The utter heartbreak and horror of this week's tragedy at Grenfell Tower in London beggars belief. This should never, ever have happened. We live in a world where buildings can and must be safe, fires can be contained and danger properly averted. It should not have been possible for such a fire to rage through a newly refurbished building. Residents should not have been told to ‘stay put’ in the event of fire - what incompetence led to that instruction? And laws governing basic building and fire safety should have been passed - and enforced - years ago.
In the early 1980s I worked as a journalist in East London and the outskirts of Essex. Social housing had been thrown up after the Second World War to provide accommodation for people displaced during that conflict, closely followed by the 1960s high-rise flats, probably the most ill-conceived social housing ever constructed. These buildings were - without exception - damp, cold, dangerous and always a high fire risk. We campaigned hard for housing improvements (I remember challenging a local mayor to go and live in the flats to see how he would cope) but we had entered the Thatcher era with its mass sell-off of council housing, so then, as now, few politicians considered or cared for the tenants’ plight. While some tenants bought and and renovated their homes, most were trapped in decaying, sub-standard housing stock that nobody (with the power to do anything) sought to improve. Anything that was done was done to a bare minimum, in keeping with Thatcherian philosophy. The same story blanketed London and, despite decades of promises, repair, renewal and provision of social housing has been discarded and dismissed by politicians time and again.
So here we are today. Counting deaths. Counting injuries. Counting broken lives. Counting families destroyed. Despite countless opportunities over forty years to make buildings safe. Countless technological developments, advances in construction methods, availability of alarms and fail-safe devices. None of it implemented. None of it deemed worthwhile for the high-rise families of Grenfell Tower and elsewhere.
There are countless Grenfell Towers out there - all tragedies waiting to happen. Conservative governments have been quick to introduce legislation - when it suits the powerful - at times with indecent haste. If the current crop of newly elected parliamentarians have an ounce of mercy or decency between them, legislation must be introduced and enforced, with immediate effect, that leads to all UK rental properties brought up to modern living standards with fire safety systems and sprinklers upgraded or installed along with effective emergency plans and communications in place before the end of 2017.
It is scandalous this tragedy has occurred. It will be criminal neglience if government fails to implement immediate change in every rented home and social housing complex in the UK. And let it be a terrible and tragic warning to other governments, local authorities and landlords who continue to carelessly accommodate the substandard and the unsafe.
My heart breaks for everyone in that tower and all those who love them. I am - as I'm sure are many others - trying very hard to contain sheer fury at the neglect and disregard shown to them by those who, through the privilege of power, had countless chances to prevent this tragedy.
Photo by Natalie Oxford - https://twitter.com/Natalie_Oxford/status/874835244989513729/photo/1, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59913134 via Wikipedia