The flames hadn’t even been extinguished from Grenfell Tower before people started screaming that no one should “politicise” this tragedy. As I type this, though, at least 12 people are dead, and authorities expect that number to drastically climb. Most of those who perished, or who lost everything in the flames, were Black and Minority Ethnic people, and they were all poor (the nature of living on a council estate).
We are talking about some of the most marginalised and oppressed people in our society dying in a hellish inferno, so the very nature of the discourse around what happened at Grenfell Tower is innately political whether we want it to be or not. The fact is, Grenfell Tower—from the residents’ years of documented complaints about safety to the fact is lies in the richest borough in London—is a stark reminder of whose voices get listened to in modern Britain, whose don’t, and that this dichotomy can have deadly consequences.
We don’t yet know what caused the fire. But what we do know is that tenants had for years being raising concerns about how the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), to which the local council had delegated management of the tower, were cutting corners on safety and refusing to listen to tenant concerns.
They did, however, just complete a £10 million regeneration project to improve the aesthetic of the building. Planning documents note this was, in part, done to improve the view from surrounding conservation areas and luxury tower blocks. This refurbishment included adding a material to the exterior of the building [that] may have allowed the blaze to quickly spread throughout the tower instead of being contained to the flat in which it originated, as was supposed to happen.
Despite this, resident concerns about smoke coming from electrical appliances and outlets, the state of fire escapes, and the elimination of a car park, which slowed emergency response vehicles getting to the tower, were ignored in the regeneration. Rather than catering to the actual needs of residents, KCTMO focused on improving the tower block for those who lived around, not in it, who just so happened to be largely white and wealthy individuals.
It’s clear who had the power and privilege here, and it wasn’t the tenants. What happened at Grenfell Tower is part of a larger issue of structural inequality in general, and housing, in particular, in which the poor (who are often, though not always, BME) are pushed out of quality housing in favour of regenerating the city for affluent and largely white renters and buyers.
Earlier this year, the Conservative Party voted down a bill that would have required to make landlords provide liveable housing, and it’s easy to understand why. By The Guardian’s reckoning, 39% of Tory MPs were landlords, with nearly a quarter of MPs across all parties owning rental properties. There’s very clearly a disincentive for MPs to vote in favour of this.
Meanwhile, Right-to-Buy has allowed the number of council flats to fall to an all-time low and failed to replace them with adequate social housing. Throughout the capital, from Westminster to Walthamstow, poor people are being pushed to the fringes of Zone 8 and having their very real concerns about safety and quality ignored in favour if profit for buy-to-let landlords and a Tory government that wants to see social housing privatised.
In the case of Grenfell Tower, we can’t ignore the presence of so many poor BME people. We must look at structural inequalities that allowed this tragedy to occur. We don’t talk a lot about the intersection of race and poverty in Britain, in part because the British class structure is so entrenched. There are, after all, loads of poor white people too. But studies have shown that whilst 20% of white people are low income, this number increases for ethnic minorities. Across the board, BME people are twice as likely to be low income than white people.
Kensington and Chelsea is 71% white. It has a higher proportion of high earners than anywhere else in the country. More people work in banking there than anywhere else in Britain, whilst fewer people work in retail than anywhere else. The poor and BME community in Kensington and Chelsea, including those in Grenfell Tower, simply aren’t the core constituency of the local council and, evidence suggests, KCTMO, who should have been putting their interest above everyone else’s but clearly were not.
In the last parliament only 6% of MPs and peers were BME, compared to 13% of the country. This increased to one in 13 in this parliament, but the educational disparity between MPs is still stark—45% of Tory MPs were privately educated, and a whopping 86% of MPs are university graduates—numbers far higher than the national average.
The residents of Grenfell Tower didn’t have much of a voice in Parliament, and they don’t have much of a voice in the local council. Yet they were trying desperately to make their voices heard. It’s why, according to Rachel Obordo, who grew up in Ladbroke Grove, where Grenfell Tower is, the constituency flipped to Labour for the first time in history, by a margin of only 20 votes. The borough’s low-income residents were fed up with being ignored, and they made their voices heard.
Obordo writes of a stark contrast between leafy South Kensington and more impoverished North Kensington, with everything from overcrowding to public services such as rubbish collection being better for the affluent South than the North. It seems that the local council, and the management company it employed to oversee Grenfell Tower, also cared more about the wealthy Sloanes of South Kensington than it did the impoverished BME people to the north. And now untold numbers of them are dead because of it.
The scale of this tragedy is yet to be known, but it looks to be utterly incomprehensible and heartbreaking. We can only grieve for those we’ve lost and demand that we never lose anyone again because the local government and parliament cares more about rich white people than poor Black and Brown people. The tragedy of Grenfell Tower is one of both race and class, and it’s time we acknowledge a few hard truths about systemic inequality in Britain - before another senseless and unbearable tragedy occurs.
Photo: View of Grenfell Tower after the tragic fire, June 2017. Source: Dan Kitwood via Getty Images.