Grenfell: Before the healing must come justice
The memorial service for the Grenfell disaster at St Paul’s Cathedral was a moving spectacle.
The multi-faith event marked six months since the fire in a London tower block which claimed 71 lives, 18 of which were children.
The Dean of St Paul’s, Dr David Ison, told the survivors and support services in attendance, along with Prime Minister Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn and members of the Royal Family, that the whole country “grieves at the unspeakable tragedy, loss and hurt of that June day”.
Remembrance, of course, is an important part of grieving for the families with lost loved ones, and for the emergency services who worked tirelessly to save what lives they could.
But this disaster was man-made, and the wounds are still raw and untreated.
This was evident in the fact Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council leader Elizabeth Campbell stayed away from the service after victims' families said the council was not welcome.
Survivors, quite understandably, demand justice, another important part of the healing process. Four fifths of them don’t even yet have a permanent home to live in over the festive season. Despite warm words from politicians, they are still homeless, grieving and desperate six months on from the tragedy.
Yesterday survivor Ahmed Elgwahry told a special meeting of MPs he had looked for his mum and sister after watching his flat burn for days and hearing them suffering.
“What I got was fragments of bone and muscle tissue,” he said.
Elgwahry blames the fire on a “culture of negligence and self-interest” and it’s easy to see why, both before the fire and in its aftermath.
Cheap, combustible material cladded the building and had been the subject of warnings by fire chiefs. It is banned in the United States.
The residents themselves had warned repeatedly that their only escape from the tower was a single staircase.
No sprinkler system was installed.
There are many questions left unanswered as the Public Inquiry gets underway.
Why were people crammed into such inadequate and unsafe living conditions? Why were warnings ignored?
Why haven’t councils coordinated their response so the families, whose lives have been destroyed, are settled in permanent homes by now?
Why hasn’t the Home Office published figures on how many undocumented people affected by Grenfell have tried to access support, and what has happened to their immigration status?
Crucially, why are the survivors telling us that they have been excluded from the public inquiry into what went wrong?
Communities secretary Sajid Javid has said the Grenfell residents “are in the driving seat”. Clearly, they are not.
Like many other communities across the UK in deprived circumstances, they are excluded and disenfranchised. For the Grenfell families though, this is exacerbated by living in one of the wealthiest areas of the country.
Now many of them face being rehoused in cheaper housing in outer London, as Kensington and Chelsea Council looks to fulfil its obligations, echoing the kind of mass displacement of communities which we now know contributed to the ‘Glasgow effect’ of poor health outcomes.
This is about more than just bringing those who are responsible for this tragedy to justice, it also about recognising that rubbing shoulders with the Royals today does not stop them being victims until they are no longer excluded and disenfranchised.