Around 8pm last Saturday, residents living in blocks near Grenfell Tower were shaken by what sounded like a small explosion. Minutes later, a video started circulating on Twitter: what looked like clouds of smoke rising from the temporary boiler that serves the estate, and was built to replace the one destroyed in the fire at Grenfell.
It was snowing and -2C outside. Twitter and WhatsApp buzzed with messages. What would happen to 300 people without heating on one of the coldest nights of the year? Would they need to be evacuated?
The cause was a burst pipe. The temporary boiler, installed in the long, hot weeks after the fire, was never intended as a permanent solution. The local authority responded quickly, sending its chief executive, Barry Quirk, to the site and opening a respite centre. But by then residents had helped themselves, dropping off heaters with their neighbours and opening community spaces. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has since said in an email statement that it had “urged engineers to find a better solution than the emergency boiler that has been in place since the Grenfell Tower tragedy”. Quirk said: “The community has been incredible once again.”
While I can’t speak for the residents of the Lancaster West estate, what happened on Saturday highlights the extent to which this community is still living with temporary solutions. It feels as though the council remains in crisis mode – which means residents too are forced to live in crisis. The burst pipe is one more failure.
Nine months after the fire, and with the tower still uncovered, residents have frequently taken to public meetings to tell councillors about their post-traumatic stress. While the fire revealed massive systemic failures, the recovery shows some of the same characteristics: lack of a joined-up approach, bureaucracy that appears unresponsive to human needs, poor communication and the continuing problem of inadequate housing. “We’re still being talked down to, we’re still being patronised,” said Joe Delaney, a displaced resident and member of the Grenfell recovery scrutiny committee. “They’re still trying to manage a PR disaster with no regards to the humanitarian and economic one.”
Long waits for gas and electricity safety certificates to be issued mean displaced people are stuck in temporary accommodation. These delays have no doubt contributed to the council’s £20m hotel bill. There is a question mark over whether the council will be able to keep its promise to rehouse everyone before the first anniversary of the fire. Even where homes have been allocated, I have seen images of mould and rising damp, just weeks after survivors have moved in. Problems are reported both in new builds and in the council’s housing stock.
At stake is more than the futures of these families, important as these are. It is the idea that lives have value, that the state can keep us safe in our homes, that politicians care more for our wellbeing than their reputations, that the fire doors they install will last a full 30 minutes. “I used to be shocked by the neglect and the disrepair,” said one Lancaster West resident, Andrea Newton. “Now I’m not shocked by anything, because it’s numbers and statistics and data and economic value.”
The implications of the fire will last for decades. The UN’s special rapporteur on housing has said individuals’ rights were probably breached by failures in the response. Last week the information commissioner’s office served Kensington and Chelsea with seven breach notices for not responding to freedom of information requests or interacting with it. “I can’t think of any other situation in which people would be failed so badly, and for so long,” said the local Labour MP, Emma Dent Coad. “Why is the government continuing to support this failing council?” Ask residents what they would call for if they could change one thing at the council, and the answer is clear. “We need new leadership at the council, and training for up-and-coming councillors,” said Newton.
The inquiry risks repeating the mistakes of the local authority and central government. At the hearing today barristers expressed dissatisfaction at the rate of disclosure of evidence. There was shock as a fire alarm went off and the judge suggested that everyone, including survivors and bereaved family members, should stay seated – a reminder of the “stay put” policy.
Requests from families for Theresa May to “exercise her powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 and appoint additional panel members with decision-making power” were refused before Christmas. Thanks to Stormzy, who took to Twitter in support of their petition after his performance at the Brits, they will now get their debate in parliament on 14 May. The inquiry hearings made no mention of this. Bereaved families are having to petition the prime minister publicly and seek a debate in parliament in order to get her to listen. I urge everyone reading this to write to their MP and ask for their backing in that debate, to demonstrate that residents’ lives have value. Our lives have value. The decision now sits with the prime minister. It is in her gift.
The community waits for evidence that those it holds responsible are paying attention. Survivors and families wait for the inquiry to hear their evidence. And everyone waits for the outcome of the criminal investigation.
The inquiry published a list of 532 core participants: survivors and bereaved families. It takes 12 minutes to read the list and take in each name. It gives you a sense of the scale of the tragedy, and of the families and extended families behind each person lost.
The US poet Claudia Rankine wrote: “What stays unburied must be grieved out in the open.” As the scaffolding climbs up the tower, these families now have to cope with the loss of privacy in which to grieve, and live this process out in public. The government should listen to them, because they are not simply a list of names. They are histories and futures. And it should remember the trauma of residents, which is still unfolding. Bereaved, survivors, residents: their pain is very much in the present, and all are still suffering.
• Seraphima Kennedy is a former neighbourhood officer at Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation