Tragedy reveals vicious class war of the rich against the rest
By Theo Russell
Extraordinary events have taken place in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Britain’s wealthiest borough, in the weeks since the Grenfell Tower tragedy: a town hall invasion, the resignations of the borough's Chief Executive and Tory Council Leader, and the Tory-led council under siege from every side.
These events followed close on the heels of the election of a Labour MP for the first time since the constituency was created in 1974.
But the Grenfell Tower fire has also had a massive political impact nationally, showing that the reality of the Tory austerity policy is a vicious class war being waged by the rich against the rest.
Grenfell, together with Labour's superb general election campaign, which made austerity the number one issue, has helped to trigger a national debate about endless cuts, inequality and class injustice.
Now Britain’s massive housing crisis, criminally high rents, rampant property speculation, and growing anger, especially in London, with ‘gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’, are under the spotlight.
Finally, the Grenfell fire has exposed a deliberately created system that provides genuine health and safety for the rich but not for the poor. Endless chains of sub-contracting and downgrading of checks made a tragedy like Grenfell virtually inevitable, and the only surprise was the horrific form in which it came.
‘The regal poor of Kensington’
Grenfell was the main topic at a recent meeting of Kensington South Labour Party, which heard how this class war is being waged in Kensington and Chelsea, not only against the poorest in the community but against anyone getting in the way of insatiable property speculators. The council not only turned a blind eye to this but actively encouraged it, and now they are paying the price.
Long before this awful tragedy in which over 80 people died and many more were injured, the council had been trying to ‘retake’ the Grenfell estate, and if possible move its tenants out of the borough and sell it off to developers for eye-watering sums.
Even in the wealthiest parts of the borough, home-owners who bought properties long ago, and statutory tenants with controlled rents, have been bullied and intimidated by property developers, who threatened to take them to the High Court if they don't sell up for a third of the current market price.
Sadly many, especially the elderly, caved in at the threat of legal action instead of challenging these sharks in the courtroom, including one family resident for over 100 years. Such residents have been dubbed ‘the regal poor of Kensington’, living in ‘shabby gentility’.
No doubt their experiences contributed to the loss of the Tory Kensington MP in the general election, alongside the fact that so many local properties are owned by absentee speculators who don’t even bother to register to vote.
Despite public Tory claims to have built 690 low-cost housing units since 2010, in fact none have been built since 1980. As a result there is nowhere to re-house the Grenfell survivors in the borough, whilst thousands of other homeless families languish on the waiting list.
Most of the Grenfell survivors have been put in hotels and B&Bs, and many offered permanent housing far away from their workplaces and schools. Under immense political and public pressure, the council has pledged to buy new family houses for them but have not said where these will be.
The meeting heard that residents in a recent luxury flat development in the borough showed their naked class prejudice, complaining that placing Grenfell survivors there was “bringing the social level down”.
The meeting also heard of the desperate Tory attempts in Kensington to stave off Labour candidate Emma Dent Coad’s victory, which came two days and three recounts after the election. Tory so-called ‘golden thugs’ harassed and intimidated council staff, standing behind them issuing threats and accusations. Unable to accept the result, the Tories wanted a fourth recount and only gave in when Labour observers called in a senior lawyer who warned the ‘thugs’ that they could be prosecuted.
Sadiq Khan disappointment
Labour’s 2017 manifesto was very positive on housing, promising “the biggest council building programme for at least 30 years,” to allow councils to build new housing and to bring back long-term security for tenants. But the meeting also heard that the new London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s housing policy was proving a huge disappointment.
Khan said very little on housing in his 2016 election campaign, and now councils across London are eagerly awaiting his GLA [Greater London Assembly] housing and regeneration strategy – but this it seems has already been watered down. Khan has already approved new projects with only 6–7 per cent ‘affordable’ homes (these are at rents not far below private commercial levels).
Last year Khan was nominated Evening Standard Man of the Year by building company Berkeley Homes, who have been denounced by Greenwich Labour MP Clive Efford for "sheer naked greed and opportunism" for their £1bn redevelopment of Kidbrooke Village. Efford said: “We constantly hear of the demands of the developer but there's precious little about what they are doing for the local community."
Khan has also reneged on his campaign promise not to increase public transport fares in London, freezing only some fares but not those for the great majority of travelcard tube users. London’s tube fares are the highest in the world after eight successive years of increases under Tory Mayor Boris Johnson.
But the struggles for justice for the Grenfell survivors, and for a return to mass building of genuinely affordable homes, are now in full swing. Kensington South Labour Party, which is working closely with the Justice4Grenfell campaign, has called on members and supporters to maintain constant pressure on the council to ensure that the Grenfell survivors are not dispersed far and wide outside the borough.