Grenfell Tower – what stories will be told?

Note from Better Way London cell 1 – 13 July 2017

We think that what happened at Grenfell has the power to significantly influence the post-Austerity narrative which has just begun to be opened up and it will undoubtedly shape future policy on social housing and possibly public services in important ways.  We’ve been here before.  We were reminded about The Story of Baby P which documented what actually happened but also found that it was the ‘political story’, rather than the facts, that shaped the changes in social policy that followed, and not necessarily for the good.  This is something we think is likely to happen in the case of Grenfell.  We’d like to influence that narrative if we can.

There are clearly many angles to the Grenfell story, with vested interests seeking to skew things in various directions (eg national government wanting to highlight local authority failures).  Some elements of what happened will only be clear once the facts are fully established.   But what is evident now is that the voices of residents, who had been raising concerns in their building for years, were not heard and their expertise based on lived experience was undervalued.  

This is in contrast to what happened at Ronan Point (as documented by Frances Clarke from Community Links in the Guardian).   There, residents and campaigners - aided and amplified by Community Links, an architectural expert and his students and the Evening Standard – managed to get the building tested and eventually demolished, along with many others like it across the country (though this was only half a success, as wider lessons were not learnt, as demonstrated by the recent tragedy).  One of the campaigners in Glasgow remains active to this day, and in Glasgow building standards in tower blocks are apparently higher today.

The moral of these two stories, we thought, was that society would be so much better if we can get the best out of all of us.  What happened after Grenfell does illustrate this to a degree, despite the chaos and terrible weaknesses it also exposed.  The many acts of kindness, the breakdown of communication barriers between rich and poor local residents as a result of individual and corporate acts of care, the individual voices that have now been heard in the media, these have all led to insights that before were lacking and new potential alliances. The human right to a safe place to live, which has been lost in the tangle of what looks like weakened regulation and enforcement, limited budgets and possible profiteering, has risen to the surface again.  

It is so easy to see the Grenfell story in terms of conflict, eg rich versus poor, state power versus citizen’s rights - and there may be justication in this.  But we all agreed that this was potentially a “teachable moment” in which new inclusive alliances could be built, unexpected allies created, and fundamental rights acknowledged and protected.  In the face of understandable anger, it is important not to assume that everyone else is the enemy or to assert that one party has a monopoly on the truth: others, also, have insights into what has happened and forensic approaches to establishing the facts are important, alongside the need for empathy and listening to those who have suffered.  

Ronan Point was demolished because of a coalition between those who had expertise through lived experience (eg residents who could smell cooking through the floor from two stories down who knew therefore that any fire could not be fully self-contained, despite “expert” assurances to the contrary) and experts, academics and the media. If this could have happened when local residents raised concerns in Grenfell Tower, perhaps the tragedy would have been averted.

It is often true, as Danny Kruger argues in his Spectator think piece, that change ultimately only happens when one member of the elite persuades the rest of the elite, but such change is far more likely to happen when these kind of coalitions are built and in particular where local people are given power in the debate.  This is not a matter of “giving” people’s voices, or enabling them to speak, we thought.  People already have voices and in the era of social media have no difficulty expressing that voice.  Indeed, the residents of Grenfell Tower were articulate and well informed and had made their points persistently.  

The shift needed here is to create cultures and environments in which those voices are heard.  Public services and politicians struggle to hear within existing structures and constraints and need support and facilitation.  Papers like the Sun and Daily Mail can appear to be the enemy but could be an important force, if harnessed.  It is a core role of the voluntary sector to help voices be heard, we observed.  But it is not doing this job well, we thought (though this was not the case with Community Links and Ronan Point).  

Finally, an interesting point about backlash and Ronan Point.  Local people who were homeless in B & Bs were very angry with those who wanted to demolish Ronan Point as they just wanted a roof over their heads and this frustration broke out in destructive ways. This may happen again.  Their voice must be heard too if Grenfell is not to result just in widescale demolition in a way that simply fuels the housing crisis and results in currently homeless people being pushed further down the waiting lists.