THE flames are gone. Now the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower juts out against the west London skyline. At least 30 of its former residents are dead, although police say the number of casualties will rise, perhaps to more than 50. The survivors are dotted across London; some with friends or family, others sleeping in emergency dormitories provided by charities and the local council. Londoners have responded to the tragedy generously, raising more than £3m ($3.8m) and donating piles of clothes, food and daily necessities to the dispossessed. Yet, even as the building still burned, anger was beginning to grow.
It is possible that the destruction of the tower block on Tuesday night could come to symbolise the end of an era in British politics. That is partly because of its location. London has always been a city of contrasts. But the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where the tower sits, is unusual in its extremity. Palatial Georgian houses stand a couple of hundred metres away from brutalist tower blocks.
Many suggest that, whatever sparked the blaze, the true cause was poverty. For a start, nobody listened to the worries of those living in the tower. Local residents had long warned about the risks of a fire. They complained that safety equipment was tested irregularly and that debris was allowed to block the tower’s only exit. Ultimately, they insisted that they deserved better living conditions, rather than what a residents’ association blog called the “scraps from the rich man’s table” attitude pursued by the local council.
Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, which runs the building, says it was aware of the complaints, and that they would form part of the investigation into what happened. Although local residents sit on the organisation’s board, tabloid newspapers quickly pointed to the hefty salaries of those employed to run it. Indignation at having been ignored was directed towards other institutions, too. Jon Snow, a newsreader, was accosted by locals when he turned up to film by the tower. “You didn’t come here when people were telling you the building was unsafe,” one shouted.
Over the past five decades, London’s skyline has developed a jagged edge. Yet the worst accidents have been in buildings used as social housing. In 1968, a gas leak caused the collapse of Ronan Point Tower, killing four. Building regulations were tightened. In 2009 Lakanal House caught fire, killing six. Fire experts urged the government to update the safety regulations, but no report was published. It is not yet clear why the Grenfell Tower fire spread so far and so fast, but the government’s tardy response to the Lakanal tragedy could scarcely look worse.
Moreover, swingeing reductions in council budgets provide a backdrop to the fire. A recent refurbishment wrapped the Grenfell Tower in cladding designed to reduce energy emissions. The Times has reported that a fire-resistant version would have added an estimated £5,000 to the cost, and that the type of panels used may not be used on high buildings in America and Germany.
More people would have died had it not been for the work of the emergency services. The fire brigade arrived at the tower six minutes after the blaze was reported. At the height of the inferno, 200 firefighters were trying to put out the flames. Doctors and nurses worked through the night to treat the injured. Police kept things as calm as possible after the fire. Yet, as public-sector workers, these people have seen their pay outstripped by inflation for the past decade. In a sign of the change of atmosphere, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said he had “a great deal of sympathy for the case that has been made on pay” because of the “enormous amount of goodwill and time given free of charge” by hospital staff.
The government’s approach to regulation may turn out to be another political flashpoint. Since 2010, it has sought to cut red tape in the hope of encouraging private developers to build more housing. It has argued that there is a trade-off between stricter rules and more housing, the lack of which is an enduring problem in Britain’s capital. Yet the government’s decision to push for looser regulation now looks politically damaging. In 2014 Brandon Lewis, then housing minister, declared: “it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation.” Those who escaped the tower reported an absence of sprinklers, now commonplace in new tower blocks.
All this meant that Theresa May, the prime minister, faced a difficult task in responding to the tragedy. Her initial effort on June 14th was limited to a three-sentence statement expressing her sorrow. The next day she visited the tower but did not speak to any residents; her team citing security risks as an excuse. She has announced that there will be a public inquiry into what happened. One is due, but it will be slow work, and provide little in the way of immediate answers or solace to those who lost family members or friends.
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn responded more effectively to people’s anger. He called for empty properties in the local area to be seized to give residents somewhere to stay. More important, he listened to those who had escaped, and was photographed wrapping a comforting arm around one distraught woman. Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, took questions from angry locals. David Lammy, a Labour MP, talked of “corporate manslaughter” and demanded arrests. The queen also visited the site.
A slow government response can cause a tragedy to spiral into something else altogether. In 1911, 146 workers died in a fire in a garment factory in New York City. Anger at terrible working conditions spurred the growth of progressive politics in America, and workers’ rights were strengthened. George Bush’s reputation never recovered from his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. In South Korea, the sinking of a ferry, the Sewol, in 2014 became an emblem of the government’s failure to tackle elite corruption. The Grenfell Tower just may turn into something similarly symbolic.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article mentioned Sadiq Khan’s faith for the reason that many of the victims of the fire were themselves Muslims.