During last year’s Brexit campaign, both the Leave and Remain camps tried to use Britain’s economic health to bolster their respective causes. Remain argued that the country’s economy, the world’s fifth-largest, was proof it should remain in the European Union, so prosperous had the past few decades been; Leave took it as evidence that membership was unnecessary, and ultimately won the day.
Since Leave’s victory, Britain has slipped to sixth in the economic rankings. Yet either position, fifth or sixth, is misleading: Broadly speaking, Britain is an economically average country, with one exceptionally rich region—London, which is reportedly home to more multimillionaires and billionaires than any other city in the world, and serves as the country’s economic engine. Of the EU’s 15 strongest economies, none rely as heavily on one area as the U.K. does: London’s per capita GDP is almost two and a half times Britain’s national average. But London’s enviable self-confidence, its robust financial services sector, and glittering facade, obscure the devastating inequality that plagues the U.K. While the city is Britain’s lone representative among the 10 richest regions in northern Europe, the country also includes a stunning nine of northern Europe’s 10 poorest regions.
The fire that ripped through Grenfell Tower in west London was a horrific reminder of the violent contradictions on which this city and country rest. Before being reduced to a cindered skeleton in the early hours of June 14, Grenfell Tower, which opened in 1974, was home to hundreds. The 24-floor building of 120 one- and two-bedroom flats stood in the northwestern quarter of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). This borough is the wealthiest constituency in Britain, and one of its most unequal. Within its 12 square kilometers, Kensington Palace—the royal residence of Dukes, Duchesses, Princes, and Princesses—and Kensington Park Gardens, London’s most expensive street, sit just a short walk from Grenfell Tower and its surroundings, which are some of the most deprived areas in England.
While the full human cost of the Grenfell fire has yet to emerge, the facts we do know are horrific and damning. Last year, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO), the non-profit group that manages the estate on behalf of RBKC’s council, completed an £8.7-million refurbishment of the building. It involved covering the exterior in cladding to improve its insulation and appearance. The cheap, flammable material used, it is now known, was £2-cheaper per square meter than the fire-resistant alternative. Its use on tower blocks is banned in several countries, including the United States and Germany. The £8.7-million, it seems, could not stretch so far as to afford a sprinkler-system for the block, functioning fire alarms in the rooms and corridors, or ventilation systems in the stairwells.
In the aftermath of the fire, at least two of the firms responsible for the refurbishment have seemingly removed reference to their specific roles from their websites. The final, fatal result turned Grenfell Tower into a “death trap,” as the front page of the Evening Standard raged the following day. The death toll currently stands at 79; it is expected to rise even higher.
Many residents and local members of the community sounded the alarm about the building long before the fire. A blog post from 2016 by Grenfell Action Group, an advocacy association for residents, hammered home this point:
It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders….
Not only were many warnings from residents ignored; officials threatened them with legal action (in 2012, cuts introduced by the Conservative-led coalition government to legal aid almost ended financial support for housing cases entirely). The author of the blog post, which has gone viral since the fire, was accused of “harassment” by the Conservative-run council. “ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS,” one of the top blog post of Grenfell Action Group’s site now reads.
While this fire could have happened almost anywhere in Britain, it seems that it could not have happened to anyone: Only the most-vulnerable members of British society could be treated with such contempt. Nor is it a coincidence that so many of the residents were of ethnic minority groups; many were Muslim. According to The Guardian, Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at Oxford, “has shown that black and minority-ethnic people in social housing are disproportionately housed in flats.”
On Friday, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, aptly labeled the Grenfell story as “a tale of two cities”—a Dickensian tragedy played out in the 21st century, with all the modern flourishes: high-definition footage of the fire live-streamed, minute-by-minute media updates, occasional Facebook statuses from those trapped inside, and then crowd-funding initiatives set up to deal with the fall-out. New props for very old problems: poverty and inequality.
Indeed, the speed of the fire—within minutes, it had spread from the fourth floor to the top of the building, engulfing the entire structure in just a few hours—belied the creeping slowness with which its causes stacked up. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower goes beyond cladding, the contempt of the KCTMO, or the Conservative-run council. The ultimate responsibility lies with the British state, a succession of governing bodies that, over time, have imposed a political system that readily entrusts the safety of citizens to market mechanisms.
This ideology, maintained to various degrees over the past few decades, places austerity above all else. Many local authorities now view it as their duty to spend as little as possible on their residents, and in many cases have no choice. The borough of RBKC may fall more easily into the former bracket, with reports claiming it holds a £274 million contingency fund. But it did not come to embrace such parsimony on its own: It was endorsed by the highest echelons of Britain’s political class, Conservative and Labour alike.
Between 1979 and 1990, Margaret Thatcher spearheaded reductions in council funding and encouraged the outsourcing of local services like no one else before her. Tony Travers, the British academic and journalist, has called it an “11-year war” on local government. The New Labour years that followed, between 1997 and 2010, did not surrender any ground: “We are all Thatcherites now,” Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair’s trusted adviser, famously declared in 2002. Regulations and responsibilities traded hands, and by the 2000s, 85 percent of local government expenditures were being determined by the central government, up from 60 percent in the 1970s. Then, from 2010 on, Conservative prime minister David Cameron (a Kensington resident) took on the task with particular relish. Slashing the deficit became the overarching priority of his two governments, with local authorities charged with implementing the policy.
Consequently, the local authorities’ spending has been reduced by 37 percent since 2010, and is expected to fall even further over the coming years. Housing-service budgets partly pay for property-inspection to ensure homes meet basic standards—and they have been slashed by a quarter over the same period. In 2012, a telling pamphlet was distributed to local councils by the department for communities and local government. Entitled “50 Ways to Save: Examples of sensible savings in local governments,” its helpful suggestions for councils highlight the pressures placed on them. The suggestions include: “claw back money from benefit cheats,” “sell services,” “stop translating documents into foreign languages,” “earn more from private advertising,” and do not “routinely spend time and money on Equality Impact Assessments.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party’s long-standing and deep-rooted opbposition to state-imposed fire and safety regulations is also likely to have laid the ground for the Grenfell Fire. For decades, Conservatives have harbored a unique disdain for so-called government “red tape” that supposedly stands in the way of British businesses. Whereas the Labour Party was complicit in hollowing out council funding and outsourcing public services to private companies, on this particular score—the state’s failure to ensure that bare-minimum safety standards were met—the Conservative Party will stand all but alone in the interrogation booth.
Cameron’s government sought to loosen the regulations and formalities private firms must comply with, on the premise that this would liberate private developers to build more housing, an area where the country and the capital suffer a chronic shortage. Cameron made this ambition clear wherever he could. Speaking at the Conservative Party conference in October 2011, he declared that the “shadow of health and safety” was “one of the biggest things holding people back. … Britannia didn’t rule the waves with arm-bands on,” he quipped. In a January 2012 speech, Cameron then revealed his government’s new year’s resolution “to kill off the health and safety culture for good.” He argued that it had become an “albatross around the neck of British business,” a “health and safety monster” that contributed to “pointless time-wasting.” He wrote an article in the Evening Standard, opining on how it “saps personal responsibility and drains enterprise” and is “smothering” Britain’s “real pioneering, risk-taking spirit.” “We need to realize … that some accidents are inevitable,” he wrote.
This desire to de-regulate industry was not for the sake of the public— it was simply the other side of austerity: The more rules there are to impose, the more government must be there to impose them. Take away the rules, take away the need for government; let business run free. Boris Johnson (another Kensington resident) also wrote in 2009 that “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people.” As the mayor of London between 2008 and 2015, he would then go on to close 10 fire stations in the capital, cutting 27 fire engines and around 600 firefighter posts, with “savings of over £28-million.” In 2014, Conservative MP Brandon Lewis, the housing minister at the time, neatly summed up the Tory stance: “It is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.” Now we know where such blind faith in the market can lead.
Grenfell Tower is a scar on London’s skyline, and it will not fade even when the building is finally brought down. It is a reminder that the wealth of any city or nation is no protection for the safety of its citizens, whether it is fifth, sixth, or first in the rankings. Whatever the immediate causes of the fire, a bundle of government policies lay buried within its walls, so much tinder and fuel for the flames to take light.