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A march on the one year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. Photo: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

You’ll never edit Grenfell

United Kingdom
Housing

It has now been more than one year since the fire at Grenfell Tower and many feel that justice is still just a word. Dozens of affected families are still living in hotels. No arrests have been made, aside from those relating to fraudulent compensation claims. Grenfell-style cladding still threatens at least 158 high-rise blocks – and that’s not counting those owned privately or the many schools and hospitals using similar materials.

Theresa May recently allocated £400m for the removal of dangerous cladding on social blocks, an announcement made alongside reports that the money is to be taken from funding for affordable housing. That it has taken May a full eleven months to commit this money has not gone without criticism. Every day that passes is one in which thousands of families across the country will wake up and go to sleep in unsafe homes.

Theresa May recently allocated £400m for the removal of dangerous cladding... taken from funding for affordable housing

Failings by local and national government both before and after the fire have been at the forefront of public discourse surrounding Grenfell. However a new, loud voice now appears to have surfaced in defence of the state; that of London Review of Books Editor-at-Large Andrew O’Hagan delivered through his new 60,000 word article ‘The Tower’.

In a recent radio interview O’Hagan stated that with the piece he wanted ‘to make a historical, factual history’ written from an independent stance. However shortly after the first chapter concludes, the impartiality that O’Hagan had held high for the world to see was almost nowhere to be found.

What I believe to be his motives quickly became clear: O’Hagan wants desperately to edit the established narrative on Grenfell, pushing the blame away from leaders of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Mangement Organisation who managed the building, and toward everyone else.

O’Hagan uses a collection of carefully selected quotes to support his narrative, beginning with the suggestion that a lack of housing in the area is the reason that survivors are still living in hotels one year after the fire. This is followed by the implication that the supposed lack of housing is in some way related to immigration. O’Hagan quotes an unnamed Labour contact saying of the deputy council leader who had had responsibility for housing, Rock Feilding-Mellen, ‘He lived in that community. But he doesn’t pretend that immigration since 2006 hasn’t exacerbated the housing crisis. You can’t bring in more people without building more housing. Simple.’

A rhyming response released by Potent Whisper to Andrew O'Hagan's ‘The Tower’.

This is dangerous and misleading writing. O’Hagan makes no mention of the roughly 1400 homes in Kensington that currently sit empty.

One might ask why the council do not simply Compulsory Purchase some of the empty properties, allowing victims to be properly rehoused within the area. Councils across London have no hesitation in serving Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) to working people on social housing estates facing regeneration but when it comes to empty properties owned by wealthy people a CPO is apparently out of the question. Why is that? A sharper writer than O’Hagan would have also enquired why council housing stock in the area was so low in the first place.

O’Hagan makes no mention of the 1400 homes in Kensington that currently sit empty

In another section of the article O’Hagan quotes an un-named observer implying that survivors are finding their life after the fire ‘hard to give up’, making reference to Xboxes and £900 prams being purchased by the council. As if survivors preferred life after the fire to their lives before it.

The truth is that survivors would give anything to have their old lives back. O’Hagan’s use of this quote was hugely insensitive, misleading and reprehensible.

In the short time since its release the article has been met by notable opposition, bringing both the author’s motives and the article’s credibility into question.

One participant claimed she was misled in how her interview would be used, adding that O’Hagan fabricated parts of her conversation. Complaints and subsequent corrections were also made relating to inaccuracies in the spelling of names, titles of buildings and so on.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of O’Hagan’s article is the timing of its release. After having explicitly stated that his aim in writing the piece was to make a ‘factual history’ one also has to question his decision to publish the article the very same week that the official inquiry commenced. Perhaps O’Hagan and LRB wanted to maximize readership knowing that the world would be watching as we approach the one year anniversary. Or perhaps the intention was to influence the inquiry and public discourse surrounding it.

Whether they had intended to influence the inquiry or not, the timing of release was hugely irresponsible. It is questionable whether the Chairman of the inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, will appreciate a man with O’Hagan’s platform releasing such inflammatory material with the potential to shape public perception of the tragedy and prejudice the inquiry.

Would it be unreasonable for residents to withdraw rent payments until landlords guarantee their safety?

Is O’Hagan’s voice the beginning of a new narrative which seeks to exonerate council leaders?

Whatever the case, the lessons that should have been learned from Grenfell have gone ignored for over one year. In addition to achieving justice for those directly affected by the fire, there is now an ongoing struggle to protect those who are at risk of suffering a similar fate. Namely our friends and neighbours living in unsafe housing across the country.

Is it unreasonable to want to live in a safe home? Is it reasonable for landlords to expect rent payments in exchange for unsafe housing? After a year of having exhausted all formal avenues to change, would it be unreasonable for residents to withdraw rent payments until landlords guarantee their safety?

No? What is stopping us?

Home page banner photos: REUTERS/Peter Nicholls; ChiralJon, CC-BY-2.0

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