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AS GRENFELL Tower burned there was one question being asked, desperately, both in my home borough of Kensington and beyond.
It is not a question that has been answered satisfactorily five months later. We continue to live in hope that the public inquiry may go some way toward the forensic side of the explanation. But we know the broader answer; we always knew it. Because not enough people in positions of power cared.
That’s why residents were silenced, why stairwells went un-numbered, costs were cut on external cladding, fire stations sold off for luxury flats and official reports sat on.
And that’s why in 2014, proposals to enforce the installation of sprinklers in high-rise buildings were quashed — in case billionaire property developers were scared away by the imposition of a life-saving precaution.
Just a year earlier, two coroners’ reports in 2013 into high-rise fires at Lakanal House and Shirley Towers recommended that sprinklers be fitted in social housing blocks, and other research indicates they contain fires in 99 per cent of cases.
Now there’s a chance to do things better. Jeremy Corbyn has launched a campaign to pressure the Chancellor to include funding for sprinklers in every tower block in Britain.
Currently 49 out of 50 are not covered. He will doubtless be accused by Conservatives of “politicising” the fire.
In doing so they draw attention to an uncomfortable truth: it’s taken political action from the leader of the Labour Party to even get sprinklers onto the agenda, scant months after the most deadly fire in modern British history.
The fact that this has to be a matter for public debate speaks volumes about what, and who, this government prioritises.
The cost of sprinkler installation is less than the cost of Theresa May’s deal with the DUP, and hundreds of times less than the amount of money owed to us that was revealed to be stashed in offshore accounts this week. The cost of failing to do it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Westminster may attempt to pass the buck to local government. Of course irresponsible council leaderships exist (as Priti Patel’s replacement Penny Mordaunt, a former director of communications at Kensington and Chelsea, would be able to attest).
But with councils having lost two-fifths of their funding and in many places struggling to keep the lights on, let alone the libraries open, major refurbishment projects are simply not feasible. Westminster needs to act.
The lack of action has meant that over a longer period of time, the fire inspection regime has been degraded and privatised in the interests of profiteering.
As shadow fire minister Chris Williamson says: “Planning departments used to be run by local authority building control teams and then competition was brought in. People would offer the same service as local authorities at a reduced fee. This affected the number and quality of staff at local authorities.”
Sprinklers in the budget would be a small step to reverse this process.
From Salford to Slough, people in inadequately protected high-rise buildings have watched north Kensington burning and are worrying right now about whether they can feel secure in their own homes.
Theresa May committed after the Grenfell fire to reflecting on how things could be done better in public housing. She is making continuous concessions to appease her own backbenchers. If she can’t show that she is able to concede instead on an issue of urgent public safety, her legitimacy will plummet even further.
But this is about far more than the relative strengths of May and Corbyn at next week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. It is about people not having to live in firetraps in the 21st century.
It is about redressing an imbalance which has seen people living in social housing denied control, ignored and placed second fiddle in the political priority list to property developers and speculators — to the point where not just quality of life but preservation of life has been put at risk.
All of us want to live in safe homes. None of us want to be looking at another burning building and asking “why?” in a few months or a few years’ time. We have just a few days to get the Chancellor to listen.
You can sign Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to Theresa May on sprinklers here: https://action.labour.org.uk/page/s/make-homes-safe/
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