Response to Andrew OHaganTue 05 Jun
The solicitor for the survivors of the Grenfell disaster described their emotional state coming into the Inquiry as one of "calm rage". Andrew O’Hagan’s article on Grenfell in the London Review of Books has done nothing to assuage that rage. Amongst tenants and activists in North Kensington there is the opinion that O’Hagan’s piece entitled The Tower is skewed in favour of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, giving individual council members every chance to exonerate themselves. He quotes council officials and staff at great, self-justifying length at the expense of the community activists and volunteers who protested about the council's treatment of its tenants. He dismisses organisations such as Grenfell United as “secretive” or having some ill-defined “political” agenda. God forbid that anyone should want to challenge the system that Andrew O'Hagan upholds.
My first thought on reading his article was that he had made the same mistake as that of the Inquest. The personal stories of those affected by this disaster have no part in the inquest or O'Hagan's article. The feelings surrounding the survivors allow the adjudicators and commentators to fudge the issue of what caused these tragedies to occur.
My understanding of the cause quite simple: a government policy of austerity and council-led incompetence and indifference. O'Hagan's answer is possibly more nuanced and I applaud him for this. In fact, I was prepared to go with him through all 70,000 words until I realised that a creeping complacency was obscuring his view.
At one point he allows himself a casual aside that reveals his partiality. In an interview with a child protection officer, he describes her as a “Guardian-reading liberal”, the very kind of person you would want to be looking after a child. Given that O’Hagan writes for the Guardian it is clear to see where his sympathies lie. I wonder what he would have made of her if she had had a copy of the Daily Mail or the Mirror under her arm.
This gets to the nub of the problem. O’Hagan comes from a political class that is articulate, privileged and well-educated. The kind of person who writes for the Guardian. Tenants of social housing are not this kind of person. O’Hagan repeatedly makes reference throughout his article that as a child he lived on a council estate in Glasgow. So he has that badge of honour. But times are different. Back in the day, as we say in North Ken, councils were run with care and diligence. The political landscape was different. Social models were different. Times have changed, and council policies have changed with them. It's not the Seventies any more Andrew. It's 2018.
Briefly there are two strands of thought that worry away at this case: one, that the council had not been listening to its social-housing tenants for years, and two, that social housing has fallen victim to social cleansing. In other words, councils throughout the country are focussing on profit rather than people, and that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in particular would like to offload some of its prime real estate and shove existing tenants into a backwater somewhere.
I am putting this crudely because I am a tenant of social housing. I come from a background of living in social housing as an adult. I have a distrust of authorities born from an adult’s experience of living on a low income in the 21st century. I also recognise my good fortune in having an assured tenancy at an affordable price. So I am no “Tory-hater” as O'Hagan calls anyone who complains about the council's services. I was born in this borough and I have a home in this borough. I truly see myself as one of the lucky ones - no mortgage, affordable housing in a great community - and I am rather fond of my current Housing Officer.
There are two excellent articles that act as a form of rebuttal to O’Hagan. One is by Luke Barratt of Inside Housing.
“This accusation of ‘not listening’ has followed the council since virtually the day of the fire. But is it true?” he asks.
Here’s his response:
Inside Housing has sifted through seven years’ worth of council papers, minutes and budgets to build up a picture of its approach to fire safety and its scrutiny of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment in the years and months preceding the disaster.
What emerges are three clear strands: one, a council which had saving money at the absolute forefront of its mind when it considered and approved the refurbishment. Two, a council which had lost the trust of residents in the tower and was felt to be sweeping their concerns under the rug. And three, a council where a key fire safety review in 2010 did not result in improvements across the whole of its stock.
Barratt goes on to say that O’Hagan’s attempts to exonerate the council for its response to the fire are based entirely on interviews with council workers and that his article “comes out, unfortunately, at the same time as a Muslim Aid report finding that the response was ‘badly flawed’.”
Worse, is O’Hagan’s attitude to the activists and self-help groups that have supported those affected by the fire and petitioned for justice. As mentioned above, he describes them as “secretive” when really what he means is, “They didn’t want to talk to me.” Perhaps O’Hagan cannot see that he comes from a different world, a different century from those affected by substandard housing.
Shortly after the disaster I spoke to staff at the local Citizens Advice Bureau. They told me that some of the people coming to see them refused their help. They were confused and traumatised and they thought that the volunteers at the CAB worked for the government. So they were cagey. They were frightened their benefits would be affected or their right to remain in this country would be questioned. They did not realise that the CAB was asking them questions in order to help them.
The issue of trust lies at the heart of this matter and unfortunately O’Hagan has done little to improve matters. Instead, as Barratt says,
O’Hagan defends the council against a straw man, the argument that it deliberately murdered 72 people. No one thinks this, and yet often when someone shows him evidence of council incompetence or malice, he says it shows “no homicidal intent”.
No one can reasonably say that the council showed homicidal intent. Not even a politically motivated activist who doesn’t read the Guardian.
As another reporter, Peter Apps, says
Long before flames engulfed the tower, the relationship between the TMO and residents at Grenfell was broken.The first evidence of tension came in July 2013, when the committee considered a report about recent power surges in the tower affecting 45 flats. In that meeting, Labour councillor Ms Blakeman warned “she was concerned the TMO would find it difficult to regain trust because many residents believed the impact of the power surge had not been taken seriously enough”.
Eighteen months later, with the refurbishment nearly complete, this prophecy had come true. Following a petition signed by 51 residents Ms Blakeman bought a motion to the full council meeting complaining about their treatment. The work, they claimed, had resulted in “living conditions that at times have been intolerable”. It called for compensation for residents, but was watered down. Investigating the substance of complaints about the refurbishment was passed down to the council's Housing Scrutiny Committee.
And so on. When you are struggling to bring up children or you are an elderly person with disabilities living in substandard housing and getting through each day as best you can taking on professional filibusters and scrutinising committees is a challenge too far. Something that Andrew O’Hagan could not possibly understand. But something about which volunteers and activists try to speak up. He just won't listen.
Finally, I spoke to Daniel Rifkind, a local film-maker, who told me:
The best thing to do is not give Mr O’Hagan too much credence. I’m collating responses to his article from everyone concerned, including organisations like Wornington College and Grenfell United. In the longer term, so that the narrative can’t be hijacked, we need to construct a public archive. I’m in the process of collating stories about what actually happened.
Article by Lilian Pizzichini