By insisting on new terms of reference and a new head of the inquiry into the tragic fire at Grenfell tower block in London, the residents and survivors are posing the question: is the state answerable to the people or to a small privileged elite?
Together with the election result, this marks a new stage in a growing revolt against economic hardship and the consequences of the parliamentary imposition of austerity.
The Tories are terrified that the wider implications of their ideology will be exposed, and so have limited the Grenfell inquiry to the technical reasons for the fire. But by fighting to widen the terms of the inquiry, the tenants are fighting for popular sovereignty and against the sovereignty of a parliamentary elite.
In a statement following a meeting in parliament last week, representatives of the residents said: “In order to have legitimacy, the Public Inquiry must undertake a full and proper consultation as to the terms of reference. The initial remarks by Sir Martin Moore-Bick on the first day of his appointment demonstrated an extremely narrow remit which may well have been imposed by him [sic] but which has been understood by many to demonstrate his approach. They also demonstrated a lack of awareness of the concerns of the Grenfell survivors, bereaved and the wider community. The Residents must be provided with a clear and unambiguous opportunity to contribute to setting the terms of references of the Public Inquiry and to remain involved in a meaningful manner.”
The Guardian reported that Ismet Rawat, the president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, said it was clear to the entire community that the inquiry should address “the extremely important questions raised about our society as a whole and the manner in which those who hold power deal with discrimination and deprivation”.
The government is clearly concerned about the effect on state legitimacy of the Kensington and Chelsea council’s paralysis in the aftermath of the fire, and has forced out the leader and deputy leader of the council. But the issue goes beyond that. The Tories want a new leadership elected solely by the existing councillors – tenants are rightly furious that there will be no public vote on their representation.
The Kensington and Chelsea council is not just any local body. It encompasses the richest as well as the poorest part of London, and Tory council members are closely connected to the national Tory establishment. The details of what happened reflect directly on the elite. The deputy council leader and head of the housing department, who was in control of the refurbishment process, is Rock Feilding-Mellon, a property developer and a direct descendant of the Hapsburgs through the seventh Earl of Denbigh (he’s his great great great grandson) and his mother, the Countess of Wemyss and March, a scion of ancient Scottish aristocracy.
It’s not complicated. The refurbishment of the tower block was awarded to the lowest bidder, Rydon. Instead of conducting due diligence to establish why this company could do the same work for 22 percent less than Leadbitter, the original contractor, who said it could not do the work for less than £11.27 million – clearly, according to tenants, by skimping on the project – the council leadership put political pressure on Rydon to cut the cost even more. This changed the approved refurbishment design to use cheaper and more flammable materials.
According to the Guardian, an “urgent nudge email” was sent by the housing authority to Artelia, its cost consultant, about cladding prices. It said: “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!” The cost cuts brought the refurbishment budget down from £9.25m to £8.65million. It was the housing authority who requested prices for the cheaper cladding.
This is a transparent indication of the ideological nature of austerity. Kensington and Chelsea council had no reason to push the cost down yet further – it has £300 million socked away in its bank account – except for the political choice to drive the cost down to the lowest possible amount that could be spent on council tenants.
Theresa May has become a symbol of the arrogance of the entire political class which, since Thatcher, has pushed for the privatization of all public assets, especially public housing. Labour’s election programme, “For the many, not the few,” had particular resonance for voters in Kensington who faced the market push to oust poorer tenants and gentrify their homes – leading to the surprise election of a Labour MP in the richest borough in the country. May has avoided meeting with survivors and her vehicle was chased along the street by residents when she visited the scene of the tragedy.
Not counting the £1.5 billion bung to the DUP, nowhere is the magic money tree more obvious than the privatization of council housing management that has enriched various company CEOs and their directors at the cost to council tenants of staggering incompetence, arrogant disrespect, and now their lives.
As well as insisting on investigating the whole context of the fire, including the role of privatized housing management and cost-cutting, the Grenfell survivors’ demands also include:
- Ensuring a properly diverse expert panel sits alongside the inquiry judge to advise on a variety of issues, including housing need, fire and safety construction.
- Response team to be available to survivors 24 hours a day.
- Withdraw Sir Martin Moore-Bick from heading up the inquiry.
- Centralise all donations into one charity and produce a full record of monies collected.
- The home secretary to confirm in writing within 28 days that undocumented survivors are given full UK citizenship forthwith.
- Guarantee that the interim findings will be made public within four months.