Grenfell Tower, six months later
Squatting action under the motorway, Political Requests, Self-help: The Survivors and Residents of the London high-rise fire demand not to be any longer victims.
This article was originally published in taz, die Tageszeitung (online taz.de), Germany’s independent left of centre daily and national broadsheet newspaper on 14/12/2017. See here http://taz.de/Nach-dem-Hochhausbrand-in-London/!5467719/ All rights are strictly reserved with taz. For syndicates contact firstname.lastname@example.org This translation into English was made by the author. It is just a quick unpolished translation made on the day of the publication and the six-month memorial service, so that English only readers can get the facts of the feature. Taz has always been carried by a co-operative of shareholders who support taz for the sake of an independent free German press.
DANIEL ZYLBERSZTAJN REPORTING FROM LONDON
Niles Hailstones is resting in a small café in the world-famous Portobello Road. His head cover, beard and clothing, amongst it also a scarf in pan-African colours, are giving already, at first sight, an impression of his life philosophy. The musician and campaigner describes the spirit of his community with the Bob Marley’s song “Natural Mystic“, citing its entire lyrics, including the words “Things are not the way they used to be, I won’t tell no lies,, One and All will have to face reality.”
Just a stone throw from here are the concrete arcades of the West Way, the motorway which connects the West of London with Central London. It is a road that stretches over several kilometres through North Kensington, from Gospel Oak to Latimer Road, where Grenfell Tower stands. Grenfell is that building which is even more (in)famous, due to the fact that it burned down precisely six months ago in one of the worst fire catastrophes in British history. Now, half a year later, a scaffolding structure with a white cover hides about a quarter of the charcoaled tower, and will soon wrap around the entirety of the tower.
Hailstone reports a wind of change. Not only did 71 people perish In the inferno, it also marks, at least the hope for an end of a decades-long process of marginalisation, regeneration and exclusion, and the dominance of power interests, in fact, the end of “social and ethnic cleansing of the area”, as he puts it.
About the many promises which the council Kensington and Chelsea made, he states: “To tell you the truth, I didn’t expect any changes, either before or after the fire.” In the first month after the disaster, there was total chaos. Left to our own devices, the spirit of self-reliance escaped the bottle, and it is out now”.
The campaigner of African-Caribbean background uncovers a fact that was deliberately kept off the awareness of most observers of the area. When donations, packages and blankets for the community flooded the area, Hailstones happened to have a key to one of the larger spaces under the arcades of the city motorway due to an event he had been planning for a while in honour of the anniversary of Marley’s Exodus Album. Facing necessity, Hailstones asked the community coordination of the trust, for permission to to use the room as a storage room. She agreed and the trust eventually supplied a three-month licence whilst aid stocked up to the high ceiling. .The area was soon simply called by all as the “the village” (in line with the name of this trading area – Acklam Village). It became a sort of private and improvised community centre for survivors of the Grenfell Tower.
Six months on, the space appears emptier. There are numerous sofas in communal formation, paintings and pictures give away an Africa inspired atmosphere, a drum set and a piano stand there too. The three-month licence has run out for quite a while now, but Hailstones hopes to be able to stay regardless for longer.
In this most valuable part of Portobello Road, part of what has become one of West Londons most distinguished and expensive zones, Notting Hill, world-famous for its carnival, West Way Trust has huge regeneration plans. “It looked to me like a sort of Westfields on Portobello Road. As long as we are here, we are stopping these plans“, claims the campaigner. Since the inferno, Hailstones was part of all discussions with the council. The community coordinator who passed on the key to him, was on the other hand fired. When she and another sacked employee began to speak out against that dismissal the CEO of the trust suddenly stepped down from office.
Lost Free Space
The Westway Trust, initially running under the name of North Kensington Amenity Trust, was the hard fought for result of a sustained campaign against car park spaces under the motorway by the residents of North Kensington. Instead, they demanded communal spaces. Hailstones claims that the trust became soon however but a cover „At the beginning as many as six members of the board were councillors, of whom many lived far away.”
From his perspective, the trust’s actions over many years can be understood as racist. There was increasingly less space for cultural and social activities and lesser so for African-Caribbean activities. Commercially viable use became the key concern. It was in Notting Hill where in the 1950s some of the first Caribbean work migrants settled – now they could not even have free spaces under a concrete bridge. A communal steel-drum workshop „Bay 20“, was cleared in the 1990s for a metal fence, in part with barbed wire, and an obscure art installation with blue stones, useless and empty. Other spaces were lost too, including for example for the famous steel band ebony. It looked as if the Westway Trust did care little for the annual Notting Hill Karneval, grown out of the resistance against racism of the 1950s as an expressive form that demanded respect for African-Caribbean people and culture. Even the Maxilla nursery had to close three years ago, with council and trust blaming each other, and yet being so inter-twined, whilst a big shopping mall was in the planning for the arcades areas next to Portobello Road, so the story which Hailstones describes.
For about three years Hailstones carries the position of chair of Westway23 a community group, which attempts to hold the West Way trust to account. Even after Grenfell, the troubles continue, however. The latest twist appears to be the intent by the BBC, now supported by the trust, to finance a new room for a boxing club, that used to have training sessions in the now burned down tower. And where is this space to be erected? No other area was targeted but „Bay 20“. The astonishment is huge, and particularly so amongst the African-Caribbean residents.
“The history of the West Way and community through which it cuts, a community which was pushed aside by the decision makers, has many parallels to the way that social housing blocks like Grenfell were managed”, says local campaigner Eve Wedderburn. Shortly after the inferno she won another long local battle: the rescue of the only library in Ladbroke Grove.
Similar to the establishment of the Westway Trust, the foundation of the “independent” body that administered social housing KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) was the result of demands for communal self-governance. But the reality of that management appeared rather distorted. When residents of Grenfell Tower began to express concerns over the fire safety KCTMO threatened them with judicial steps rather than to examine and respond to the concerns. WIth its credibility, after the fire destroyed, KCMTOs administrative role has only now ended.
Since about three weeks residents from the entire area around Grenfell Tower – an action supported also by Niles Hailstones and Eve Wedderburn – have occupied a huge zone under the arcades, but not without historical presidents. 40 years ago the Free Republic of Frestonia was declared in a street very close to here, when it was facing plans of complete demolishment. Occupation is not the word which Hailstones is using, however. „We have reclaimed this space“, he says and speaks of the revolution of the people. On his mobile, he shows images on which one can see renovated sparkling rooms, studios, therapy rooms, kitchens in fine design, all created by the community with generous donations. The space has already a name, “The City” with direct relation to The Village, its predecessor, which came into existence after the fire. The city is to open its doors to the public on Thursday – following the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral in the morning and the monthly Grenfell silent march in the evening, which always ends in an open space, the “Wall of Truth” under the arcades near Grenfell Tower, full of street art and murals, mostly expressions regarding the inferno.
Hailstones says that he has invited the councillor of Kensington and Chelsea with responsibility for rehousing Kim Taylor-Smith for a tour of The City. „He came and was taken aback,” recalls Hailstones. Taylor-Smith had stopped the eviction order for now. For the community, it is a prestigious and symbolic display project. It wants to shows that such rooms are not just necessary, but that the community is able to create and implement such spaces into existence.
There are also a few counter voices to the City project. An artist known as Livingstone, who looks after the Wall of Truth and has painted much of it, states that he feels excluded by Hailstones. „I should have moved in there because I was here from the beginning“, he states angered over the question what his opinion is regarding the city.
Sophie Lodge, the artist who reacted to the inferno, which was hard to grasp for survivors, with the expressive communal art 24 heart campaign and the slogan Comeunity – a play between come and unity – says the disagreement symbolises nothing more but the articulation of two strong voices, with, in the end, similar intentions. Lodge herself has spent the last two months working with all schools in the area. She stands at Ladbroke Grove and watches the attachment of a large panel onto the underground bridge on which is the sentence of a young boy. We are special because we are the future of Ladbroke Grove.“
Right to Speak and Human Dignity
The public inquiry regarding Grenfell has only just started to run properly this week, after months of collecting data and documents. There are exchanges on its methods and process. The main issues is the current lack of access to the process by those affected by the disaster.
The legal representatives of the victims, survivors and affected request They demand respect for diversity, dignity, increased access and right to shape the kind of questions the inquiry asks. Instead of a single judge, they ask for a panel to lead the inquiry, in which the affected should then also be represented, and it is also the opinion of Chris Imafidon, one of the survivors of the inferno. „What happens when the judge is ill, or when he dies? Then it does not continue!!“ Regarding such matters, there was a surprise declaration over the weekend by the British equality and human rights Commission, who announced the opening of their own inquiry.
At least there are things happening in the building and housing sector according to the expert in building regulation, safety and building forensics Gerard McLean the UK building regulations were clarified as soon as one week after the inferno „Buildings higher than 18 Meter may now only have external material that are of limited combustibility,” he explains. “That is a quite high standard, although not the highest because it is possible to build with totally non-combustible materials.” All public housing owners, such as local authorities have since removed exterior materials such as cladding, even those in private ownership quietly removed questionable cladding.”
Many of the concerns of the survivors and Grenfell surrounding residents remain however still unsolved. Especially because six months after the inferno only one-fifth of the victim families and affected people have found a new home, says Judy Bolton of the Campaign Justice4Grenfell, who has lost friends and relatives in the tower and does not live far from Grenfell in Ladbroke Grove.
Asked how he is these days, Professor Chris Imafidon, who used to live on the 14th floor in the tower and survived to tell his story, falls into cynical laughter. “I still live in a small hotel room,” he says „I don’t need any collective service in St. Paul’s Cathedral but a set of keys to a home. It is all a joke. Enough with the talking! We do not need a service for those who are dead and who already had their funerals, we need service for the living!”
Elizabeth Campbell, the leader Kensington and Chelsea, assured that her team would work hard to “house all until Christmas”, and that the council purchased on average two flats a day in the area. The delay was due in part to changing circumstances. For example, there would now be a need for almost twice the figure of units than initially assumed. More than 300 are needed now. This was because some families lived in overcrowded conditions with several generations, whilst others wanted to move in together with family members and friends due to inferno.
But apparently, there exist over 1000 empty social housing flats in Kensington. “Nobody understands why they are not being offered,” states Judy Bolton of Justice4Grenfell. “Amongst the around 1000 homeless due to the inferno, there are also 40 children. According to UK law, it is illegal to keep them longer than six weeks in temporary accommodation like hotels. Those responsible are for many months breaching the law!” On the other hand, due to rehousing hierarchies can single persons, who have the lowest priority not move into available empty flats, even if families with higher priorities cannot move into one bedroom apartments, due to their small size.
In November the UK government made at least 28 Million Pound available in order to help the affected, in addition to the 5 Million which the government had promised immediately after the inferno. Finally and slowly there are essential services available, such as therapy for the affected. Judy Bolton has taken on the offer for counselling, as the last six months have affected her, she admits. In spite of that, there is still a lack of services for children. Not just those directly affected, but also for those children who lost their friends in the fire are left vulnerable. Another problem that existed until recently, when the issue was raised in the scrutiny meetings, was that help was only available in a special centre, without outreach to possibly traumatised people, who sometimes would bury themselves indoors in the hotels in which they are housed.
Chris Imafidon says he feels tired and stretched in energy as well. His GP advised him to rest, but he is unable to do so fully, “because of the government, local and national alike, claim that I say too much and they push people like myself to the side. He said that he intends to boycott the service in St. Paul’s Cathedral and will instead posture in front to express himself. „First and foremost I need a roof over my head, that I can call my home. After that one can look into the question of therapy, if one still requires it then.”
Post Script 14.12.2017 Photos of the city can be viewed here https://dzx2.net/2017/12/14/the-city-latimer-road-14-12-2017/