I work near Latimer Road Station, close to where the Grenfell high rise went up in flames. My view on the weekend is of the heart-breaking charcoal tower. I am due to start work at 2pm today, and I just want to run. It feels like London is burning and we are paralysed by the sun. The first property I lived in was on a council estate. Not a tower block, but an equally unloved block of flats, and some of my earliest memories were of being burgled.
‘What a palaver’ my mother would say.
Some of the people whom I love the most have lived in such towers, and what I know about these kinds of properties is this: a large proportion of tenants here (if not all) are the recipients of what we call in London ‘social housing’. Rent is subsidised for people on lesser incomes and they are mostly given to those who are considered in priority need of housing. The council, therefore, is the landlord, and owes its tenants a certain duty of care. In the case of Grenfell Tower, the landlord is The ‘Royal’ borough of Kensington and Chelsea. One of the richest boroughs in the United Kingdom, and probably in all of Europe. A five minute walk from Grenfell, you will find ivory mansions with cellars; steps that cascade onto streets adorned by trees with butterfly pink blossoms. And if you stand in just the right place, you can see the tower from there too. It is a scary irony to walk through.
My experience is this: I left home when I was 16, lived in hostels in Birmingham three years prior to getting into University and moving into student halls of residence in London. It was very apparent to me by the way these properties were kept that we were not in the thoughts or heart of the council. I remember the week I moved in, a girl screaming at the manager because her fridge had been broken for three months. And lifts out of service for weeks in an 80 bed building. In another hostel I lived, in an area with a strong influx of drugs and all of the trimmings that come with, the hostel gates were kicked open and I don’t recall them ever properly being fixed. Hostels, for young people who would otherwise be homeless, many of whom young people leaving the care system, open for all to access. Just a few months ago my friend was offered a flat in a similar tower, she was pregnant at the time. The walls were embossed with mould and the sink was on the floor.
I am angry. What happened a week and a half ago does not surprise me. The council cuts corners all the way to crises. This isn’t new. Many people have died due to the negligence of the council, the only difference is that they usually burn slowly. Young children develop asthma for living in homes infested with mould. Young people with no parents or postcode are homeless because every council rejects the duty of housing them. Adults with disabilities present themselves persistently to doctors who prescribe them medication to keep them at bay, only to find out that they had pneumonia or leukaemia and by which time it is too late.
Grenfell Tower has given London a new view. A view that contradicts the romantic image of immigrants and benefit recipients (exploiting the welfare state) that the media artfully paint. Yes, there are a few who have lovely homes and maybe receive more than they might need. But a large majority get put in unliveable properties vulnerable to mould, rodents, flooding, and in the case of those at Grenfell Tower, get left in an inferno to burn.
Grenfell Tower is in my prayers. The children I used to see playing on the grass in front of the tower are in my prayers. The young boys riding mopeds from the block to the road, chilling and listening to music on their phones are in my prayers. The Latimer Road community is in my prayers and everyone at the Kensington Leisure Centre. Students at Avondale Park school are in my prayers.
London is in my prayers.