Grenfell fire : An issue of inequality?

In times of human tragedy, complex issues that are so often unclear become illuminated. The tower block fire in West London was such a case. Last year on the 14th of June 2017, Grenfell tower block was engulfed by fire and killed 71 people, acting as a torch to highlight the blatant inequality in the UK. For when the welfare of the poor is no longer deemed important to the government or to the people, there is a serious issue.

The criminal misconduct in the Grenfell fire has pulled focus onto a deeper, more complex moral and systematic failing of those in positions of power. Even prior to the fire, conservative politics have been and still are attempting to gentrify public housing estates. The estates that were built initially to provide a safety net for the most deprived in society. The seemingly innocuous redevelopment projects in reality lead to the eviction of people from their homes and the land used for demolition. This land is then sold on for profit, to private developers. Whilst councils, who desperately need to build new affordable public housing, have their funding cut. Albeit effort being made by South London campaigners, who according to Guardian “have drawn up detailed plans showing how their estates could be refurbished at lower cost and without forcing people to move”. So it is somewhat ominous that plans such as these be turned away and one cannot help but contemplate that perhaps the welfare of its citizens are not the priority.

The Independent claims that the ‘number of government-funded social homes has fallen by 97% since Conservatives took office’. The privatisation of housing only increased the lack of responsiveness from companies that owned the buildings, whose main interests were motivated by profit, not health and safety. The clear dereliction of duty can be seen in the Inadequate and outdated fire safety regulations.  In particular, how through a misguided refurbishment plan they chose to cut corners by using less fire retardant cladding on the building, which only further escalated the fire.

One Grenfell resident Christos Fairburn recalls the panic and terror he felt that fateful morning,  ‘I realised if don’t go I would die here die here’. Despite the thick black smoke emanating from his door Christos bravely fought his way down from the 15th floor.  ‘I couldn’t breathe but I kept going. I could feel myself tripping over in the dark, tripping over bodies’. He remembers getting to the fourth floor, choking, unable to breathe and feeling faint.  ‘I collapsed and that’s when I felt a firefighter grab me’. Sadly so many were not so lucky to escape with their lives.

In Grenfell tower the social composition of the residents was mostly either black or of other ethnic minorities (BBC News). In the UK the white population still has the lowest poverty rates of 20%.  Even more poignantly, according to Geographer Danny Dorling, the vast majority of children who live above the 4th floor of tower blocks in London and Birmingham, similar to that of Grenfell, are Black children. So, amidst the clear mistreatment of the community in Grenfell tower, there is a clear racial issue of inequality too. One source from the New York Times who was a resident of Grenfell said that “Because we weren’t white, no one cared when they said their homes were dangerous”.

Would a tower block full of white British nationals have been treated so negligently? Would it have subsequently burnt down?

Fundamentally, Inequality affects the quality and cohesion of the social environment in a society . This can be partly explained by the fact that society is is a ranked system,  in that the wealthy such as politicians and Lawyers sit at the top of the proverbial food chain and those who are unemployed and live in housing estates, much like that of Grenfell tower sit at the bottom.  This desire for rank status impacts social cohesion because it causes people to live purely as individuals and not as a community. Whereby, pursuits of self-aggrandisement and power are weighted higher than for instance helping your fellow neighbour. In so creating a distinct divisiveness between the groups in the social hierarchy (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2017). Treating those superior than yourself with a level of deference and those below you with contempt.

Although many complaints were made prior to the fire, nothing was done to resolve these significant issues, which would have saved lives. The Prime minister Theresa May, when speaking to the house of commons, took partial responsibility for the fire. She apologised for ‘the failure of the state’. Yet when 71 people have already died little if nothing can truly be said or done to compensate for such an event.   

Tragedies such as that of Grenfell tower, are partly to blame for a society that is self-serving and apathetic to need of others. In the pursuit of status, community ideals of reciprocity are lost and the poorest suffer.

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