My colleague Max Lawson sends out a weekly round-up of things he’s read, and adds some views. Here he is on the meaning and horror of the Grenfell Tower fire.
At times an event can act like a flash of lightning, illuminating simmering issues that can otherwise feel abstract. The recent horrific fire in the Grenfell Tower Block in West London has done this in the UK, not unlike Hurricane Katrina in the United States. It has shown in stark relief the state of the country that Britain has become.
As recently as 1979, 42% of British people lived in government housing. Safe, decent public housing was a fundamental part of the welfare state, accepted by all political parties. For many residents, these houses were wonderful compared to the slum conditions in which they had been living for generations, and a much higher standard than private alternatives. This changed rapidly from the early 1980’s. The government of Mrs Thatcher sold off many council houses, and virtually no new public housing has been built since that time by either Labour or Conservative governments. Today only 8% of the UK public live in this housing, and they are overwhelmingly from the poorest and must deprived sections of society. And the poorest and most disenfranchised among this group are forced to live in high rise towers. The inequality is spatial, economic and racial too. Danny Dorling has shown that the majority of black children in London and Birmingham live above the fourth floor. Is it any surprise that Unicef this week reported that among rich nations the UK has some of the highest levels of child hunger and deprivation?
The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where the Grenfell Tower stands, is a poster child for inequality in one of the most unequal cities in the world. It contains some of the most expensive property on earth, including the £150 million mansion of Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. Many of these huge houses lie empty, bought as investments. It also contains some of the poorest communities in London, and indeed in the UK. On one estate over 58% live in poverty, and this situation has been getting steadily worse.
London differs from many major cities, in that even in the richest parts of the city, there are still substantial amounts of housing for poor people. Following the war, when there was a socialist government in the UK and significant bomb damage across the country, public housing was built on much of the vacant land. This is true in Kensington and Chelsea. I lived in a council estate very near there for a number of years, and it is an incredible community. A mish-mash of nationalities, faiths, ethnicities and histories. It is the location of the Notting Hill Carnival. It is the birthplace of one of the greatest bands in UK history, the Clash, whose guitarist Mick Jones grew up in a council tower block. Yet across the city, recent governments have promoted the selling off and demolition of this housing, with the poorest having to move out to the suburbs and beyond, in what has been described as social cleansing that is forcing tens of thousands out of London.
Following closely on our dramatic election, the Grenfell Tower fire has acted as a prism to focus a series of issues central to inequality. Firstly deregulation. Inadequate and outdated fire regulations have clearly played a part here. As one commentator put it, ‘A favourite slogan of the right was the promise of “a bonfire of regulations”. Well, they got their bonfire all right.’ Secondly privatisation. Public housing has been transferred to private management and ownership across the UK. Rather than an elected council, residents are left to deal with unresponsive, unaccountable companies, driven often by profit to cut as many corners as possible. Like the management company for the Grenfell tower that are reported to have saved £5,000 from a multi-million pound refurbishment by using external cladding that was cheaper and more flammable. Thirdly austerity, which has seen the budgets of local government cut dramatically with the greatest cuts felt by the poorest areas.
And overwhelmingly this is a story of inequality itself. This is not just about economic inequality, but inequality of voice, of power. It is about inequality of fear and risk too. Across the world, as Oxfam has shown in relation to natural disasters, risk is redistributed downwards, onto the shoulders of those who are least able to cope. Accidents and fires like this happen across the world on a regular basis. Just this week a seven story building occupied by low-income families collapsed in Nairobi. The poorest and most vulnerable are almost always the hardest hit.
The anger here in London is palpable. People are furious that such a thing could happen in one of the richest cities in the world. I hope something good can come of this. But one thing is for sure – it will come too late for the poor women, men and young children that died in that fire – their faces will haunt me for a long time to come, and I know I am not alone in that.
It is easy to get lost in the economic arguments about the importance or otherwise of inequality, and whether or not extreme wealth is beneficial or detrimental to our economies. These are of course important arguments to have, and to win if we are to convince policy makers to tackle extreme inequality. But sometimes it is good to take a step back and look at these things from a different perspective. I found this article in Current Affairs refreshing in this regard, as it chooses to look at extreme wealth instead from a moral perspective. It makes the straightforward assertion that ‘in a world of poverty, if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation.’
Oxfam was originally founded by in part by Quakers, a left-leaning religious group in the UK, and I have no doubt many of our founders would have sympathy with this moral perspective. Whilst perhaps a little too strident for some tastes, it is hard to escape the unassailable moral logic of this basic argument, which predates capitalism.
One of the concerns about modern neoliberal capitalism, highlighted by Harvard Philosopher Michael Sandel in his brilliant book What Money Can’t Buy – the Moral Limits of Markets’, is that these basic moral questions are increasingly left to one side in favour of market forces. He argues that our civic life is simply too morally important for that. Yet all too often we leave our morality at the door, in favour of supposedly more hard headed, rational considerations. But does that really work, or is it simply cutting us off unnaturally from some of the most important considerations of all? We may not believe that the extremely rich should be forced to give all their money away, but I think the majority would agree that there are moral limits to the levels of wealth that can be accumulated by individuals in society and that we breached these limits a long time ago. And there are moral limits to inequality too. It is not just economically unacceptable that in a country of great wealth there is not enough money to ensure sprinklers and fire protection in every tall building. It is morally wrong too. It is morally wrong that extreme poverty can continue in a world of extreme wealth.
And here’s an extraordinarily prescient 1993 clip from the original House of Cards