Today marks four years since 14 June 2017, the horrific night at Grenfell Tower that will be forever ingrained into my memory: the panic I felt while trying to escape the fire that destroyed the place I called home since I was a child, the suffocating smoke stinging my eyes, the intense heat, and – once outside – watching the flames engulf the building, with dread and disbelief.
Four years on and we, the survivors and bereaved families, have been repeatedly disappointed by the lack of progress towards preventing another avoidable tragedy. While we will be paying our respects to the 72 people who lost their lives as a result of that traumatic day, we will also continue to call for truth, justice, and change. Numerous fires in recent months involving residential blocks with cladding, such as those in Poplar in east London and the one in Leeds, show just how urgent these reforms are.
Those in charge have badly let us down. Successive governments have repeatedly fallen well short of implementing changes that we desperately need to keep people safe in their homes. Just last month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed a huge opportunity to right some wrongs by having failed to include the social housing white paper in the Queen’s Speech. The exclusion of the draft legislation from the speech means that the proposals – that include a robust and effective social housing regulator to ensure tenants are heard when they raise complaints and health and safety concerns – aren’t guaranteed to ever come into fruition.
Any possible criminal investigation into the fire is also a long way off. The ongoing public inquiry is not due to finish until next year and the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service cannot take any action until the final report is published. But, until then, it’s imperative that the truth about the fire and the events that led up to it continues to come out during the inquiry, including the failings of organisations to act and the decisions made that led to a tragedy of such a scale.
It’s a sad and infuriating irony that most of the health and safety hazards were introduced during the tower’s disastrous refurbishment – as has been revealed so far during the inquiry. Before the refurbishment, I was under the impression that the works would improve our quality of life. Instead, the combustible material that formed part of the new cladding turned our tower block into a ticking time-bomb – as inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick wrote in the inquiry’s first phase report.
There are no words that can accurately convey my anger towards the landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), that I believe drastically failed to fulfil its duty of care, and the local authority the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) that left the KCTMO to it. A number of residents of the wider Lancaster West Estate had long warned KCTMO that there would be a huge loss of life unless it took action to fix fire safety issues.
But it has come out during the public inquiry that the now-disbanded KCTMO and its main refurbishment contractor Rydon disregarded the repeated warnings and tried to discredit the whistleblowers as troublemakers and scaremongers. It’s a scandal that Rydon labelled those who had the temerity to ask for our homes to be made safe as “rebel residents” and “aggressive”.
The truth is that those who were meant to be looking after us were not ready for a disaster of this scale, according to evidence given by former KCTMO employees during the inquiry, and they shamefully had no plan for the evacuation of vulnerable residents who could not easily flee from a fire.
While the tower’s concrete exterior was being wrapped with flammable cladding, the conditions of communal areas and individual flats were also left in disrepair. Newly-fitted windows were malfunctioning – particularly dangerous in a high-rise block. New copper gas pipes that snaked through the flats and communal areas were left exposed and in danger of being knocked and damaged. These are part of the litany of residents’ complaints that has been referred to in evidence to the inquiry.
Just four months before the fire broke out, my household had to move out of the tower because asbestos was discovered and disturbed during repair works in our flat. My mum, sister and I were squeezed into one hotel room. The hotel had no laundry or cooking facilities, and we were living out of suitcases. We lived in stress and frustration for months. Our pleas to be moved somewhere suitable fell on deaf ears. KCTMO also failed to guarantee that our flat would be safe to move back into. We were repeatedly fobbed off by KCTMO with what sounded like excuses. It felt like trying to reason with a brick wall.
Less than a month after we returned to the flat, the fire changed our lives forever. We went through yet more upheaval and trauma in a short space of time. Once again, we were on the move for what felt like an eternity of uncertainty, broken promises, and delays.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, support from RBKC was non-existent. From what I remember, there was only one phone call to my mum from either KCTMO or the RBKC to tell us which hotel we were booked into. The community pulled together to take care of the rest.
This is why campaign and pressure groups such as Grenfell United were formed: to push for change. We tenants were treated as if we were an inconvenience, and we were given the impression that we ought to simply feel grateful for living in social housing in one of the most expensive boroughs in the UK, that has a massive gap between the super-rich and the poor.
Social tenants, many of whom are part of long-standing diverse communities and make huge contributions to society, ought to be valued and not treated like burdens. We should have felt respected and been treated like human beings without having to beg and fight for our rights. But until that happens, Grenfell United and groups across the country will continue campaigning for safe and secure homes for all.
Zoë Dainton is a survivor of the Grenfell Tower fire and a committee member of Grenfell United