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Remembering Grenfell, with a roar of pain

Four years on, and the battle for justice is still not won. But giving up is not an option, says former Kensington MP EMMA DENT COAD

NEARLY four years ago I was sitting, rather shell-shocked as you can imagine, in the House of Commons, listening to then PM Theresa May committing to rehouse all survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire within three weeks. It was a brave statement. 

I don’t doubt that she meant it at the time. But it simply wasn’t achievable. 

And it was the first of many broken promises, commitments and guarantees made to the Grenfell community. 

In the weeks and months that followed, minister after minister, and MPs of all parties, spoke movingly about the fire, some almost in tears (one minister did shed a tear), as they related their shock and sorrow, and one by one committed “NEVER AGAIN!”

Debates, committee meetings, APPGs, professional organisations, campaign groups and individuals spoke in different terms but in one voice: fix this ACM cladding problem now, rehouse survivors, look after traumatised people. 

As the problem was identified in more and more buildings, and concern spread country-wide to include flammable wooden balconies (Barking Riverside), structure (Worcester Park), high-pressure laminate (Bolton student accommodation), lack of fire breaks and poor compartmentation, wooden trims (New Phoenix Wharf), the scale of the problem became nothing less than apocalyptic. 

There are now upwards of 700,000 people living in homes that are not fire-safe for innumerable reasons, and if you include non-compliant or poorly fitted fire doors, it could be millions. 

We have three large blocks and half a street with long-term fire wardens, just in my ward in North Kensington. And people are justifiably afraid.

Meanwhile, freeholders and developers are possibly on yachts somewhere or in hiding, behind a wall of denial or pass-the-parcel of blame, while the hundreds of thousands of leaseholders, the exhausted key workers and other anxious mortgagees, contemplate bankruptcy, their homes worth less than £0, and potential homelessness. 

I learnt that law takes a long time to make, tidy up and implement, but the Building Safety Bill and especially the Fire Safety Bill saw such additional resistance from the government benches of the House of Commons. Anyone would think they are all landlords or developers. Oh.

So it was very interesting to watch two new Tory MPs champion an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill that would prevent building owners from passing the burden of debt on to leaseholders, forcing them to pay for remediation of their flammable buildings. 

Some are faced with bills of £25,000. The worst I’ve heard to date is £100,000. 

This means ruination, for life, for people who have “done the right thing” and bought a home. 

This amendment is the one that bounced five times between the Lords and the Commons, before, sadly, the Bill was voted through without the amendment. It is now law. The Fire Safety Act 2021. And to hell with it. 

Weirdly, my successor as MP for Kensington, having committed to represent north and south Kensington — voted — against — sensible — amendments — to save life and financial stability — every — freakin’ — time. 

As always, when we are approaching another Grenfell anniversary, frustration boils, and descends into anger or despair. 

The council has still failed to find an appropriate means, manner or tone in its attempted engagement with community members that does not infuriate or rile people. 

Visits to the area by senior Tory councillors are seen by them as adventures into hostile territory. 

One senior Tory called it, audibly, the “lion’s den.” Because clearly, we are vicious and feral hordes. 

Another shouted at a vulnerable community member, who they thought was asking too many questions, at a public meeting. 

Some Tory councillors seem quite frankly bored of it now. They have no understanding of how PTSD works, how it can wait in ambush for months, then surge uncontrollably. 

They still view complainants as “rebel residents,” as a Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation officer famously called the Grenfell Action Group when they were warning about fire safety. 

This phrase has been reclaimed by protesters and printed on T-shirts. They still regard local Labour councillors (all five northern wards in Kensington are Labour) as “rogue councillors.” 

This immortal phrase, written by an RBKC legal adviser, was revealed by an independent auditor investigating one of RBKC’s dodgy property deals. Perhaps we should print that on a T-shirt too. 

That disdain and disrespect, for residents and for elected representatives, has barely altered since the fire. 

After a debate during which I was questioning the council’s proposals on housing, I was told to “get on the bus” repeatedly by a senior Tory. In essence, I should shut up and praise them. Often. 

I will not.

Four years after the fire, there is still huge frustration and sometimes despair. 

Some feel they are being failed by mental health provision, failed by the justice system, failed by “new” approaches to housing maintenance and repairs. 

Forests have been felled for the dozens of new policies, but their implementation is barely discernible. 

We have amazing, persistent and creative campaign groups in North Kensington. We always have. 

Consider for a moment the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1958, which united North Kensington against racism and resulted in a community celebration — Notting Hill Carnival. 

Consider for a moment the angry housing campaigners in 1973, who locked 22 councillors and officers in a church hall overnight, demanding a mass compulsory purchase order of poor housing for redevelopment as social housing — and won, resulting in the award-winning Swinbrook Estate. 

For many, four years later, it feels as if it was yesterday. It’s a fetid wound that will not heal. 

Even the hope that the loss of their loved ones, and their ongoing misery, could result in “never again” legislation is fading. 

After the terrifying fire at New Phoenix Wharf, which could have resulted in fatalities if it had happened at night, we know that Grenfell II is only a matter of time. 

Giving up is not an option. If one group feels ground down, there are more, with fresh energy and ideas, in the wings. We will not submit. 

I still see #KensingtonRising from the ashes of the Grenfell Tower fire, albeit with a roar of pain.

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