emerge, and the picture is by no means complete. Here, the truth is spreading fast and the availability of information is greater than ever. That has not stopped the media and the more desperate elements of politicians from trying it on. Campaigners from the local area have been smeared, along with residents of the tower. The Conservative council leader seriously expects us to believe he acquiesced to resident demand in not installing sprinklers- or “Paget-Brown blames the bredrin”, as one protester put it yesterday. The Sun have reportedly impersonated a victim’s family. As more and more powerful figures come under pressure, the attacks and distractions will ratchet up.

They will not work. Three fifths of the country now sympathise with seizing empty luxury homes to rehouse Grenfell survivors locally. The community marched from the Town Hall to Grenfell in view of the nation and beyond. One speaker at the march knew this — “the world is watching”, she said, “but the broadcasters are putting us on mute.” But the mute button is broken. On the steps of the Town Hall, between Kensington Palace and the offices of the Daily Mail, the sheer number of people are too hard to ignore. As we marched, horns honked and cab and bus drivers leaned out to high-five protesters while we trod downhill through a valley of mansions.

“Enough agonising, let’s organise”, finished the penultimate speaker at the rally. The following morning at a distribution centre under the Westway, an organiser is complaining because while aid has flooded in, the council have provided no information about where they have temporarily put some families up. Charitable offers of flats have not been matched to people in need. Finding a comprehensive list of the missing seems impossible; there are only the haunting homemade posters on every other street corner and tree. The operation on the ground is sharp; there are neatly-stacked boxes in warehouses, fleets of vans waiting to roll in, people in hi-vis vests are hard at work. But the further up one goes, the more chaotic everything becomes.

On the first day there was shock and grief, but there was also grace and patience. Had the Prime Minister visited residents rather than using safety concerns (the Queen had no such trouble, and the residents had more pressing safety concerns), she may have been greeted with even-handedness. At worst she might have received the same wary, critical reception that the Mayor of London did. As it was, when she was finally persuaded to do her duty and turn up, it looked cynical and confected. Her car was chased away from St Clement’s Church. The victims’ fund she had just announced was paltry. “People have to organise themselves because no one else will do it for them”, says someone else. And they will. The strength, the compassion, the richness in spirit of North Kensington’s community — across race, faith, age and background — is palpable. People here have lived with and fought off injustice before, and will do so again.

There is no form of justice that can return the stolen lives and mend the broken ones. There is only the future to fight for now. A future in which those responsible are held accountable, and not just those who processed contract paperwork, but the architects of a broader system in which these nightmares are our reality. A future in which residents are fully, properly compensated and rehomed in their own community, using whatever means it takes. And a future in which public safety is not bargained away, and people are not made refugees in our own cities.

The community is still in first response mode. There are still people in sleeping bags on floors and dealing with basic needs remains top priority. There will be time for creating the infrastructure of a locally-led campaign that can monitor the inquiry, gather information, and coordinate legal and housing support.

It will be up to residents and the community to determine the detail and priority of their demands. It will be up to the rest of this city and this country to stand with North Kensington in its coming campaign for truth and justice.

Appeals

Grenfell Early Years Nursery

JustGiving appeal

GoFundMe appeal

Red Cross relief fund

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Still trying to work out what on earth is going on.

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