Socialism 2017: Was Grenfell “murder by political decisions”?

right I won't welcome to the meeting I'm very glad to see such a big turnout obviously it's an extremely important session my name is Bob Suter tyskie I'm from the West London socialist party and we're going to have two speakers today Paul Kershaw who's the chair of unite London and London housing branch of unite which has been very involved with the aftermath of Grenville and Nancy Taff from the wolf and forest Socialist Party who's been a very active housing campaigner in East London was involved with the Butterfield's campaign I would say that we were hoping we would get although we didn't bill it we were hoping the Stewart who is a survivor in fact and a witness to Granville would all say he might still make it but we he had he tried to make it to speak to us and he's been extremely active in the campaign actually from the night in organising relief but like many of the survivors and he's quite open about it he has had terrible mental health issues from witnessing friends of his screaming for help and being unable to help and he said that it was a possibility that he wouldn't come because he gets flashbacks when he talks about it so and it shows him that by the way I should say is not uncommon amongst the community on the Lancaster West West estate so but it does point to the fact I think not just actually the tragedy that occurred and it wasn't a simple tragedy it was in our view it was murder it was something that was foreseen it was something that was warned about and yet the richest Council in Europe ignored its own citizens because they were working-class citizens in the community that they've always neglected and not only did they ignore the warnings as we saw in the immediate aftermath of the fire they were unable to mount any kind of relief campaign for the victims and for the survivors it was left up to the local working-class community to do that by themselves not just on the first day but four weeks it was absolutely appalling we went down on the second day and there wasn't even any not even a photocopied sheet of sheet on lamppost st. contact this number for the council and that went on for days and four days and it encapsulates everything that's wrong with British capitalism that hold the whole episode the run-up to the fire the warnings that were ignored the fire itself and then the aftermath and I think one of the points that Stewart was going to make a very important point is that despite the big PR effort by the state that none of those issues for the victims have been dealt with yet all those questions about for the for the victims about rehousing about financial supports about about psychological supports none of them you get the breadth inquiry you get you get the impression oh they've all been sorted and they push it on the back burner but in fact they're live issues it isn't something that's just a historical record now I'm raising that because I know that Stewart was gonna raise that and talk about the ongoing campaign that the tenants of which he's a part and I should say by the way he might come and I've known embarrassment but he and the team around him on that estate have played an absolutely heroic role actually and have been slandered that by sections of the press and by the media and they've received no help either from the council or from the governments or actually in his case from their employees and we we know Stewart very well conspirators are an excellent trade union activists and a member and a steward in Paul's housing branch so there are a lot of issues not just over Grenville because this is also an opportunity in the weekend to discuss general issues about Grenville's connected with that face us on the issue of housing so without any further ado I'm going to ask Paul to introduce the subject and I Paul have 15 minutes or so well Conrad's I think it doesn't need spelling out that the the fire of Grenville tower was a really profoundly shocking event for all of us watching it and particularly if you live opposite it as as Bob was outlining and I think in subsequently it really encapsulates particularly sharply the political issues in Britain and in many ways we the value of this session is not only to note how terrible the events were but what lessons we can draw from it and what actions you know we can take now as bob said particularly sharp four members of the Uniting branch and people that work in the sector because we organize housing managers and we fought against the cuts and attacks on social housing and in many ways maybe I'll show a bit in the discussion this sort of indicates the warnings that have been given we also organize people actually in the housing regulator and I think points may come out in the discussion on the Hat but you know the this does take place in the context of the bonfire of red tape and so on getting rid of regulations but how's he worked as as some cells have to live somewhere our members have been particularly in London affected really acutely by the housing crisis and it is brought out by the case of Stuart because life has been completely disrupted in in the months you know since the fire though Stuart said as Bob said was a stalwart really of the branch a health and safety rep for a long period of time and his own employer have been who are social housing employer being to say the least less than you know sympathetic within it so even so particularly in that way it does encapsulate for our members the struggles are there they're involved in and I think one of the more ludicrous responses of the Tories and the government is to say don't politicize this you know this is just a tragedy as if it's a sort of natural phenomena don't politicize him and actually that's true that's an untrue that is you can defer to size it for fires in general because actually if you have projects a map of fire deaths in Britain or internationally and and a map of poverty the two completely overlap it's actually fire deaths and risk and fire is in general a class issue but it was also really seen as a political issue I think by the immediate community and in fact that came out to me particularly clearly because I think Bob John Byner is not probably the was certainly the first people who arrived with political leaflets at the the demonstration that took place a week at a fire outside the town hall and in fact some people went into the temple and you know that was presented as storming the Town Hall but actually it was the only way they could get to talk to anyone from the council was to storm the town pool and the thing we didn't really know what response I didn't think it'd be a hostile response but we didn't know what response because we went with very directly political leaflets raising you know the role that or is the role of Jeremy Corbyn and broader political demands and they were after the leaflets where people literally were queuing up to take the that's from and so is clear that that community saw this as a political issue and particularly identified actually the role of Corbin and the left fighting they saw as a left fighting leadership of Labor and in particular the demand to requisition empty houses in that borough because it's a phenomenally wealthy area and particularly actually a town hall just off Kensington High Street you know you you really wouldn't need to explain the class nature of British society you just stand there and and you see it and that is a significant point because Jeremy Corbyn raising that demand had a massive effect and you could really see in the actually disciplined anger of that crowd that that unleashed what could be an unstoppable force in British society I mean I think say I went a few weeks later I went to as from the unite housing branch to a Labour Party meeting in Kensington and that was a meeting full of I think you could say of representative mix of the people in Kensington because what the suits in the meeting were extremely expensive you know both ends I was invited by unite branch secretary and the mood you'd have two people were very sympathetic but it was a completely different mood actually and so if you want to understand the strength of the movement behind Corbin it is partly the mood that people have in the Labour Party but it's completely different feeling a completely different set of people on that demonstration outside and I think that demand we you know Bob mentioned how really very little has been done for the people involved I think that demand for requisitioning it was you know sidelines really after that should be put right back at the top of the agenda shouldn't it because we're coming up to Christmas and there's still people living in hotels with their kids and so on inna borough with just a mass of homes which are really kept as safe deposit boxes for the rich while they go up in value there is no shortage of housing actually in Kensington and Chelsea it's just who if that's not used by anyone a lot of it so Bob race this question that John McDonnell actually coined the phrase in relation to this that this was social murder and you know all the respectable press like that was terrible to say but I think it is quite clearly tropes obviously phrased by the way that was coined by angles in the pastor described the conditions and the effect of the conditions in the 19th century in Britain and actually it does apply is a very powerful phrase to apply now because this was not an accident this was a predictable and predicted consequence the whole series of measures of austerity and neoliberalism so natural products of it and I think one of the points to take from that is it happened that it took place in the Tory Council in Grenville town but there's actually tower blocks in Camden here and all over the country where it could happen and those risks still exist and that how we can take that issue up and campaign on that should be you know key subject for discussion now a lot of the warnings are sort of common knowledge so I won't draw the mag too much well it is what it is just striking to run through the point I mean the first point to say is that you can read the blog from the tenants activist group which precisely warned that they've been protesting about the the lack of maintenance poor maintenance and the fire risk the result of that and they actually say in their blog from I think it was in November last year that it seems that the landlord will only take notice when there's a disaster and there's a catastrophe well they probably didn't quite realize the scale of the catastrophe that there was but it was very precisely cut it predicted by the tenants themselves and you know if you run through some of the warnings there was the lack annul fire in Southwark in 2009 and the report from that fire clearly recommended the installation of sprinkles in tower blocks and I think now about 2% tower blocks in Britain have sprinklers and you know where's the action on that that's something we can come back to but it's worth noting but one of the reasons why no action was taken is that there was a report produced by one of the kind of professional bodies headed by the guy called Sir Ken night and they they couldn't refute the case for sprinklers but they concluded that it was economically unrealistic in other words it would save lives but I don't recommend spending the money to say by the way Sir Ken night I don't doubt is technically very able is the technical advisor for the independent inquiry they're supposed to be looking into who's responsible so presume he's going to be so old well that advice and said this was economically about you know unviable is its responsible I mean that that's just um I probably don't have time to go into it but that inquiry has all the hallmarks as well as its narrow terms of reference that try and exclude the political and the wider issues actually it has all the hallmarks of being set up as a cover-up and you know we need to discuss later have you taken up the whole issue of the cladding which was what probably got the top coverage at first you know there was a clear recommend that while there was a clear recommendation that all the guidance was unto you really from the lack of the fire and the government even was pressure actually from some right-wing Tory MPs consistently backtracked and pushed that off the agenda and you know to the state that they now haven't launched a consultation on improving the building brakes but what that meant is the building brakes were a shaman inquiry stated they were incomprehensible which obviously you know anyone who wanted to cut corners to find a suitable interpretation of the incomprehensible regulations and install anything you know that they wanted and of course the last housing minister that was responsible for that is now two resumes chief of staff in the Cabinet Office and it was a cabinet office to set up the inquiry so how independent anyone could see that inquiry of is definitely subject to question you could go on and on the decline in the number of firing inspections but also the decline in the number of building inspections I think down by over half thirty or forty percent to ensure that regulations are being enforced cuts in the fire service and you know the the National Audit Office report that between 2011 and 2016 it was between the 26 and 39 percent cut in funding for the fire services and that did have an impact you know the FT you have made some statements and they will no doubt come out further about the time it took for resources to arrive but also about the availability of tall ladders and so on but actually they make the point that there is nowhere else in the country which would have had as good resources as that so any other child or fire outside of London would have been far more difficult to provide resources and as the question of the craft the ambulance services the run down of local hospitals and so on there's also lived the question of the change in the nature of housing management which is partly about the general cuts in housing management and the outsourcing who's responsible for what and so on but it's also about the change in the road they give to housing management and there's actually a there was a we didn't our branch did not organize imposing till now in the handle but it was a very good article in The Guardian by someone who did work in that estate and she probably speaks for a lot of other housing managers and she uh she says that she the reason she left was that she had nightmares about fires in those blocks you know and she describes how the nature the cuts the way your job has changed because you're supposed to be checking up on people's ID because you're checking up on immigration status and so on which takes you away from the ABC fire and safety issues and she describes this key meeting when tenants were raising questions of fire safety the manager that the management were repeating the advice you have to stay put you have to stay in your flat because you'll have an hour or so safe period because of all the fire tools and she knew that that that so called compartmentalization didn't really exist in that plot because of the poor maintenance because they'd left gaps when they reinstalled plumbing and so on and that was the point who is she decided she wasn't going to stay and as you have to say we'd have really good trade union organization in our place and being able to insist on health and safety maybe those sort of abuses wouldn't have been you know wouldn't have been possible and then there's the whole issue of of housing regulation and I think there may be other people in the room who can say bit more about that well I mean there was a general point that when this when the Tories came in it was announced that the social housing regulator was toast and after they announced that without even telling the management of the social housing regulator that was just announced we still have a social housing regulator but the reason really was that the banks the lenders panicked and they put enormous pressure because half the reason in fact more than half the reason for keeping the housing regulator from their point of view is to protect huge investments that the banks are making that's the real point so that's the function that the housing regulator has been left to play now I think that the controversy and expose IDs of the role of the housing relates in the fact that they didn't pick this up the fact that board members who were disabled member there was a board member of both case et mo and the HCA I don't think he's publicly but resigned as yeah it's all gone so you know that remains but obviously we would make the point but that wasn't due to the conscious decisions or whatever the workers the staff involved in the wretch hater that was a result of government policy you have to point and this bonfire of regulations so that that was a sort of entirely some of the entirely clear indicators of the risk that those risks exist now as I said all around the country in Boston some cake not just cladding but the compartmental I mean there's a compartmentalization not being maintained so does the Ledbury estate where there was gaps where you can put your hand through to the other flat well that's what I point having a fire talk we've got at is that really is completely that's a labor council we have to say here in Camden actually immediately after the the Grenville fire in contrast to Kane C they moved in to an estate with a row of tower blocks and decanted it moved everyone out because of the multiple fire risks actually including I think about a thousand fire dogs missing of the estate but I mean firstly how did that happen ever but actually the records show that the council knew about that for years so you know when they talk about these you know politicians always like to talk about we make the tough choices tough and what they mean is the tough choices that could result in you die but I was balancing the books that's that's really what it comes down to now there's a whole further you know hour of examples you could give around the country but I think what the point is there's certain basic demands that tenants you would think would have that could be met easily and one is to see the fire of assessment on your estate yet actually landlord social landlords both housing associations and councils are in many cases putting the brakes on that and not sharing them and I think that's a basic demand you know if they're not showing them because there's no problem in it's fine well why would you do that if they're not sharing them because they show there are problems or because they've not really been reviewed for years then you have a right to know Jenny and I think that should be a key issue that we highlight and raise and actually because of the the pressure has been a buildup of pressure on that last week DCL G which is the department responsible actually recommended that there should be proactive sharing of these you know regulations these um assessments with residents in the local area yes and that that doesn't mean it will automatically happen though which is why we do need to campaign to take and it's particularly acute the the trade magazine inside housing for the sector usually doesn't like to upset the sector because after all it relies on job adverts and so on and I have three weeks ago they they've been saying you should share this and they they asked all housing associations to share their risk assessments and they put them up on their website and actually hardly any and of course they're not severe as local authorities in the end you can do a Freedom of Information request that's not true with housing associations they can just completely ignore it and you know just there's absolutely no doubt that there are problems in Housing Association tower blocks that's quite clear that is a matter of public record and so I think that's another issue that we that Jeremy Corbyn and the labor movement should fight on and it's another issue that illustrates had the issues around Grenville do encapsulate you know the wider problems of neoliberalism the wider political questions because what it reflects is the rundown social housing cuts over years and years and years outsourcing unaccountable housing associations who really run for the interests of the banks and that is a profound issue that is summed up in the debts been in from fire risk but actually affects the lives of working-class people more widely kannadi the government although in the immediate aftermath of rental said you know money's no object safety must come first diversity comes through with no money whatsoever for this retrofitting fire extinguishers which is absolutely not Liette the whole story actually in terms of final safety but it is a keeper you know Kingdom and that we can fight for and by the way how do they get that from what evidence do they get that view that fire extinguishers that fire it's not an essential issue because what they say is it's not an essential issue you can choose to do it you can not choose to do five now the fire brigade nationally say it is an essential issue so on what basis do they say the fire brigade are wrong and really ought to be an issue for this inquiry to investigate but let's see if it does but but this week it's a very very good move that Jeremy Corbyn has said this committed labour to put the money forward to retrofit fire extinguishers but I think that the map that's great and we should support that but the demand should be that means there's absolutely no reason to drag your feet now you shouldn't wait with people you know lives at risk in for a Labour government before you start spending the money they should spend the money now and build the government and actually it'd be very difficult for the government to refuse that that particularly labour councils obviously I see in the case of housing associations the truth is they do have the money I mean this will be my hobby horse but last year the the staff costs my housing associations went down went down six point six percent which is why there's not enough people doing housing management doing repairs and so on their surpluses went up over 15 percent and the average margin for housing associations is about 30 percent and to give a sense of what that means bogus homes the private developer just last week or the week before produce their results and they were boasting it's a record margin the highest margin they've ever achieved 22.5% so social housing is quite a good business to be in long as you don't have to provide people with sprinklers well as Bob said we've had to alter a little bit this meeting because we did expect Stuart from the estate that went always on to come along and speak and I think that it shows the sensitivity that we approach this tragedy that we wanted the voice of those concerns to be heard proper first of all in in this discussion we're living through deliberate political policies which are engineered to create scarcity to keep prices high to make people feel insecure in whatever housing situation they find themselves in for mortgages to rents to council to keep them feeling like a hen on a hot brick if you like insecure in their workplace insecure on their estate insecure in their job and we discussed the situations to die of Grenville in particular that these deliberate housing policies that have created insecurity led directly to the murders that took place at Grenville at a recent housing meeting someone said if you laid out all the research papers all the books all the thesis that have been written to describe how profound this crisis is in housing you could actually build a house in the sense that you could probably build an estate in the sense that we all know what the problem is you're the academics are right in an attic you know the inquiry will probably produce tomes of paper out of it we know what the problem is but but we need to discuss what our program is to solve this problem you've all been put on your seats that we put a leaflet which is basically the the general program of the Socialist Party as regarding housing and really what maybe distinguishes us from other organizations is we want to solve this problem to day we want it solved now we don't want to be fobbed off with excuses that we need to wait until 2022 and I'd like to concentrate on five aspects covered in that leaflet first of all I'd like to talk about the question of council housing the rehabilitation and the necessity of building millions renovating and building millions of council housing because council housing isn't one in a slow ponderous fashion as some would have us believe we won that almost in an instant as a response to an emergency much like we're living through today from 1945 to 1951 we built 1.5 million Council houses we constructed a hundred and fifty thousand prefabs there are perhaps are close to my heart because my gran lived in a prefab after the Second World War and you know I actually believe as a temporary form of housing they would immediately solve some of our problems she speaks about it like she lived in in she was like the landed gentry she had land Randy Randy Randy a free fat man she was very sentimental about her prefab now last year a couple years ago went away and I stayed in a beautiful house in France I mean it was beautiful and I remember knocking the walls and thinking they're a bit Hollow and we found that was a flat packed house that come from Sweden and it was glorious this house and it gave you a glimpse of the new materials that are available to solve to take the homeless off the streets today and house them even if it was temporarily for 10 years councils after the last war compulsory purchased hundreds if not thousands of housing I mean psychologically and all that discussion that went on around Grenfell about you know the patronizing attitude towards people who lived in I hate the term council housing social social housing they were living in council housing and there's nothing wrong with having accounts for us but after the last war thousands of council houses were compulsorily purchased in streets if you go to fashionable listings and I grew up in Islington and my friend was one of five children and her dad was a postman and her mum was the dinner lady and they lived in an Edwardian House in Islington it's probably worth about 1.5 million pounds today that's why I pay to stay was introduced for people like my friend they didn't want working-class people owning houses and we had to say we had them once through council housing in streets and we can have them again because a whole set there's something like 60,000 count their empty properties in London alone I think it's something like 5% of all housing in London is empty or second property's associates government worth its salt would be immediately moving to act with to acquire those properties much like Jeremy Corbyn said in the aftermath of Grenville when he said about empty properties being used to house gram top survivors actually everybody was in London was like yes because we've got the sentiment now in thousand of second homes and empty properties and then hundreds if not thousands of people sleeping on the streets in the after war in the aftermath of the Second World War what you saw through the housing struggle was a layer of activists who emerged from that struggle became radical councillors became advocates they had a strong voice and they didn't they didn't care or if you like they they took their place politically and people say to us don't they say oh well you know don't see that was that was a long time ago we won those things council housing it's actually won those rights a long time ago and I say no but we did it we did it recently and we did do it we did it in Liverpool we did it in similar circumstances today and I'm glad Harry's in the room I think I saw him come into room 47 councillor yeah yeah because we stand on the shoulders of people like Harry because um similar to today Thatcher was in power we had austerity we were encircled by a hostile right-wing media we had the right wing in the labour party stabbing us in the back much like the Blair rights are attacking Corbin today and we built 4800 council houses houses with front and back gardens we renovated 7400 properties and we employed 16,000 people in building works we did that under a state of siege by basically the whole of society much like we felt recently around Corbin being under a state of siege and that was possible because it it was led by us and we had the political will to see that through now the other side of the equation is firstly to solve the problem his council house in the other side is to address the whole question of the private rented sector now four years ago we stood in Walton forest on the question of rent control we were like laughed out of the of some of the meetings if people said to us we'll never get there that's a operation as well now you in Labour Party maintains Corbin stood up and called for it it's common currency it's in it's in the language of housing now and and once again I'm a child of rent control I grew up in Islington I was born in in the house I'm in the house I lived in with a Victorian basement flat we were private tenants and we had rent control we had secured tenancies we couldn't be forced out every time they tried to put them in my mum and dads curiously enough went to the rent tribunal and challenged the rent going up and we on a number of occasions we we won now contrast there to my children my son played more for a student accommodation room then I pay for my house in a social house that's their things how far things have gone gone backwards so the call for rent control now it's possible now it's possible to write it into the licensing of landlords it's something that will be crucial to solve the problem of Housing Council housing rent controls to cure a secured tendencies regulate the private rented sector now how do we get there what tactics do we use to get there now the Socialist Party is set up a website called current pay won't move we can't pay him he won't move because they're the two features that are expressing themselves in some of the of the struggles that taking place we've had new era which many people remember was associated with Russell Brand in particular that was leading towards possibly a section of the tenants not paying the increases and potentially not moving in focus b15 the young mums who were threatened with eviction that was not moving they were basically occupying that hostel and they scored a victory by being a significant minority and intransigent significant minority we call it of not moving and they scored a victory we led the struggle in battlefields for anyone who hasn't made the penny I just like to model it quickly it's available for two pounds we led the struggle in butter fields and that was around the question of not moving in order to force the concessions from the landlord and we won we won this tremendous victory really we won that victory and then we've had one house in one house in was the struggle that took place last year where the tenants actually were moving towards not paying so not paying the increases and not not moving and I think those two we can't force that strategy on the housing movement there's definitely a housing movement that's already underway and develop him but we would offer those tactics as tactics that can be taken up to score victories while we're campaigning to have the political victories if you like just don't you know last year my house my I live in a house in association estate and the estate with the little road was plunged into darkness because as Paul said they out sourced all the maintenance and they don't replace the lights in the road and we've got nurses who work in the road you come back late at night we were scared so we formed ourselves into it we've got tenants association Housing Association tenants association and we we were asking nicely we were advocating and then we wrote a letter implicit in it that we wouldn't pay the service charge and magically the lights came on because we threatened them in their in their pocket so they're saying these these two strategies have not payin and not moving suggestions we're making to the movement to be taken up we can't you can't force them on people but we suggest that their tactics that could extract some minor victories or major victories in the in the general political struggle and then my last point really is the social social part is associated with the tactic of challenging electorally the right-wing especially in the Labour councillors who were carried out their work area at social cleaners in and we were carrying out gentrification and we would still encourage housing activity activists to consider this in their arm in their armory in the fight against right-wing labour councils because I mean Paul spoke at a recent meeting recently about what's going on in Herring guy with the herring guy development vehicle where you've got a big Corbin a big Corbin Easter Labour Party you've got a right wing and there's this dilemma about whether activists should you know there's a fight going on inside the Labour Party and should activists be standing in those areas obviously we have to treat it very sensitively but the bottom line is people are going to lose their homes I'm sorry if you're worried about your political careers as a labour councillor but the bottom line is boardwalk a Farm Estate which is a predominantly West Indian black estate and as a strong sense of community people are going to be full service people have been forced out of their homes all across London I mean it's being called the land the the London clearances to echo what happened in the highlands of Scotland and it's it's you know it is a political issue that we have to work to weigh up but there is a growing feeling that we have to resist in whatever in whatever way we can and I just like to finish by saying that you know people used to say to the younger generation if you work hard you know you can own your own house and you can get on and I say to my kids you will never get on unless you get political you've got to get political and you've got to fight on the small issues and on the bigger issues if you're not a member of ours join us because we've proved even in difficult circumstances we can score victories and fight for the working class

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