Gentrification is le cri du jour for cities like London. It brings lagging areas, wallowing in intergenerational lapsing of disrepair and abandonment wrought with high crime, black market activities and impoverished council-dependent dwellers into modern, expensive residential property at whatever the cost. Often, these impoverished areas sit adjacent, juxtaposed with their ultra-luxury high-rise apartments. We see this affair the world over, from the more startling contrast of Rio to Lagos, Mumbai to Nairobi.
For London, Grenfell Tower is one such site, nestled in the startlingly affluent neighbourhood, arguably London’s most prosperous, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Developers have been itching to buy and demolish the old council concrete jungles and in their place erect ultra-luxurious multi-million pound modern apartments. And it just so conveniently happens that a previously dilapidated tower block that underwent recent renovation and re-insured to the hilt as ‘near-new finish’ goes up in a puff of smoke. Assumptions are contagious and stereotypes picked up on a whim, and run through the mainstream media and into British conventional society. Although we live in Britain, we are by no means immune to the blind scheming of ambition and greed.
A block of flats in an affluent central London setting which has undergone recent refurbishment to the alleged tune of £10 million was caught on fire due to a faulty electrical appliance and highly flammable cladding on the outside acting as a chimney to the rising flames, engulfing the building before tenants could react. Their response and emergency services were slow due to the absence of fire detectors and alarms and hose reels and safeguards in building regulations to prevent incidents such as these from occurring.
What will happen now?
Inquiries will begin into the incident to establish the true reason for the fire and the inadequacy of the fireproofing of the building by the tenant management company and their outside contractors. All at the behest of our newly elected PM.
The fire will have undoubtedly destroyed much of the fundamental fabric and structure of the Tower, rendering it unfeasible to salvage. The land may be sold off to the highest bidder on the private contracting for the luxury apartments market by the owners Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council. In place of the old council flats will rise an ultra-luxury modern set of apartments with restaurants and convenience stores to cater to foreign investors and affluent city workers. Those previous residents relying on their council support will be forced out of the area and resettled.
Asbestos may well be present in such a building that requires specialist and costly dismantling process. The alternative is to sell off the site and recoup on the insurance, push the displaced residents to another constituency to rehouse as central London remains too cost-prohibitive and untenable for the central London council to front.
The block had conveniently been re-insured to the hilt after its works leaving the Council with a healthy ROI and ready to sell on to the highest bidder, meanwhile evicting the displaced tenants out of having to provide accommodation for them in London’s most expensive Borough. Two birds with one stone with higher insurable value and equally removing the undesirable immigrant communities as being a blight on their otherwise affluent area. Grenfell is nearby to high-end property in Finsted House which has had repeated troubles with petty crime, leading to restricted access to the Grenfell residents with no loitering and gated systems installed. The winning bidders will undoubtedly cash in on their new projects with issuing freehold based 99 year leases, extortionate ground rents and service charges to the unfortunate suckers who buy into their luxury apartment blocks. Everybody in government and business closely associated with the affair has had all their chickens come home to roost at once.
Although we live in Britain, we are by no means immune to the blind scheming of ambition and greed.
Meanwhile, the British public is handed a dismissive Boris before a committee and austerity is the usual suspect for poor building materials and regulations into fire safety. All the while, firefighter responses are depleted, and the capitalist neoliberal system is to blame for faulty oriental fridges that were the cause. Send some contractors and tenant managers to jail for manslaughter, wipe your hands and everybody moves along, content in their conventional knowledge that the world has been put to rights.
London’s heroic firefighters
Firefighters only supposed to fight fire for 4 hours while on duty at any given time were forced by cuts made under the Conservative government to battle the blaze for 12 hours as residents and locals were evacuated to a safe distance by emergency response units. Sadly, 10 fire stations have been closed in London due to budgetary cuts for emergency response units. The London papers have carried the cries of popular voice and are acknowledging the implicit involvement of the austerity measures on response impacts in scenarios such as these, and lauding the heroic efforts of a solo fireman who ran into the raging inferno to save lives. Whatever the ill nature behind the poor redesign, we can take pride in living in a society with high professional emergency response services shown day in and out.
Fridge-freezer fire trail
It should be noted that the implausibility claims as to exploding fridges should be measured by the 2011 towering inferno at the top of Bermondsey Tower. Beko fridge freezers were recalled after a fire burned through the top four floors before firefighters could get it under control. Original claims led investigators to believe the cause was a lightning strike, that ultimately turned toward these Beko models. A faulty defroster timer switch on the appliances and house fires have shown to be linked.
An estimated 500,000 of the affected devices estimated to be present in homes and businesses across the country, many of which in the capital. London Fire Brigade’s Assistant Commissioner For Fire Safety Regulation remarked after the incident: “Any fire can be lethal but the London Fire Brigade is particularly concerned about this because fires involving any sort of fridge freezer develop rapidly and produce an enormous amount of toxic smoke”.
Perhaps having known about these details and the high prevalence of certain Beko models of high risk fridge freezers in blocks like Grenfell gave the perfect opportunity for a deferred opportunity to move in the developers. Ensure high prevalence of sketchy consumer durables in high rise blocks that one wants to acquire and develop, renovate with highly flammable “aesthetic” coating and reduce fire prevention and action gear to an absolute minimum. No hose reels, alarms, detectors or building regulation checks as to fire-proofing of the materials used to refurbish the blocks.
The narrative of a faulty fridge exploding, sending the entire structure up in flames seems implausible at best, and more likely convenient to have already ascertained the cause so soon after the incident occurred. The events as relayed by mainstream media would have it that: A fridge explodes, fragments ignite the window blinds and then the flammable plastic sheeting added by the £10 million upgrades to renovate the Tower catch alight in a blaze and the entire building is momentarily engulfed in flames. The design was such that the cladding was spaced apart from the buildings superstructure, creating a chimney effect, sucking up the flames greedy for oxygen and fuel. Re-watch the videos of the incident unfurling that were not confiscated by authorities on site and one will find the fire starts and works upwards from the outside in, rather than the usual room to room and floor to floor.
Questioning the cost of upgrades to the Tower
I realise we are in 2017 and £10 million may not go very far, but to have no working sprinklers, no working fire alarms, no working fire hose reels, a highly flammable “pretty” exterior and complaints made by the Grenfell Action Group into fire safety all but dismissed is outrageous. It would be remiss to ignore these as merely minor overlooked details and corrupt opportunistic refurbishment providers colluding with their local government tenancy management company. Perhaps the old adage ‘a suit and a smile always cut the ice’, forget the distorting and twisting of fact and fiction blurring the two.
10 million pocketed or corner cut and short changed and into those back pockets. The inquiry may well reveal a paper trail, but perhaps more conveniently a lack of funds as the simple run of the mill excuse to blame austerity once more for the next crisis in town. A convenient closure and manslaughter charges for one or two refurbishment and tenancy workers. No such accusations will be brought to bear against Mr Philip Davies and other filibustering MPs who talked the hind legs off a donkey to prevent the safety motions from reaching the vote.
Where was the basic fire safety? The windows were new, the heating replaced, and the “pretty” plastic exterior refers to the externally mounted insulation. The purpose was to increase aesthetic of the block in an otherwise affluent neighbourhood, alongside improving environmental friendless of Grenfell Tower.
£60,000 quotes for the lift replacements for Grenfell have been thrown about inattentive as to their accuracy. Having consulted lift technician companies that fit these skyscraper blocks out with low specification grade lifts; this figure appears to be by the floor. In addition to which, Grenfell also had new windows and heating installed. Perhaps the costs were closer to the figured billed after all. The works were carried out while the residents remained in situ. In terms of the culprits that should bear the fault of the 12 deaths today, we should look to the cladding specification that was rated as appropriate by the compliance agency subject to building regulations for fire safety – the building is owned by the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council who have a management agreement with a not-for-profit organisation, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) – and their outsourced, opportunistic contractors as to the corner-cutting and cheap materials that went into the cladding. A further culprit may be the MP textbook filibuster Philip Davies.
Philip Davies – Filibuster and friend to rogue landlords?
The Tory MP for Shipley managed to thwart several bills to prevent abuses. However, the “straight-talking Yorkshireman, unafraid of being controversial”, as self-proclaimed in June 2005 on election, fell lamentably short in his claim to be “brief”. He successfully killed off undesirable legislation by long, meandering speeches. Filibustering is Parliamentary for “talking a bill to death” and Davies was king. Legislation to stop rogue landlords evicting tenants asking for basic repairs? Obstructed. Calls to enshrine Government aid budget in law? Attempted thwart.
More notably the instance of preventing backbenches from making mandatory the installation of smoke detectors fitted into rental and council properties, regulate payday lenders and force councils to provide support for disabled. Time in Commons is limited, and bills can be de-railed and not even carried to the vote if enough MPs carry on talking until the time allocated for debate has been used up. The only means whereby our House of Commons can avoid such outlandish scenarios is by 100 MPs voting for closure on the motion in hand – something that may be hard to achieve when most are absent from the House at any given debate.
It has always really been an issue of class in this country. Men over women and children, over the blacks and ethnics. And then further subdivided as would reveal convenient. Cue Grenfell.
Philip Davies and Christopher Chope have talked into the ground legislation intended to protect the poor and marginalised in exploitative landlord hearings. The indifference shown by certain MPs to the errant cost cutting for landlords and non-mandatory attitude to safety protocols for remedial repairs and fire have endangered the vulnerable in London’s highrises. Meanwhile their financiers and the shady refurbishment companies are equally culpable as rogue opportunists.
The only noteworthy incidence where enough MPs have been present at the behest of their constituencies expressed requests for attendance and participation were on international aid commitments and healthcare reforms, wherein supporters of the bills were forced to issue a Whip on their members and muster more than the minimum 100 MP’s to table a closure motion and force the legislation to a vote.
A comparative analysis
One may be forgiven for thinking this sort of underhand practice only takes place in corrupt third world countries. The more shocking and perhaps overlooked details point to the sheer audacity of these actions taking place in 2017 England.
Baldia Town’s 2012 fires in Karachi, Pakistan are now practically forgotten history to the meek cultural memory these days. However, the precedent is all too similarly convenient, compromising lives of factory workers and local residential blocks as collateral damage to raise the profile of the area so opportunistic investors can swoop in. Similarly, “Skid Row” in downtown Los Angeles was famous for its homeless community for the past 50 years, not being evicted as the area is gentrified to make way for luxury serviced apartments like those at Medici near the Financial Quarter catering to high fashion students and investment banking interns.
Warnington Green, closer to home in London, has seen the poor shipped out to reallocated residences in subsidiary periphery towns Oxford and Reading, meanwhile the cleared area leaves prime London residential property potential for multi-million pound flats catering to the foreign investor market. All manner of methods are deployed by the conniving big business developers eager to get a piece of the action. Distraction techniques such as feeble weak handed politics or crisis in this or that seems to strike at the opportune moment it comes to clear an area for redevelopment sans the original residents – usually ‘undesirable’ ethnics, immigrants or marginalised workers. For Britain, many call the race card, however, this came later to divide the poor into subcategories. It has always really been an issue of class in this country. Men over women and children, over the blacks and ethnics. And then further subdivided as would reveal convenient. Cue Grenfell.
The historical context
The Conservative government should not be fully acknowledged as to blame for the high rises initially. Labour built the concrete jungles as a failed social housing programme to cater for the lack of viable residential land and rising population. Eviction from Victorian terraces into concrete skylines – the future was not half bright. Conservative cutbacks and recent prolonged austerity programmes have led to the declining quality standards for these council tenanted builds, among other passed planning permissions on structures and gentrifications.
Confiscation of Evidence
Curiously, the evidence begins to mount. Local bystanders have complained and appealed to the authorities and media that their phones that filmed the fire spreading upwards through the cladding chimney have been confiscated, evidence kept under wraps rather than requested to be sent in. Whether the council covering up their sloppy handiwork in the affair or otherwise, these actions are suspect when they are carried out by members of law enforcement.
The first-person interviews and reports from local residents appear to have been dismissed or negated on account of incorrect recollection or traumatising events. It seems to gloss over the question of class. Many of the tenants were immigrants and represent a lower class that is deemed undesirable and so unfit for interview to present to the mainstream public eye. Conveniently there were bountiful well-educated expert pundits and police chief commissioners and fire deputies to comment on the blaze. One only need look at the YouTube clips from the incident.
Social cleansing in Kensington and Chelsea appears to take the form of create an incident that allows eviction from the area and rehousing with the tag-on option to regenerate the area to be more socially acceptable for rich elites to reside and invest. One such man who has considerable background influence and is likely poised to benefit is Frank Lowy. He owns Westfields. The mall in Kenya that was attacked was owned by himself, and speculation his security did not pursue threats seriously, but instead raised insurance protection on the centre fell on deaf ears to the cries for ISIL heads. Grenfell Tower is adjacent to Westfield Shopping Centre. Following the money trails to who would benefit from the opportunity and there, concealed among the rubble and ashened concrete, is convenience, if not discrete motive. This may sound more appropriate in downtown Guangzhou evicting the local squatter settlements as the city expands or Russian Oligarchs wanting to demolish old Soviet Union numbered blocks for something a little more upmarket and desirable for their clientele.
It always seems to bore down to class struggles when it comes to social injustice in the UK. Why it strikes people as surprising when we see ethnic minorities and marginalised working-class voices reeling on live television after they have lost their families or been affected by yet another catastrophe baffles the culturally imbued thinker. Times like these expose stark inequalities in society. The desperate in society would not choose to live in these death traps were there another way or feasible alternative. The council seems just as culpable as the corner-cutting refurbishment company assuring standards and protocol were met, doubly so through ignoring cries of concern as a matter of gross negligence on the RBKC part. A preventable disaster that highlights the social and ethnic cleansing by class organisation, disregarding the rights of communities that are deemed undesirable, and so should be subject to regeneration to remove their blight on the property that surrounds them.
I rest my case that manslaughter is the charge for the filibustering MPs deliberately lining their pockets by big time developers and landlords, through to the lack of concern and contempt shown by the council and their tenant management company, with the worst charges going to those who promise safety with their product in receiving £10 million to make alterations, without either the means or willingness to carry out the renovations to a scrutinised standard.
Economic marginalisation and segregation at its finest. As Desmond Tutu once espoused action in lieu of inaction and complacency in the face of wrongdoing: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” We too should demand answers. If these are not satisfactory, then we should demand change. TMM