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15th Jun 2017

The Grenfell Tower disaster is a turning point. Communities can’t be ignored any longer

“People saw and heard things on a scale they have never seen before”

Dion Fanning

“People saw and heard things on a scale they have never seen before.” The fire commissioner Dany Cotton’s words about the anguish of firefighters at Grenfell Tower were another piercing reminder of the depths of this horror.

The Grenfell Tower disaster is a story of modern Britain which appears to come from a more dangerous time. It may belatedly make people attempt to change how warped our age has become.

If anyone ever thought the fears about inequality in society were somehow an abstraction, Grenfell Tower has demonstrated that inequality is not simply about disparities in income or opportunity. It is about lives themselves becoming unequal.

We always knew that inequality killed. It kills people through postcode lotteries, through healthcare and work practices. Usually, it kills people slowly. Early on Wednesday morning, it killed them quickly.

We don’t know what resulted in the fire becoming so devastating, but at the moment it seems possible the cladding added to the building during a refurbishment may have contributed to its swiftness. The speed left people helpless and doomed as they obeyed the ‘stay put’ message that is considered most sensible in these circumstances.

Many did and untold numbers died in horrific and gruesome ways while people watched unable to save them. The man who had alerted residents but spoke to Jon Snow on Channel 4 and asked, “What did we wake them for?” captured the enormity of this tragedy. Many in the tower had woken to discover that they were helpless and there was no way out.

They were entitled to expect more. Jeremy Corbyn insisted that the truth must come and many want charges brought against those who they feel are responsible.

The local MP Emma Dent Coad, who took the seat for Labour by 20 votes last week, described the tragedy as “unforgivable”. She told the Guardian that, “the council want to develop this area full of social housing, and in order to enable that they have prettified a building that they felt was ugly … The idea that that has led to this horrendous tragedy is just unthinkable.

We don’t know the cause of the fire at Grenfell Tower. But we do know residents had raised many concerns which were said to include the absence of fire alarms or a sprinkler system and the fact that there was only one escape route.

The fact there is such mistrust now from those who survived illustrates the problem. Dent Coad spoke of the anxiety among residents that they would be rehoused in Hastings or Peterborough and while they have been reassured that will stay locally, it says everything about their precarious position in their own community -in their home- that they feel so uncertain.

In 1966, the American economist Alfred E Kahn wrote an essay called “The Tyranny of Small Decisions”. It studied out how a series of small decisions, many of which will appear to be rational, can result in an outcome diametrically opposed to the one desired. Bureaucracies can easily become slaves to this tyranny.

There will be a public inquiry and, while it may be understandable if some people don’t want to politicise the tragedy, there are others too who will say it shouldn’t be politicised for political reasons of their own.

Beyond that, it is important to remember that there is no tragedy so big that it can’t be manipulated by those who fear the consequences of an investigation; there is no disaster so public that the truth can’t recede into the shadows when the anger of those not directly affected fades and when the concerned and compassionate get on with their lives.

At some point, those who will never be able to get on with their lives again will be left alone with their sadness, their anger and their incomprehension.

But maybe not this time, maybe this will the tragedy that brings real and revolutionary change. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea may be the place where a country realised this was no way for people to live and if a system had helped create this, then it was time to break the system.

This was a world driven by the dangerous idea that there is no such thing as society, and which came to believe it was their duty to make it so. As many people have pointed out, the poor lived in Grenfell Tower as they might have done in a JG Ballard novel where the middle class are the proletariat and the poor exist only as stress-busters for the rich.

Grenfell Tower was where those who are demonised and marginalised lived and, tragically, died. It was a home for refugees and for families who may dream of just about managing, but for whom survival is the height of their ambitions. And then even that was taken away early on Wednesday morning.

In Grenfell Tower, children were left alone while the parents worked night shifts and they lived in a death trap, redolent of a past some in Britain still pine for.

And yet they will tell you that socialism has failed, that austerity is necessary and opposing it is an example of naivety, whether youthful or otherwise

If socialism has failed, look at Grenfell Tower and try to make a case for the success of whatever belief system contributed to this disaster.

The worshipper at the altar of the free market is as ideological as the Trotskyite or the Marxist. The solution to the fall of casino capitalism in 2008 was the socialisation of loss and the public bailout of banks, followed by the imposition of austerity, a measure which morphed from necessary measure to an ideological fetish for some with an unseemly glee.

Capitalism, like state socialism, is merely a power structure. They both feed off ideas which have a certain nobility but which are often exploited in practice. The market economy remains the best way to discover what people want and need, but the unregulated market or the lightly regulated one is full of dangers.

The light touch regulation was useless in preventing the crash in 2008, and the regulations in place this time failed to prevent this disaster.

As well as the inquiry, there is also likely to be a change in the approach to social housing in Britain, something which many feel was coming anyway after an election result that gave an indication that the mood of the country has altered.

But now there will be more. Theresa May’s decision not to meet residents when she visited Ladbroke Grove on Thursday was one of the most spectacular failures of leadership in modern times.

May had the opportunity to hear people’s anger, to listen to them confront her and her government about their failings. She did meet the heroic firefighters and while she might have felt it would be a distraction to talk to those who are clearly angry, it would have provided some sense, so lacking, that the government gets it.

Instead it has been left to the marginalised and the dismissed to provide hope. Grenfell Tower sits between Latimer Road and Ladbroke Grove in west London.

It is a multilayered part of a multicultural city, an area which has always been louche and bohemian, as well as a place where the dispossessed and immigrants could settle. There are fewer bohemian and louche parts of London these days. There is just rich and poor living, often uncomfortably, beside each other.

But something of that spirit still exists in Ladbroke Grove and it has manifested itself in the aftermath of the tragedy. It was community leaders who gave direction. It was churches and mosques and ordinary people who provided the embrace for those who are suffering.

It showed that of all the big lies spread over the past thirty years, one can be defeated even during this tragic time. There is such a thing as society. There is such a thing as community and, through these forces which are too often ignored, real change is going to come.