First off, full disclosure. I do not live in London, I am about 90 miles north however I have both studied these tower designs here in the UK and I have lived in them. I studied them because sadly I lost my best friend from the age of 3 to a fire in one, he was only 14. His name was Richard Redshaw, a fine young man, very caring who died in a fire in a block that had no sprinklers and only 1 way out, along with his father.
They died in this manner because they were poor. As did all those at Grenfell and other blocks in between, because it is seen as too expensive by landlords and local authorities to modify these old buildings and conservatives have continuously blocked legislation that would help coerce them into doing so.
In the UK, there are 4,000 tower blocks, in which the people who live within are considered by this economic system and the government that serves that system, to have so little societal and economic value that the safety of their lives is not the top priority.
So what do we know of the economics of Grenfell? Well, we know that for the sake of £200,000 ($250,000) sprinklers could have been fitted. We know that for the sake of £5000 ($6400) flame retardant insulation could have been used. So why was this not done? It’s true to state that sprinklers would not have extinguished the fire, but they would most certainly have controlled it for a far longer duration, slowing the spread of heat and smoke into the communal areas, where many couldn’t even find the stairwell due to smoke.
The local authority (Kensington, we call them councils here) has roughly £270($340) million sat in its bank account which it calls its “reserve” so this was not a question of insufficient capital to do the works, this was a system of control, of economic and political intermixing, that deemed the people of that fateful tower block, to be of a lesser value in their entirety, than a sprinkler system. And this is repeated nationally across all of these blocks and estates.
As for the fire retardant foam, here is where capitalism really hits home. The choice to use the cheaper more flammable insulation was made in order to maximise profit by the firm that was contracted to do the work. Rydon, the firm in question, have stated they complied with all safety regulations re materials which at present does appear to be the case. So let’s go over that in more detail.
A private company was able to utilise a lack of regulation, to maximise profit, with fatal consequences. The next time a conservative or centrist says to you “we are cutting red tape” or “we are blocking regulation” ask yourself why the red tape is there / regulation is needed, to begin with. It’s mostly to prevent public harm or ensure public good by curbing the worst natures of capitalism, primarily caused by rule number 1, maximise profit.
From Cities in the sky to Co-ops in the sky?
These high rise blocks were built with the grandest of intentions, they were advertised originally as “cities in the sky” a beautiful notion. But as the decades have passed, capitalism has continued to allow those that run our society to deem most of us, the bottom 63% who earn less than £28,000($36,000) a year, as of a lesser value than a sprinkler.
At the same time it allowed those who govern us, many landlords and capitalist’s themselves, to prioritise making the building look nice for the wealthier eyes that have to look at it which produces a building wrapped in posh cladding done at the lowest possible cost while negating to fit fire suppression systems. This is a dynamic, a cost benefit analysis that must be ended. If the cost of allowing capitalism to determine the behaviours of individuals above us is that it occasionally results in mass deaths, then it’s time we said good bye to capitalism with regards to social housing at the very least. And I have an idea of how to do it.
If we took a block like Grenfell tower, in the heart of London. At a stupidly low rent of $500 per month per apartment the block generates £48,000 ($60,000) a month. That is a level of income that could transform the internals and the lives of those people that live in that block. At present it goes out the doors and into the pockets of the few at the top of the housing associations that manage them. These are semi privatised institutions with dubious credentials and maximising profit at the heart of everything they do.
No more, give the damned buildings to the people via land bank societal co-operatives, let us work out a rental system and pay for our own sprinklers. Let us elect our own board from our own communities, and let us decide, how much rent to produce, and what to do with that rent, as a community.
Surely this is a better future for us, than government paying benefits to poor people who hand them to wealthy institutions / individuals who do little to improve their lives beyond wasting money on things the residents do not want and refusing to spend it on what they need, as there is no profit for anyone but the residents in that.