We’re in a post-Grenfell age. It’s too early to say what the full implications will be, but this preventable disaster will change housing in a similar way to Ronan Point in 1968. The important similarities are not that they were both high-rise council blocks, but the role of private contractors in compromising safety standards, with cash-strapped local authorities not doing enough to enforce them.
A full public enquiry, with residents at its heart, is essential. Justice for Grenfell must not wait 27 years as it did for the victims of Hillsborough. Local people are quite right to question the scope of the investigation. There’s a real danger that it becomes too narrowly focused and, in time-honoured establishment fashion, allows those who are really responsible to shift the blame.
Learning the technical and management lessons is vital. But there also needs to be recognition of the political policies that led to this. Biggest of these is the decades-long disinvestment from and denigration of council housing, alongside the unchecked advance of privatisation and deregulation. That’s why Grenfell, like other council blocks, had not been properly managed and maintained and why residents’ concerns weren’t listened to, while private contractors continued to make profits.
Grenfell has been described as a ‘Katrina Moment’. That comparison shouldn’t be over-stretched, but it shouldn’t be ignored either. There are several parallels. Working class communities in New Orleans had warned for years that inadequate flood safety was putting their lives at risk. When the levies broke, the reaction of establishment politicians mirrored the detachment and ignorance of Theresa ‘Antoinette’ May after Grenfell. Barbara Bush (mother of George W) said that things were “working out well” for those who’d lost their homes because “they were poor anyway”. Katrina was used by the authorities to accelerate what critics saw as a social engineering project aimed at erasing the cultural and ethnic history of the city. Local resident and musician Davis Rogan has observed: “The city since Katrina has been substantially blanched. The poor and the black didn’t get to come back. Thirty years of gentrification has happened in ten”. Bear this in mind when you hear calls for the Notting Hill Carnival to be re-routed, as Tory MP Greg Hands did after Grenfell.
But the biggest warning for Grenfell from New Orleans is what happened to the city’s public housing (rough equivalent to council housing) after Katrina. With central government support, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (NOLA) embarked on the wholesale destruction of what remained of the city’s supply of non-market rented housing. Since 2005, thousands of structurally sound apartments, homes to some of the city’s poorest people, most of them African-American, were demolished to make way for income-specific, privatised “mixed” communities. In a simple but profound message, in the aftermath of Katrina, some public housing tenants visited a wealthy area of New Orleans with a banner reading “Make this neighbourhood mixed income”.
The view of many housing campaigners in the city is that Katrina both accelerated demolition and divestment and provided a smoke-screen of justification for them. This truth was chillingly exposed by Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker in the days after the storm when he said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Twelve years on, some of the people worst affected by Katrina are still suffering. They may be waiting for insurance payments so they can repair and return to their homes. Many have never returned. The whole labour movement has a responsibility to maintain the political pressure on the government to make sure this doesn’t happen to the victims of Grenfell. There should be absolute guarantees of like-for-like replacement of lost council homes and the right to return, with secure tenancies, for those who want to.
The disaster is also an important moment for the Labour Party. The human reaction of Jeremy Corbyn to the tragedy contrasted sharply with the robotic one of May. But the truth is that previous Labour governments have been responsible for some of the policies that contributed to the disaster. Now, more than ever, the Party needs to oppose social cleansing and stand up for council housing and the people who live in it.