The Grenfell Tower Fire
On Classism and Tragedy (originally posted June 18th, 2017)
It is now generally accepted that cladding was responsible for the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. But the background to the Grenfell Tower tragedy lies rooted in classist attitudes and assumptions made about the poor. In a very recent election debate, I was sickened by a young, female, tory supporter who expressed the view that people are poor because they do not work hard enough. It followed that if, like her, they had worked very hard (managing share dealing accounts) then surely they would be well off and so they only had themselves to blame. Thus the rich and powerful can let themselves off the hook in terms of responsibility for others because those who live in social housing (as with the unemployed, the homeless, those who attended football matches in the past and other groups such as the mentally ill) can be perceived as undeserving low-lifes. ‘Scum’ is a word that I can particularly recall being used in conversations to describe social housing residents because I was living on a council estate myself at the time. Similarly, football supporters were portrayed as mindless hooligans. Today on BBC news, a Grenfell Tower survivor described how residents had been treated as “rubbish”.
Such indifferent and cynical attitudes towards the poor are historical and within my lifetime contributed to the Aberfan disaster. A few years after that catastrophe in which 116 children died along with 28 adults, my mother was a local councillor in Essex and reported a council debate regarding a primary school where the playground was in such a state of disrepair that it was in danger of collapsing onto an adjacent railway line. Another councillor (I do not need to emphasise which political party) questioned the need to spend the necessary money on a school that was, after all, “attended by the sons of lorry drivers”. A few years further on and I was sitting with a few hippie friends in the cliff gardens at Leigh-on-Sea, enjoying an inpromptu picnic and the view across the Thames estuary when we were interrupted by a police sergeant. We were doing nothing that was illegal or antisocial and gave up our names and addresses as requested. Some of us were also searched whereupon one of my friends stood up to question this in somewhat bolshie tones (and no doubt body language). To this the policeman replied that he expected this sort of behaviour from those of us who lived in council houses but could see that this particular friend lived nearby in privately owned property and so better was expected of him.
Those who like me, regularly attended football matches in the 1970s will recall the contempt with which supporters were treated in terms of the hospitality provided, even at the grounds of top-flight clubs. Yes, there was sometimes trouble as highlighted on TV but not all fans were mindless hooligans and I witnessed very few such events in all the many games that I attended. These largely involved rowdy fans outside the ground following matches. The one violent incident that I witnessed during a game was at the ground of Brighton and Hove Albion (during the very brief time that Brian Clough was manager there). An away fan was clearly in the wrong section of the ground and celebrated a goal only to be punched in the face by a home fan before being set upon by a few others. Other fans called out to a group of police (standing a few meters away at the edge of the pitch) to draw their attention to the violence. The police observed what was happening and then turned their back on it, leaving the poor fan to his fate. After all, the victim was merely a football supporter and therefore no different from his assailants. Perhaps, in turning a blind eye to this violence the police were demonstrating the same tolerance that they had regarding gangland violence where only gang members (i.e. other criminals) were involved. But even this would indicate a negative assumption about the victim. But my most frightening experiences at football matches, albeit rare, resulted from overcrowding to the extent that I was being swept off my feet within a swaying crowd.
Subsequently, football supporters were caged in ‘pens’ like animals and where a group is perceived as being of such little value in society, there is not only contempt for their comfort but also for their safety and their very lives. In 1985 the UK witnessed one of its worst football disasters in the Bradford City fire. 56 fans lost their lives and at least 265 were injured. Initial press reports directed blame at a football fan dropping a cigarette but the Guardian then revealed that the club had previously been given a fire risk warning. There were references to earlier football tragedies including the 1946 Burnden Park disaster where 33 lost their lives in a crush and the 1971 Ibrox disaster where a crush led to 66 deaths and more than 200 injuries. In both cases the ground had been found to be at fault and recommendations made. Following the Bradford City fire, questions were asked of Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, about the safety of football grounds in the UK. Only four years later and despite warnings about ‘crushing’ at the identical fixture in the previous year, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough.
The contempt for football fans was epitomised by the statement of former Police Inspector Harry White to the Hillsborough inquests in claiming he had been instructed that fans entering the terraces should “find their own level.” He claimed Superintendent Murray had told him that he did not want people directed towards specific pens and that there was therefore no need for extra groups of police officers. Asked about this policy, Inspector White replied, “My own personal opinion of hearing that was that we were abdicating responsibility for controlling the crowd to the fans themselves and just leaving them to it. ” On that occasion, senior police in the control box were able to witness the fact that fans were suffering on the terraces at the Leppings Lane end but turned a blind eye on this and continued to order the gate to be opened even as fans were dying. The Leppings Lane end of the ground did not hold a valid safety certificate at the time and the lesson of the Bradford City fire had been ignored. Thus, classist attitudes amongst various authorities resulted in the Hillsborough disaster and to cover their own backs, those authorities used the media to orchestrate a cover-up in which the victims themselves were blamed. The fact that this story found credence amongst so many of the general public (including some football managers) and is still believed by a few today, indicates the ability of the media to propogate such classist attitudes.
Whilst justice in that matter has been a long time coming, there was an initial inquiry and the Taylor Report made recommendations regarding safety at football grounds. To fund the necessary improvements, the FA relented on its former policy and sold the TV rights to live games. Obviously Sky TV benefited significantly from this decision and ground safety was improved to the benefit of fans attending matches. But the clientele who benefited was not necessarily the same audience that had attended matches before the tragedy. All-seater stadia with reduced capacity resulted in a massive expansion in the use of season ticketing and capacity was further reduced as significant areas of the grounds were given over to executive boxes that are primarily used for corporate hospitality. Throughout the 70s and 80s I had regularly attended top-flight games in London and not only those involving the team I supported. Sometimes I had taken groups of schoolkids to matches and sometimes I had taken my son. For league matches there had been no need to purchase tickets in advance. Following an impromptu decision to attend a game, one could turn up at the ground shortly before 3pm on a Saturday and simply pay admission at the turnstile.
In the early 90s, following Hillsborough, I was teaching in a boys’ school in Islington, then one of the poorest boroughs in the UK. Some evenings, a rush of boys to leave the school as early as possible indicated that Arsenal were playing later and those boys would be attending the game, most likely in the Highbury ‘family enclosure’. That practice ended abruptly and noticeably when fewer tickets were available to the general public. In the 28 years since Hillsborough, I have been unable to afford either a season ticket or the 3-figure sums quoted for match tickets at agencies and so have only attended one top flight game. That occasion arose when someone gave me the use of their own season ticket whilst on holiday. Thus football had effectively been ‘gentrified’ and the poor were now excluded from matches. The perceived message is that when football supporters came from poorer sections of society they only merited grounds with poor safety standards and grounds that one very famous manager described as being little more than ‘toilets’. However, once money had been invested in ground improvements and crowd safety, the grounds no longer fell within the realm of the poor. A similar reality may be the expectation for residents of North Kensington and others in social housing following the Grenfell Tower fire.
Readers will be all too familiar with details of the horrific Grenfell Tower tragedy. Within these details there are several parallels to the Hillsborough disaster and in particular the fact that the victims were treated with at least indifference if not contempt because they were regarded as poor and therefore lower class. For me this attitude is demonstrated by the fact that the exterior of the building was improved but within the building, gas pipes were relocated so as to be visible and running throughout the central areas of the building. Who would want that in their own home? I experienced similar when living in a London council block in the 1980s and when the central heating system was upgraded. Residents initially welcomed what they thought would be an improvement but any joy turned to dismay when plumbing was installed throughout their flats at various heights on the walls and running around door frames. One resident described the effect as ‘living in a World War 2 submarine’. But at Grenfell Tower, the contempt for residents went beyond aesthetic considerations and ultimately jeopardised their safety. Like Hillsborough, there had been an earlier disaster from which lessons had been ignored rather than heeded and acted upon. Like Hillsborough, there was an initial attempt to shift blame towards the victims when, in the case of Grenfell Tower, the local authority stated that residents had objected to some of the improvements that the council had sought to include in the refurbishment. The reality was that residents’ wishes and complaints had been ignored (as had those of football fans regarding ticketing and ground safety at FA cup semi-finals). Like Hillsborough, the initial response from some authorities went beyond inept and showed further contempt for victims and survivors.
Clearly there will be inquiries and reports concerning the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The building itself will likely be demolished and safety improvements in social housing are to be expected. But prevention of such tragedies in the future requires far more than an upgrading of building regulations. Firstly, the role of local authorities needs to be examined in depth. Since the 1980s, local authorities have become far less directly involved in service provision. Instead they have largely become commissioning agents dealing with the tendering and awarding of contracts to the companies that have replaced the councils as service providers. Many of the council committees that were formerly responsible for service provision no longer exist, having been replaced by bodies such as a ‘scrutiny committee’ who oversee the running of the council to monitor efficiency and seek the best deals under the guise of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Thus the councils are largely run by the officers while elected councillors have little say in anything other than general policy. I can recall several councillors in North London complaining that their time was almost exclusively spent in either scrutiny exercises or in regular attendance at tribunals dealing with secondary school placement appeals.
Prior to the 1980s, my only interaction with my council (either through my local councillor or by visiting the civic centre) arose through a specific problem or need and usually the matter was resolved to my satisfaction by provision of a service. In 1980 difficult circumstances left me homeless and unemployed as a single parent to two young children. The benefits system helped with basic needs and we were provided with a council flat. But I also received considerable additional support from my local authority in North London and it was this that enabled me to return to work and turn my life around. I was not only able to support my children but also (hopefully) contribute to my community. Furthermore, I was able to give 10 years of my best service to that authority as a teacher and hope that in some way, I repaid the investment that the local authority had made in me. In the past, many local authority functions appeared altruistic either because a service was provided or because it was the local authority who distributed cash, in the form of home improvement grants, student grants or council mortgages for example. Today, the role of the local authority appears authoritarian and even punitive with collection of various payments and fines being a priority.
Whilst local authorities seem to be able to access the funds needed for prestigious yet unnecessary building developments, they clearly have insufficient financial resources to maintain basic and essential services. The scarcity of resources means that those council officers who work front-of-house and dealing directly with the public have acclimatised and hardened to the fact that of the many who sit in front of them each day to express a dire need, they might only be able to help one (if that). Services can no longer be provided according to need but are bound by ‘priorities’ which means a set of rules designed to filter as many people as possible into the group who will be refused help. Members of that group will find the officers cold and dictatorial rather than sympathetic and helpful. Nor can we realistically expect such officers to resign their post on ethical grounds (i.e. that they are unable to do their job in providing a service) as this will impose severe financial sanctions. Thus, local authorities have lost sight of the objectives of their work in providing services and amenities for the local community and we are now seeing this being demonstrated by Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
Responsibility for this must belong to central government who have controlled and restricted local authority finances over several successive administrations. At the same time, other public services that the poor, needy and vulnerable might rely upon have also been drastically cut or privatised to the point of crisis. The process has been accompanied if not justified by a continual, media demonisation of the poor and needy as undeserving, wasters and even scroungers. Whilst governments have orchestrated this with their austerity-based policies, they have continually attempted to re-brand themselves as caring and being in touch with the lives of common people. At the same time, they have presented a rhetoric that involves fairness, benefits for hard working people, protection of those most in need, national interest and a concept of us all being in this together. Meanwhile, the wealth divide has grown and grown even more. This is the state of divided Britain today. Whilst I hope that immediate action can be taken to support those affected by the fire by all possible means regardless of cost and that those most directly responsible are held to account, the prevention of such tragedies occuring in the future will require long-term, social changes so that inequality no longer fuels classist attitudes and assumptions.