I have been predicting for some years that eventually the government’s policy on austerity would cause so much damage that people would be forced to fight back. Little did I know that it would take a tragedy in a tower block in one of the richest boroughs in the UK to act as a catalyst for this.
The tragic fire is a symbol of all that is wrong in Britain today. Growing inequality and poverty have been thrown into sharp relief as some of the poorest in our society have died and suffered because of possible negligence and lack of investment following years of government’s cuts. I’m sure that the Public Enquiry will discuss many reasons for the disaster but there is no doubt that the long term neglect and demonisation of social housing and its tenants is one of them.
Survivors, relatives and supporters of those involved in the disaster are justifiably angry at the lack of response from local and central government. They are angry that their warnings were ignored by those who managed and owned the tower block. They are angry that promises made since the disaster will not be honored. Mainly because the government’s housing policy, or lack of it, means there is a huge shortage of genuinely affordable social housing in the borough, in London and elsewhere. They are angry because they feel they are being ignored because they are poor and live in social housing. They ask quite rightly, would their rich neighbors be treated in the same way?
If the authorities continue to ignore their grievances and continue with the inadequate response I am certain that there will be an escalation of the protests. If the local authority and the government continue with the failed policies of the past, those who have suffered for so long will no longer remain silent and now they will have the support of many others. There is no going back. The government must change its approach to social housing. It must deal quickly with the immediate aftermath of the fire and then put into place a long term strategy of investment in real social housing. They must finance the building of desperately needed social rented homes that will ease the housing crisis and reduce the poverty gap. They must fund the improvement of existing homes to ensure that such a tragedy cannot happen in future. The local authority and the government have lost the trust of those who live locally and those who live in similar communities elsewhere. Only by listening and acting swiftly to the justified complaints will they begin to rebuild that trust. It will not happen overnight. It will take time and real investment of money and resources.
As a longtime supporter of social housing I am concerned that there is a similar lack of trust in housing associations. Many are no longer seen as the supporters of the poor but as bodies who through their policies contribute to social cleansing and the divisions that are so apparent in Kensington and other parts of London and in our major cities. Not only is it time for the government to change its approach, housing associations must change also and return to their original social purpose. Any talk of further gderegulation of housing associations must stop. Surely no government would agree to this anyway in the current circumstances. Many large housing associations are seen to have lost touch with their tenants and local communities. It is time to rebuild these links through action not words.
There is no way to compensate for the deaths of so many and for the suffering of their relatives, friends and survivors. But if the tragedy could act as a catalyst for real change in our approach to social housing and its tenants, that would be the best memorial we could build for those who have suffered and died.