One year ago, following the discovery that our Ledbury Estate tower blocks were not fire safe, I became involved in campaigning in my community. As someone who'd raised concerns over potential fire risks, which horrifically proved to be founded, I felt a responsibility to follow the matter through, and to ensure that the residents of our community had their voices heard. As a novice to engaging with the local authority over housing issues, I began by attending Southwark Council public meetings to gain an understanding of how this system operates.
What immediately struck me, was the gaping disconnect between the local authority and the residents. I got a glimpse into the world of the council and quickly realised that there was much work to be done.
What subsequently unfolded over the past year has led to the stark realisation for me, of just how murky and often corrupt, many of these bureaucratic institutions can be. Systems that actively vilify people like me, violate our private lives, call us ‘agitators’ for speaking up and for challenging undemocratic decisions. Systems that refuse to be steered off course, that have a vested financial interest in maintaining the status quo. Systems that ticks boxes to say ‘we’ve consulted’ to satisfy legal criterion, whilst simultaneously sweeping comments aside and pressing ahead in situations where the blaring outcry from the local community falls on deaf ears. I'm a reasonably calm person, but I've been outraged countless times over the past year by some of the behaviours I've witnessed, and even now, at a stage when I believe I've seen enough to not be shocked any more, the injustices just keep mounting and demonstrate why it's so important that we council tenants continue stand up for our rights, rather than allowing council politicians to make all the decisions on our behalves, leaving us to be swept along with the tide. This situation is not unique to Southwark, or even local authorities I've learned, but appears to be a wider philosophy apparent in many institutions where predominantly middle and upper-class men in suits can be found behind desks making decisions that directly impact on the lives of the working class. Autonomy for council tenants like myself is a cleverly disguised smoke and mirrors mirage, and they wonder why we protest...
Over the past year, I’ve attended many conferences, where building owners abstractly discuss the disaster at Grenfell, the dangers of cladding and fire risks in tower blocks and what they ought to do next. The detachment from the residents on the ground is indisputable, and these decision-makers appear to have no intention of bridging the gap. On the contrary, it serves them well to retain and carefully maintain the disjuncture.
The money, power and resources that their systems hold, multiplied by the deeply ingrained colonial-esque belief that their views and perspectives are the correct ones, equates to a warped formula in which the current system presides with very little change.
‘The Tower’; a 60,000 thousand word essay on Grenfell, published in London Review of Books stands as an unspeakable testament to these sorts of beliefs and concepts, with Lancaster West activists said to be 'throwing accusations into the air like confetti at a whore's wedding'. The scathing connotations of that metaphorical image speak volumes. The author, Andrew O'Hagan, who unashamedly published this vitriolic tripe, was, on the basis of his charitable nobility, named as a Unicef 'Goodwill Ambassador' several years ago. There appears to be no goodwill towards a community bereft, having experienced unthinkable trauma.
Another conference, and I have the displeasure of listening to building 'consultants' present on unsafe tower blocks vs. Brexit. They explain that if they were required to ensure their new buildings are entirely fire safe, and retrofit existing buildings, it would eat into their profits substantially. They go on to explain that if they are forced by Government legislation to implement safety measures such as sprinklers, then they would have to reconsider the 35% affordable housing provision on new build projects, there is 'simply no alternative' (without making a loss to their profits.)
The priorities of these individuals appears to continue to lay in profiteering and maintaining their business relations. These men spoke of their newly built tower blocks as ‘stranded assets’ explaining that foreign investors and banks were pulling out of business in the UK, as the housing market had become 'risky since Grenfell'.
Countless conferences and countless building owners and local authority representatives slumped in their chairs sighing, clock-watching and appearing thoroughly bored to be having to show their faces at yet another fire safety debate. Their apparent belief being that to look at the bricks and mortar of their tower blocks from the outside-in, is all that is required of them.
The notion that they should acknowledge the thoughts and ideas of those living inside these buildings and consider a perspective from the inside-out is one they work very hard to ignore and I've been scoffed at, many a time, for having the brazen audacity to suggest such a view. The Tory leader of a Home counties local authority gleefully quarrelled with me over breakfast at one such event, unashamedly airing such conviction of superiority, I could almost hear his bigotry whisper "you're privileged to be eating at our table."
The misconceptions and avoidance of social housing tenants by many of those in power, is fierce, deeply misguided and deplorable, and in my experience over the past 12 months, this appears to be the rule, rather than the exception. Of course these views are rarely aired publicly or in their entirety, political correctness being a handy disguise turning prejudice inside out and concealing it behind a respectable suit and tie, yet it unwittingly seeps out and drips quite unmistakably onto much of what these people produce.
The enduring false stigma attached to council tenants as being benefit-claiming, uneducated, work-shy, low-lives persists and is so deeply ingrained into the mind of many of those in positions of influence. Breaking that philosophy is an issue that needs our full attention. Labour run local authorities are not exempt from this, quite the opposite. Tony Blair's 'Forgotten People' speech on Aylesbury Estate set the wheels in motion for the beginning of a new era of 'we know best' interference, which many of the residents directly affected, would argue was not in their interests in the slightest.
In meetings with residents I see a continual display from some Councillors and local authority officers of a paternalistic and pompous 'dumbing down'. Withholding information under the assumption that residents wouldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to decipher it, appears to be a tool used to enable local authorities to continue maintaining control and steer over how these situations progress and play out. Spoon feeding residents bite size chunks of fragmented and disguised, often irrelevant information to suit their own timetable and agenda. Entire meetings dedicated to discussing estate cleaning whilst demolition of said estate is on the cards.
Additionally, the bureaucratic red tape surrounding local government procedures, constitutions and protocol is designed to be as draconian and off-putting as possible and a deterrent in itself. The false narrative that those in power genuinely wish to hear from us has been exposed.
In Southwark, there are a number of Councillors and officers who do excellent work, who see the bigger picture. Interestingly, since the Ledbury Estate crisis, there have also been several significant resignations, including from their Fire Safety Manager.
In order for us residents to truly have a say, and be, not only listened to, but heard - we must continue to pool all our knowledge, all of our resources and all of our skills together, challenge wrong-doing, challenge corruption and challenge the system which ignores us, until it is well and truly overturned.
As we were moved out from of our Peckham tower block home last year, following the discovery of fire safety breaches, we left a 'Justice For Grenfell' banner in our window. It was prompted removed by the local authority. Quite probably noted down as a potential fire risk.