There is an ever-growing stream of media commentary on the Grenfell fire, increasing daily as the public enquiry unfolds. There are some elements in the media with the goal of obscuring or excusing the plain facts as part of a pre-emptive defence manoeuvre to protect those most implicated in what caused the fire and the 72 deaths. That they feel the need to use such distortions to defend the Grenfell landlords and those who ordered and oversaw the Grenfell refurbishment that fitted the lethal cladding only increases the suggestion of a general doubt on all sides about their innocence.
The responses by both the Grenfell Action Group(GAG) and the Architects for Social Housing(ASH)(1) do a good job of exposing the inaccuracies, lies, smears and bias employed by media distorters. We will here try to point out some of the methods and motives being used by defenders of and apologists for the Grenfell landlords; The Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which had managed the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s (RBKC) social housing stock since 1996.
The maintenance of neglect
The quality of maintenance and periodic refurbishment works is key to the quality of a lived environment and home life. Many tenants with experience of trying to get their social landlord to deliver the basic services they are legally obliged to and to get basic repairs done know that it’s often a never-ending battle with an indifferent bureaucracy(2). For this privilege, tenants pay increasing rents and often-extortionate service charges to the landlord.
There is plenty of evidence online of years of tenant dissatisfaction with the KCTMO landlord; poor reviews of day-today service delivery, blogs detailing management failures and dodgy dealings, the failings of all options available for tenants to complain and seek improvements; and a 2008 survey commissioned by the landlord to investigate causes of large-scale tenant complaints which highlighted management failings in service delivery. Meanwhile those senior managers and executives in charge of this poor delivery were raking in six figure salaries, generous expense accounts and stashing away massive personal pension pots. All while living in expensive town houses worth millions in gentrified areas; quite a contrast to the lives of their tenants and residents suffering their incompetence. The Council also commissioned a survey of “regeneration” prospects for the area; depending on one’s location in the class divide this can be also be translated as “gentrification” and “social cleansing”. At the same time some senior members of both the Council and TMO also had personal business interests in property speculation.
Many social housing tenants are familiar with poor maintenance services. As part of the long-term process of privatising and commercialising social housing bodies, maintenance and building works contracts were put out to tender to replace labour forces directly employed by landlords. Winning bids were usually based on the cheapest price; as tenants soon found out, this ‘competitive’ pricing was often achieved by unrealistic projections and workloads. Companies overloading tradespersons with too many jobs to get through in a day’s work mean they either can’t spend enough time on jobs to do them properly (leading to the necessity of repeat visits) or they have to miss out some scheduled jobs to finish jobs that overrun their schedules. For tenants this often means repeated days taken off work (with earnings lost) to wait to see if tradespersons turn up. The decline of traditional apprenticeships in all trades also means many young workers are poorly trained and/or inexperienced. The high turnover in contractors (often due to poor performance) means they don’t build up familiarity and continuity with maintaining particular properties that a permanent directly employed workforce would.
These mundane particulars of hassles of tenants’ and residents’ lives(3) and their relation to wider housing policies involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower are important to point out as an indication of both failure of building contracting policies and of a culture of contemptuous indifference among social housing bureaucracies – who were often more interested in developing their profitable real estate activities than adequately monitoring and delivering basic services.
Many tenants, depending on the maintenance needs of their property, may live for years without these hassles. But one minor problem, allowed by poor maintenance and neglect to escalate, can come to dominate and ruin lives. A local MP described how a KCTMO tenant had tried and failed for years to get a leak causing mould and damp in her flat fixed. Eventually, she and her children fell ill from their toxic living conditions and through stress and inability to work she got into rent arrears; KCTMO then evicted her. Since then the flat has been condemned as unfit for human habitation(4).
There were years of complaints right up to the fire from residents about shoddy work carried out by various contractors the Council continued to employ(5). At the very least this should have emphasised to the TMO and Council its legal obligation and duties of care to closely monitor the work of contractors carrying out the block refurbishment(6). But, as shown below, they were more concerned with the cosmetic appearance of the cladding than with its lethal material properties...
O’Hagan’s fictitious facts
The fiction writer and commentator Andrew O’Hagan recently had a long article on Grenfell published in London Review of Books (LRB) to coincide with the start of the Grenfell fire public enquiry. (He has a forthcoming book on Grenfell to promote which his awful article is a promo for.) As a consequence, he became the most prominent media defender of the senior TMO and RBKC politicians and managers most deeply implicated in the disaster.
O’Hagan tried to gain confidence with survivors and locals to secure interviews by claiming ‘the right-wing press hates me’. Yet he has used the same smear tactics they use and the right-wing press have eagerly used the distortions of his LRB article to smear fire victims and implicate firefighters(7). O’Hagan and his fellow excusers resemble rats feeding on a corpse. It’s damning enough that O’Hagan, spending ten months ‘investigating’ and employing a research team, has had to quickly retract and correct various parts of his article after complaints from those he interviewed that he had distorted what they’d said. Various factual errors have also been pointed out. In contrast, the Grenfell Action Group, despite O’Hagan’s attempted smears (and earlier threats of legal action from their landlord), haven’t had to correct a word and stand vindicated for their warnings of likely consequences of safety failings.
O’Hagan’s LRB article was also criticised at the start of the Grenfell public enquiry for repeating the tabloid lie that the tenant in whose flat the fire began had quickly packed a suitcase and fled; when in fact CCTV footage, phone records and eyewitnesses prove he took considerable time to wake and notify all his neighbours and repeatedly dialled 999. He eventually left with little but the clothes on his back. So much for O’Hagan’s ‘conscientious, concerned’ journalism.
Similarly, the Architects for Social Housing report thoroughly dissects in detail the construction, political and social aspects that O’Hagan miserably fails to. O’Hagan remains conveniently silent on the ASH report that demolishes many of his claims.
At around the same time, [fire] crew manager Stern crawled on to the smoke-logged 16th floor and felt “the leg of someone standing up”. He pulled him to the ground and helped him to the stairwell, where he made it safely down to the ground floor. The resident was Edward Daffern of the Grenfell Action Group. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/21/grenfell-inquiry-fire-brigade-report-blazes-rapid-progress
Kebede has said his family was harassed by journalists and they had to leave his partner’s home in Shepherd’s Bush. An article in the Daily Mail had accused him of being responsible for the fire, he said. “Since then we have all lived together in various hotels,” he added. The tenant in the flat where the Grenfell Tower fire broke out has said refurbishment of the building degraded the property, creating gaps around his kitchen window and placing gas pipes in corridors.
Behailu Kebede, who lived in flat 16 on the fourth floor, said he had had no problems with his home before the work was completed in 2016, but afterwards “no one was happy” with what had been done. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/jun/21/grenfell-works-left-no-one-happy-says-tenant-in-fire-source-flat
These are the traumatised survivors O’Hagan has publicly smeared with his lies. He blames the firefighters who risked their lives and the local activists who foresaw the disaster - while defending the landlords who oversaw the regime and who, at the conclusion of the Grenfell refurbishment, publicly patted themselves on the back and declared;
“At a board meeting of KCTMO in July 2016, the board determined – as part of its Health & Safety Action Plan – that it should “extend the fire safety approach adopted at Grenfell Tower to all major works projects”(8).
As landlord, the TMO failed in its duty to ensure adequate inspection of work done by contractors – the Council’s praise of the TMO’s health & safety aspect of the Grenfell refurb makes clear that they were neglecting any adequate monitoring and instead ignorantly praising and signing off what they’d failed to investigate. Meanwhile they dismissed tenant safety complaints as an irritation and threatened activists with legal action for their criticisms.
An architect quoted by ASH criticises the Council Building Control dept. for failing to insist that contractors submit Full Plans of construction details for approval, instead effectively letting them self-regulate.
“There is a question that points to a “chemistry” between the contractor and the Building Control department.”
O’Hagan has intervened with his largely fact-free defence of the landlord just as the Grenfell public enquiry started. So clueless in the whole subject is O’Hagan that he could write that “the politics of space is replacing the politics of class”. For those of us not living in his glitterati media bubble its long been obvious that the politics of space is the politics of class. If Grenfell and its history doesn’t ram that home to even the most dense, opportunist and insensitive of observers and his team of researchers he’d do us all a favour to stick to his own “space”; multi-million pound north London townhouse dinner parties, where he can carry on swapping investment tips and name-dropping his new double-barrelled pals;
“Andrew O’Hagan lives in an arts and crafts-style house in Primrose Hill, northwest London”. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/tragedy-has-forced-me-to-move-on-from-julian-assange-q5mzgjq9g
Primrose Hill property is among the most expensive in London. Aside from owning a house worth millions he also co-owns a trendy local café catering for his fellow gentry(9).
... why the council became such a locus of hatred after the fire. The answer may lie in what could be called the dislocations of compassion. It may seem right, in these times, to place compassion before composure, and to feel insulted by authorities who appear to think when they should be feeling. I’ve never met two Tories exactly the same, but I suspect that in North Kensington there is a deeply founded suspicion, among a small vocal group – a group that had lived with a Tory council for ever and were sick of it – that these posh individuals, the councillors at the top with all the decision-making power, with their patrician manners, their double-barrelled names, their affinity with private development and their expensive educations, were sitting ducks. Seven years into austerity, and so soon after a close election, which the Labour candidate, Dent Coad, had won in Kensington by twenty votes, the climate was right for the storm of disapproval that was about to hit the council.(10)
O’Hagan is keen to play psychologist with local GAG activists, claiming that, unlike him, they lack “composure”. But if applying the same kind of analysis to him we could suggest he instinctively feels more at home with those ‘people of influence’ who inhabit the same arena and similar social status as him, where they share a public voice above the rest of us; politicians, media people etc – and perhaps resents upstart voices like activist blog groups who challenge the dominant narrative of media hacks & politicians.
O’Hagan grew up on a council estate. Perhaps that explains his loud contempt for those criticising the KCTMO and RBKC landlords. The self-made man often judges those he’s left behind by his own miserable standards; assuming that they too are just as determined to crawl over the pack to climb the greasy pole, to flatter, backstab and arse-lick their way to the top. They therefore remain, in his eyes, a resentful envious threat to his new social status – assumed to be as greedy and ruthless for it as him.
O’Hagan can play the upper classes both ways; satisfying the liberal middle class desire for an unthreatening ‘authentic working class voice’ who has acquired the literary cultural traits they so value to deliver voyeuristic scenes of working class life; while also showing due admiration and deference for the double-barrelled ‘old money’ aristocrats he wants to be accepted by. (All good contacts for his knighthood for ‘services to culture’ probably waiting down the road.)
But all this might assume that O’Hagan is just stupid, servile and out of his depth. Whether it is merely the wealthy cultural starlet O’Hagan’s instinctive natural affinity & bias for the ruling class and their defence or a more calculated intervention as part of a wider orchestrated PR campaign in their favour as the public enquiry starts is hardly worth speculating over - as it comes down to the same effect & attempted influence. But, whatever the motive or strategy, O’Hagan has again shown his stupidity in the clumsiness and crudeness of his defence - provoking a fierce backlash and his embarrassed retractions and “corrections” of the distortions in his LRB article.
Similarly, those he admires and defends so much have had to do some hasty rewrites. A recent issue of Private Eye reports;
“Nick Paget-Brown, the former Tory leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC), who resigned last July after the Grenfell fire, was quick to reinvent himself as an expert on cost-cutting, touting his services to other councils.
Paget-Brown launched NPB Consulting last August, less than two months after he was forced to quit as council leader. His LinkedIn profile boasted that when it came to “financial planning in an age of austerity” Paget-Brown was the man to go to for advice. As stinginess on fire safety expenditure has been widely blamed for contributing to the Grenfell tragedy, this did not go down well.
Paget-Brown’s updated LinkedIn page now carries no reference to “financial planning”, or, indeed, to NPB Consulting. According to the new version he has been MD of “Pelham Consulting” since July 2017. Pelham’s flagship product is a worthy-but-dull “UK party manifesto and policy tracker”. Perhaps this is a prudent change of profile.
It seems likely that Grenfell will always be a career-deflating albatross around Paget-Brown’s neck.”
The ASH report is excellent and makes O’Hagan’s article look even more of a whitewash. They detail how the Council commissioned a report on how to gentrify the area; this report complained that the external look of Grenfell “blighted” the area and its gentrification prospects – so the lethal cladding was added. Paget-Brown had been;
a councillor in the borough since 1986, and previously occupied the position of Cabinet Member for Community Safety, Regeneration and the Voluntary Sector, in which capacity he was responsible for driving a range of capital investment projects in North Kensington.
The cosmetic effect of the cladding so pleased him that he was;
quoted on the council webpage on the refurbishment as saying: ‘It is remarkable to see first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower.’
Maybe that should be his epitaph.
Recent comments from the ongoing public enquiry;
The chief executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea told survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster that the council had been behaving like “a property developer masquerading as a local authority”, MPs have been told.
Barry Quirk, who took over at the borough one week after the fire in June 2017, made the comment in a private meeting with Grenfell United, the survivors’ group, one of its leading members, Edward Daffarn, told the House of Commons housing select committee.
“Think about that,” Daffarn told the MPs. “They were property developers masquerading as a local authority. They failed to keep us safe because they had higher priorities – getting their hands on the land, this massive goldmine they had.”
The council said it accepted Daffarn’s remarks and agreed. It indicated its strategy has changed since the fire, which sparked the resignations of the leader and deputy leader, Nick Paget-Brown and Rock Feilding-Mellen, the latter of whom works as a property developer.
We don’t feel at home anywhere and want to feel at home everywhere
Working class housing is the location where the domestic reproduction of labour power occurs for capital; it’s where those who make the profits for the ruling class reproduce and maintain themselves (whether as active workers, reserve army of unemployed, retired or housewives/husbands/parents/carers etc). This needs bearing in mind to understand the housing policies of recent successive Labour and Tory governments; all of which have been designed to claw back the welfare state concessions made to the working class in the post-WWII era. The sell-off and decline in social housing – alongside rocketing property prices - has pushed younger generations into the private rented sector and increased overcrowding and insecurity. In the case of housing benefit (HB), ever higher rents have meant increasing amounts of benefits are paid to private landlords while decreasing amounts of benefits are available as disposable income for the poor. As benefit levels for the poor, sick and unemployed suffer drastic reduction, HB payments to the wealthy landlords skyrocket.
Whereas until the early 1970s an average working class wage would often provide for a family household’s needs, for a long time now two or more jobs have often been needed to provide food and shelter for a household. Benefits are often an essential necessity for the low-paid. The majority of HB claimants are the working poor; HB not only enriches landlords but is also a subsidy to low-wage employers who escape having to pay a wage sufficient for workers to reproduce themselves. This makes the tabloid “scrounger” demonisation of claimants – churned out by populist journo hacks probably living, like O’Hagan, in wealthy middle class areas - all the more sickly ironic.
Billionaires buy up large swathes of property in London as profitable investments (with present low interest rates, a better investment return than keeping money in the bank) and the properties are often left empty for years or used rarely. (It’s a similar story of rich people and their rarely used holiday homes in rural areas.) Meanwhile the housing crisis reaches epic proportions as councils and housing associations, working hand in glove with property speculators, clear and demolish social housing to make way for expensive private developments. The artificial scarcity of housing created by private property relations is laid bare. For those not wearing privileged blinkers the politics of space as the politics of class is plain to see on the Monopoly board of the city. It’s a sign of the resignation of these times that, among the vast amounts of Grenfell commentary, there hasn’t been a whisper about a genuinely radical alternative to capitalist housing relations and the class society that enforces an artificial scarcity. A demand for affordable effectively regulated safe social housing – and for its extension - against the dangers, artificial scarcity, high cost and insecurity of the market is necessary; but the vision of a wholly different society where private property, the domination of the commodity and market relations don’t determine satisfaction of needs seems lost, for the moment at least. The basic need for shelter becomes, like all needs, inevitably commodified under capitalism. Housing as private property with access limited by market forces and greedy profit makes cost-cutting, safety compromises and artificially induced scarcity an ever-present likely danger. There is little or no actual shortage of liveable space – only market forces prevent access to satisfaction of need(11).
O’Hagan and his fellow distorters have done us one minor service; they show both how ruthless and how incompetent the loyal servants of the ruling class can be. No tragedy is out of bounds to exploit, no deceits and distortions are beyond using to defend the powerful when their greed and contempt for those they rule over is occasionally laid bare. Yet equally, O’Hagan has fooled no one; if their loyal guard, devoted servants, admirers and lackeys are nowadays so incompetent it suggests some weakness for the ruling class and a possible lack of coherent strategy and skill (as, even large sections of the ruling class would argue, do the handling of Brexit, Trump etc). But the real test is whether they can get away with letting the guilty walk free, whether the ongoing social cleansing of social housing will continue and whether they will avoid being forced to improve overall housing safety and provision; or whether angry working class pressure and the ‘agitation’ O’Hagan hates so much can prevent that. The enemy couldn’t have picked a much worse mouthpiece to lead the charge, but O’Hagan’s article and its critical shredding is just one skirmish in that battle.
Yet, when opposition to social cleansing and housing struggles at present remain as fragmented as other struggles against rampant capitalism, false optimism is as useless as resignation. Ripped off, made ill or even murdered by poor housing conditions, sickened by a polluted environment, degraded by poorly paid and/or often pointless jobs that barely cover survival, increasing dependence on foodbanks, constantly lied to and numbed by politicians and media ... So much ground has been lost, we’re left wondering, how much more misery will we endure before the tide is turned?
1) See; https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2018/06/18/ohagans-ivory-tower-part-two/ and
Luke Barratt also points out more of O’Hagan’s factual errors; https://twitter.com/lukewbarratt/status/1011960503030214656
(2) The frontline workers tenants deal with are often poorly paid and overworked, suffering years of wage freezes while their bosses on six-figure salaries award themselves annual increases. Frontline staff are the flak-catchers for tenant frustrations due to poorly resourced management structures. At its worst, a ‘divide & rule’ culture can develop where some housing staff, themselves often paying high private rents, express resentment of those ‘ungrateful’ tenants with lower social rents and greater security of tenure.
(3) We generally talk of Grenfell occupants as “tenants” throughout this article. But we say “tenants and residents” here to point out that, while most in Grenfell were social housing tenants of the TMO, a minority were leaseholder occupants who had bought former council flats while others were renting privately from leaseholder landlords.
(5) For comments on the failure to intervene of HCA, the UK social housing regulator, see our earlier article; https://libcom.org/news/monopoly-board-city-grenfell-tower-where-was-hca-government-housing-regulator-19062017
(6) Though they may be less keen take credit for it since the fire, KCTMO & RBKC board minutes made clear who was in charge of their “regeneration” projects; they describe the control and joint management responsibilities they exercised over their refurbishment programmes and their “delivery”, including Grenfell;
Growth Strategy Delivery Plan 2014-17
Action; Complete Grenfell Tower refurbishment
Milestones 2015-16; Project complete
Update; Grenfell Tower regeneration is approaching its final stages.
Action; Work with RBKC on identified estate regeneration at Treverton, Warwick Road and Trellick Tower.
Milestones 2015-16; RBKC and TMO work together on managing the process for consultation and delivery.
RBKC to confirm TMO is preferred manager for new homes developed.
Update; More detailed capital monitoring procedures have been developed which set out the working relationship between the TMO and the Council on the asset management projects. These will be include in the next version of the Management Agreement and are in preparation for further regeneration opportunities involving extensive partnership working. http://www.kctmo.org.uk/files/board-meetings/093743_board_pack_(open)_-_26_may_2016.pdf
(7) O’Hagan seems miffed that Grenfell activists weren’t sufficiently receptive to his journalistic enquiries and so paints a poor picture of them as politically biased moaners. He also implicates blame on the fire service yet paints the organisations whose Council/landlord regime was responsible for poor safety practices as the victims. Considering the hatchet job he’s attempted on Grenfell residents and firefighters risking their lives, who in their right mind would ever talk to him again?
(11) The mass squatting movement, now mostly outlawed in the UK (except in commercial buildings) was a partial practical critique of this artificial scarcity imposed by market relations.