As the full horror of the Grenfell fire became apparent, millions of ordinary Britons experienced shock, sorrow and an outpouring of sympathy. Many people in the immediate area rushed to volunteer – opening up community facilities and distributing food and clothing. Others reached for their wallets to donate the cash that was essential to meeting the immediate needs of survivors who had fled the stricken building without stopping to look for cash, cards or essential documents.
Shock turned into anger in the days after the fire. The Prime Minister’s apparent lack of humanity toward the victims seemed to sum up an out of touch austerity government that has spent the last seven years attacking Britain’s poor. The local Tory council’s failure to honour its legal duties to the victims of the fire had all of the hallmarks of a body that had long since sold its soul to London’s luxury property developers. Even as government ministers mouthed the predictable platitudes in praise of the emergency services, nurses, fire fighters and police officers spoke about the additional risks that government cuts had created.
As the public mood hardened, however, a small band of cynical and possibly sociopathic property developers were rubbing their hands together with glee. Echoing the words attributed to Winston Churchill, they asked; “why let a good crisis go to waste?” After all, the property speculators have been trying to get their hands on the prime real estate land beneath Grenfell tower and its neighbouring properties for decades. Clearly Grenfell itself is going to be demolished. But the crisis also opens up the means to evict the residents and demolish blocks of social housing across London and beyond.
It fell to Iain Duncan Smith – his hands still dripping with the blood of a thousand disabled benefit claimants – to give political voice to the interests of the property speculators. Speaking immediately after the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Grenfell parliamentary debate on Thursday, Smith’s cynical question was:
“I ask the Prime Minister to add one further remit to the public inquiry: to look at whether the whole process of retrofitting old tower blocks is viable at all and at whether there is a better way to house and support tenants in these areas without the use of the many incredibly badly designed and very faulty tower blocks. Will she ask the public inquiry to look carefully at whether it is feasible to bring some of the blocks down and provide more family friendly housing?”
Notice that Smith does not say who such “family friendly housing” would be for. Obviously not the people displaced from the towers that are demolished – that would require modern towers to be erected in their place. What Smith is talking about is the ongoing process of social cleansing of central London that has seen the working class dispersed to the outer suburbs and even to other UK towns and cities. This was entirely predictable. In the aftermath of the fire we pointed out that:
“It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Grenfell tower is not going to be refurbished. Nor does one have to be particularly bright to understand that once the fallout from the tragedy has dissipated and the tower demolished, the local council is going to sell the land to a private developer to put up even more high-end property. If they are particularly cynical, they may even use the disaster as an excuse to tear down the neighbouring towers. After all, if the public inquiry recommends expensive retrofitting of safety systems, and if government incorporates these into regulations or legislation, it will be far cheaper to rehouse people. The council may even argue that the income they receive from the sale of the land can be used to rehouse the residents – but that rehousing will not be in Kensington & Chelsea, and may not even be in London.”
That it should fall to Iain Duncan Smith to put these sentiments onto the political agenda is unsurprising. His cruelty and incompetence during his time as Work and Pensions Secretary brought about the premature deaths of thousands of sick and disabled people, while forcing hundreds of thousands of Britain’s poorest households to turn to foodbanks to stay alive. Even more worryingly, though, is the fact that the Prime Minister chose not to reply to the question at all. If she had refuted Duncan Smith’s question, this would have taken the issue off the table. If, on the other hand she had accepted it, this would demonstrate that Duncan Smith’s thinking was in line with her own. By ducking the question, she leaves it on the table without having to take responsibility for it… which may explain why Duncan Smith’s was the first question from the floor.
In the end at least some of the survivors of the Grenfell fire will be rehoused in better conditions in or close to their community – it would be political suicide for the government to do anything else. But the residents of similar towers across London and the wider UK can expect harsher treatment. Mr Duncan Smith and his property developing chums are coming for them, and they are not seen as victims. As their towers are pulled down and their communities dispersed to the four winds to make way for new developments, public sympathy will wane. After all, they are being saved from a future disaster… and it will be very difficult to defend against that.