Spectators of this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions were, unsurprisingly, greeted with the familiar sight of Britain’s highest elected officials jeering across the Commons Chamber. While such behaviour has become an embarrassing tradition, this moment was particularly egregious.
As a cluster of Tory MPs heckled at opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn for his bright green tie, it fell to rebukes from former Prime Minister Theresa May to silence them, explaining that his ‘fashion statement’ was in fact a tribute to the survivors and victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire.
Corbyn’s symbolic tie marked the publication of the government’s official inquiry into the tragedy, a lengthy process that has sought to establish who is responsible for the fire that killed 72 people. This interaction epitomises just how quickly the nation has forgotten the events of 14 June 2017. With the ceaseless bureaucracy and debates over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and its ever-changing deadline, the public and politicians alike risk ignoring the domestic issues that most devastatingly affect the British population in favour of hypothetical ideas of ‘the nation’ being fought between a divided electorate. It has become all too easy to leave Grenfell behind, yet such amnesia is an injustice both to those affected by the fires, and pressingly to the estimated 40,000 people occupying equally combustible housing.
The Grenfell Tower fire refreshed a national public conversation about the tangible effects of austerity. Never so clearly in recent memory could cost-cutting and reduction of services be measured in human lives. We questioned, as a nation, whether more people might have been saved with greater investment in emergency services. One of the most controversial contributors to the Grenfell fire was the building’s cladding, a cheaper, more flammable alternative to traditional materials which has been deemed a significant contributor to the rapid spread of the flames. Following the fire, investigations into similar structures across the UK found that hundreds of buildings – hospitals, residential flats, offices – have unsafe cladding that fails fire safety tests. While some buildings have been closed until they meet safety standards, many remain in use while the government, councils, and private owners negotiate the costs of renovations. As if this wasn’t bad enough, new figures estimate that the £40m public cost of the inquiry thus far outstrips the savings made through the cladding 100-fold – and ironically makes up a sizable chunk of the £100m cuts to the London Fire Brigade endorsed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson under his mayorship.
The inquiry has produced some positive changes: buildings must now have emergency evacuation plans, with additional personal provisions for those unable to evacuate independently. It has found systemic failings within the LFB, putting pressure on the service to improve communication between incident commanders, control rooms, and emergency responders, and formally questioning the ‘stay put’ policy that dissuaded residents from abandoning their flats before becoming trapped. It’s a start, but it is not enough.
The challenge comes in enacting these changes – reports find that many factors exacerbating the Grenfell fire were flagged following the Lakanal House fire in 2009, yet never acted upon. A long line of failures marks the government’s response to Grenfell, from the insufficient rehousing of residents, to Theresa May’s failing to meet survivors in the aftermath. The only response now is to address the underlying causes that led the fire to spread to such devastating effects, and vitally re-evaluate the capitalist ideologies that place profit margins over human lives.
The search for justice for the victims of Grenfell Tower continues, with the ongoing Metropolitan Police’s investigation and the second phase of the government’s inquiry – both of which will consider the deregulation and negligence, as well as the health and safety violations involved in the tower’s fatal refurbishment. Like the Grenfell Tower survivors in attendance at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions and parliamentary debates on the inquiry, we as a nation must continue to hold those in power to account, against the distractions of our divided political system.
Image: Marathon via geograph.org