Is Grenfell Tower a metaphor for our divided society?

16 Jun 2017 at 07:39

If I hear another politician recite the mantra ‘lessons must be learned’ after a tragedy, I will scream. The lesson that has been learned over the years by the political classes is that they have learned nothing at all.

No words can express the horror of the Grenfell Tower conflagration, so I am not going to try. May was right to order a full public inquiry. It must be swift, decisive and if need be, brutal. If there is evidence of corporate manslaughter it must be put in the hands of the CPS.

What causes me anguish is that someone or some body decided not to install a sprinkler system which would have cost £200,000 and prevented the fire spreading. What causes me rage is that cladding the building cost £3m. It was filled with combustible material that has been banned in the USA for buildings over 30 feet tall. It would have cost an extra £5000 to install cladding that was safe and stop the spread of fire. Someone is going to have to explain the decision making progress and the advice that was given.

Now let me give you a truly terrifying statistic. There are 2,925 Tower blocks in Britain. Do you know how many have sprinkler systems? Sit down and pour yourself a stiff drink. The answer is eighteen.

We hear about a report reviewing building regulations that the government initiated which a coroner recommended years ago. It hasn’t come to light. Yet. Let me give give you a clue as to why not. Tower blocks built post 1974 have to have a sprinkler system. Multiply 2,907 by £200,000 and you get £581,400,000. That’s the cost of ensuring that the tragedy of Grenfell doesn’t happen any where else. Perhaps ministers and officials were told that the risk of a fire was tiny. Perhaps local authorities and housing associations came to the same conclusions. And did Kensington and Chelsea really ignore warnings of the residents association? Is the leader of the council really saying that residents didn’t want a sprinkler system? There are going to be some very uncomfortable questions. They must be answered honestly. But how on earth do those people who live in these other blocks feel? How can any of them believe a word of reassurance? From anyone.

In many ways this tragedy appears to be a metaphor for how some perceive Britain. A divided society where the rich live side by side with the poor, but don’t even notice them. Where the rich want to prettify a grim tower block so they don’t have to have the indignity of having to have it scar their multi million pound vistas. Where greedy landlords cut costs oblivious to whether the poor huddled masses in their charge live or die. Where government’s austerity programmes hit the poorest. Where white goods manufacturers ignore calls to make their products safer.

There are seeds of truth in all of of those comments. But the sense of community, compassion and generosity from the richest to the poorest gives me a sense of optimism. There are many many problems in our society. But there is an inherent sense of decency and goodwill which lays deep not just in the in the people of London but of Great Britain. The residents of Grenfell tower had little and now have nothing. All of us must act.

So perhaps Grenfell Tower is a metaphor after all. One of hope for our divided society.

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