[dropcap style=”font-size:100px;color:#992211;”]I[/dropcap]t is one year since the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in London, an event that will be commemorated by a vigil and silent march held by relatives of the victims and neighbours of the council housing estate that went up in flames killing 72 people and injuring and traumatizing hundreds more in the Notting Hill community.
The public inquiry into the disaster, that opened last month with a series of highly charged and emotional tributes to those who died in the event, giving a valuable and intimate insight into the individual lives that made up the families of the fatalities and survivors, will carry on for many more months. It will hopefully examine all aspects of the failings by the Kensington and Chelsea local authority and their string of sub-contractors who fixed poor quality flammable material, like cheap cladding and poorly fitted uPVC windows, to the structure over the last few years.
After my initial visits to the scene of the catastrophe last year, when I interviewed and photographed survivors, stakeholders and activists, I was moved to follow part of the trail that led to inadequacies in many other council properties that had similar potentially harmful materials installed, a quest that inevitably took me to explore some of the much broader issues that have created the huge social housing crisis in London and in the rest of the country.
That response was yet another example of
the proprietor applying a plaster to a gaping wound,
rather than addressing the real problems of chronic
bad upkeep over the years.
Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow council tenants the right to buy their homes at a discount in the 1980s fuelled a sharp rise in home ownership, with the consequent decline in affordable accommodation.
By the 1990s, rules banning councils from borrowing money put an end to council house building. The provision of new social housing was left to housing associations that, as independent landlords, are allowed to borrow private finance. Wages have failed to keep pace with spiralling housing costs, making even the cheapest boroughs close to unaffordable for low- to middle-earners. It is no longer just public sector key workers who are reliant on subsidised housing provision, but young professionals across the board.
Recent research by the think-tank Centre for London, confirms that, as a result, council waiting lists are becoming stricter, homelessness and rough sleeping is rising, and a shortage of available council homes means more local authorities are relying on temporary accommodation to meet their statutory obligations.
The first alarm bells after the Grenfell fire sounded in the nearby borough of Camden, where the leader of the council, Georgia Gould, asked residents of four tower blocks to evacuate their homes due to fire safety problems since the cladding material that had been fitted to those properties was identical to the one that went so easily up in flames in Notting Hill. It was a bold and brave move by the Labour Party councilor, and one that was resisted and criticized by some occupants and sectors of the Conservative press.
However, a few months later, with the removal of the material completed and the tenants back in their homes, it seems that, at the time, it was the only sensible path to follow. But that complex and costly operation was only a speck of dust in the vast desert of the probably other hundreds of tower blocks that had been recklessly fitted with the same murderous layers of plastic over the last few years.
The ‘Save Cressingham Gardens’ campaign
is challenging the local authority’s decision
to demolish the well-designed, green estate
And lethal cladding is only one of the many issues that bedevil ageing and poorly maintained council properties. Last August, a gas leak in one of the flats in the Ledbury estate in Peckham, south London, forced the Southwark local authority to cut the supply to their dozens of residents for many days, while emergency workers tried to fix the problem. In the meantime, they were provided with small electric hot plates, and given free tokens to take showers at the local leisure centre. That response was yet another example of the proprietor applying a plaster to a gaping wound, rather than addressing the real problems of chronic bad upkeep over the years.
Not far away, in the borough of Lambeth, a different example of negligence and greed by a council has been uniting the neighbours in a long fought campaign against demolition of their award-winning low-rise housing complex. The ‘Save Cressingham Gardens’ campaign is challenging the local authority’s decision to demolish the well-designed, green estate on the edge of Brockwell Park that is home to a tightly knit community – many of who are old and infirm – and sell it to private developers who will bulldoze the gardens and build a gated development of multi-storey apartment blocks.
The campaigners, many of whom have attended the monthly vigils in Notting Hill, in solidarity with the victims, hope that the harrowing testimonies of the survivors and relatives of the Grenfell tragedy help to change the attitude of government, local authorities and public and private providers of social housing so that they can start listening and delivering secure and affordable accommodation to the millions of people that genuinely need it in this country.
Julio Etchart is a documentary photographer, poet and artist.