From the fire: Grenfell, Activism and Government Accountability

Melissa Fielding
June 10, 2020
"Grenfell Tower" by Catholic Church (England and Wales) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The night our eyes changed

Rooms where, love was made and unmade in a flash of the night

Rooms where, memories drowned in fumes of poison

Rooms where, futures were planned and the imagination of children built castles in the sky

Rooms where, both the extraordinary and the mundane were lived

Become forever tortured graves of ash

Oh you political class, so servile to corporate power

Did they die, or us? [1]

The political performance of sorrow manifests in certain ways: politicians appear in in sombre, formal clothing, perhaps with a carefully chosen visual token of solidarity; they adopt a serious tone of voice, often with slow but rhythmic speech. Body language is stiff, and there is usually a sympathetic head tilt. Their hands are only used for small gestures unless to serve a purposefully rousing statement.

This was the case on Wednesday 30th October 2019 in the House of Commons, nearly two and a half years after the Grenfell Tower burned, and the morning after the release of Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry report. The public inquiry—announced by then Prime Minister Theresa May not long after the fire on 14 June 2017—has been divided into two separate investigations:- the first to understand what happened the night of the fire, and the second to address how these conditions came to be, examining the role of Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council and the actions of those carrying out the refurbishment on the tower.

Phase 1 documents the night of the fire in intricate detail, building a picture of the unfolding tragedy and those who experienced it. It includes a minute by minute description of the fire’s rapid escalation; the repeated but polite phone calls by residents, and the tense, strained note of increasing anxiety in their voices, still trusting that of course, they will be rescued. People don’t die in tower block fires in Britain in 2017, do they?

The results of Phase 1 state that the aluminum cladding, which was installed a year before in a council-led refurbishment, was to blame for the rapid spread and severity of the fire. As part of the report, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, chair of the inquiry, listed recommendations to prevent a disaster of this magnitude occurring again, ranging from the outright ban of combustible materials, the installation of more complex fire prevention within social housing, to the review of emergency service practices. In the wake of the report’s release, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a statement in the House of Commons. The tone was dignified and serious and reaffirmed the need to act on the recommendations of Moore-Bick, with Johnson himself claiming ‘where action is called for, action will follow’.

These performances, whilst potentially sincere as gestures of empathy, ultimately appear to be empty ones. Similar words have been said many times before, in similar places, and by the same people. When repeatedly re-performed in different ways, such statements become hollow and insubstantial. They stand in place of measures taken to ensure a disaster of this magnitude does not happen again. This is the political performance that has marred the aftermath of Grenfell, for two and a half long years.

The official inquiry itself is part of this spectacle. The ‘terms of reference’, which is the phrase given in a public inquiry for agreed focus of the investigation, have been criticised by activists, politicians and journalists for serious omissions. Here, the focus of the investigation is considered too narrow to address the complex social and political factors that led to the disaster. Instead, it concentrates on the material conditions of the Tower without also questioning the wider context surrounding the building and its governance.

There is a fluidity to truth, which becomes increasingly dangerous when an ‘official truth’ is the dominant and overarching narrative. ‘Truth’ as described by Rebecca Solnit in a recent essay, is not ‘something that arises from facts that exist independently of our wills and whims’ —rather, it is a certain perspective, a construction, a version of events. Truth can be manipulated, it can be twisted and enforced. Yet for those directly affected by the fire—whether as victims or the bereaved —the truth has always been known: in the years leading up to the fire, they were aware that the tower was unsafe; they made repeated, unanswered pleas to the council and management company to take action.

Numerous journalists have explored the political causes of the fire, noting that the tower fell into a dire state due to the interplay of austerity politics and the government’s underfunded, devalued and privately co-opted social housing policies. The fire at Grenfell is symptomatic of a much larger structural problem, of a society that puts money before people, and one that normalises both processes of financial conservatism and accumulation.

Yet whilst the political spectacle of sorrow continues, there are people living with the aftermath of the fire, trying to garner sufficient government response so they are able to rebuild their lives and slowly heal from the trauma of the tragedy. I met with Moyra Samuels, who helped to form the organisation Justice 4 Grenfell in the immediate aftermath of the fire. We met in the Argan Tree, a cafe near Latimer Road station, and just around the corner from the remains of Grenfell. Moyra has lived within this community for years and talks of how comfortable she is here; it is where she works, and where her family and friends live. This easiness is immediately recognisable; every now and then neighbours call out to her as they pass by.

In the days following the fire, the response from the local government was delayed and chaotic. Justice 4 Grenfell worked to manage and prioritise the needs of victims and survivors. They spent days upon days sifting through information, talking to survivors, sorting out legal representation and organising public meetings. Their goals, Moyra comments, include both immediate and long term aims: the first and most urgent is to ensure all those affected by the fire are housed in safe and permanent homes; the second is to instigate policy change regarding housing maintenance and management, ensuring the fire is not repeated; and the third is to hold those responsible to legal account.  

That the organisation’s aims have remained largely unchanged in the two and half years since the fire raises several urgent questions: why are the survivors still without the means necessary to recover? Why has the governmental response been so slow and limited? Why haven’t regulations been put in place to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from occurring again?


The responsibility of rehousing lies directly with the local government. The RBKC council released the Grenfell Rehousing Policy in August of 2017, in which they committed to finding permanent, life-time assured homes for the 201 families affected by the fire within a year. However, the council’s promise has fallen short, with seven households still living in temporary accommodation,— a shortcoming that has intensified the trauma of survivors.

The Grenfell Rehousing Policy works in a similar way to the wider social housing system, in that prospective residents are categorized according to need, with those considered high priority—in this case those who lost family members in the fire—being rehoused first. The issue, therefore, is finding enough homes. In part, the Grenfell Rehousing Policy has been stifled by the borough’s declining social housing stock, which, as detailed on their website, fell from 556 to 433 between 2009 and 2017.

The demand for social homes is a nationwide problem; over one million households are on the social housing register today, waiting for a home. The so-called housing crisis is a culmination of a lack of truly affordable social homes, an inflated property market and urban developments that dispossess and displace.

Britain’s social housing stock has been in decline since the introduction of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 Right to Buy policy, which offered council tenants the opportunity to buy their home. As a result, the overall number of social housing units dwindled from around seven million in the early 1980s to under five million in 2019. This policy marked the beginning of a new economic logic of deregulation and marketisation that has come to define not only the UK housing system, but society has a whole. Viewing the housing system as ripe for capital accumulation, the political class propagated the belief that home-ownership was the morally-superior option—a position that has been continually reinforced rhetorically and through housing policy by subsequent New Labour and Conservative governments.

Home ownership is central to Conservative party ideology. Coupled with the political project of austerity—considered a ‘justified’ process of financial cuts to the welfare state—limited social housing stock is seen as necessary. In his closing speech of the 2015 Conservative Party conference, a year before the fire at Grenfell, David Cameron advocated relaxing planning laws that require developers to build social housing as part of a mixed-tenure private developments, so that more homes for sale could be built. In the 2019 Conservative party manifesto the focus on increasing home ownership is reaffirmed, yet there is little to address the far-reaching issues within the social housing system.

In the aftermath of the fire, £235m was committed by the RBKC council to secure new homes for the survivors. However, reports have suggested that much of this funding was used to temporarily house families in emergency accommodation, in hotels and B&Bs. Finding permanent homes for the survivors has been a slow process exacerbated by the depleted social housing stock.


Before the fire, the Grenfell tenants continually complained about the standard of their homes and made numerous requests to the council for proper care and maintenance. Grenfell Action Group, a tenant’s association which was formed prior to the fire, noted the potential fire risk within the estate as early as 2013. The group, which documented its actions as a blog, described how ‘distressed residents descended en masse on the estate office to demand action’ when residents ‘had woken to find smoke issuing from various electrical appliances in their homes’. In what seems like a macabre foretaste of disaster, the blog describes the ‘single staircase with no natural light...the only emergency exit route from Grenfell Tower’.

For those who are awaiting rehousing, and who are indeed, rehoused—the insecurity does not end. Moyra comments on the fear of disaster repeating itself, as the families are rehoused in homes that are part of the same system and subject to the same lack of scrutiny.  Survivors have stated their reluctance to commit to a lifetime tenancy in a substandard home. If previous social housing did not keep them safe, what is different about these new homes? The RBKC council has stated their commitment to providing a ‘safe, settled and secure new home’ for the survivors but the allocation only highlights the specific forms of tenure provided and the cost of the new homes. There is nothing about the type, standard and maintenance of the property. This begs the question, what is considered a safe, settled and secure new home?

The UK’s social housing system is managed and maintained by a variety of actors, and due to this, the responsibility for social housing conditions is fractured; the consequences of separate decision-making processes unfolding within disparate organisations. Public-private partnerships and outsourcing has become the norm in local government, supported by both Conservative and New Labour governments. There is a belief that within this free market environment the economy will flourish under lack of constraints, and the services delivered will be economically efficient and effective. Local government, constrained by centrally allocated budgets, has largely become a process dictated by identifying private service providers at the lowest possible cost. For example: Rydon, the construction company contracted by the Kensington and Chelsea TMO to refurbish Grenfell, was ultimately chosen because they offered the refurbishment for nearly £2.6 million less than their competitors [2].

Without state adhered regulations, private companies are able renovate and manage social housing as works for them. However, outsourcing has come under major scrutiny over the past few years. The Institute for Government—a leading thinktank working to analyse the operation of current government practices—has released several reports on the question of government outsourcing, questioning ‘the viability of the model’ in light of several public service failures, money losses and the undermining of public trust. The system has, in the case of Grenfell, proved fatal.

There is an undeterred Conservative belief in the potential success of private involvement in public services. In the inquiry report, Moore-Bick detailed several recommendations for the implementation of fire regulations in social housing but limited action has been taken by the central government . The use of combustible cladding which surrounded Grenfell tower has now been banned, but the ban has come under scrutiny for its ‘vague’ wording and potential loopholes.

Grenfell survivors have emphasised the necessity of new housing regulation and are pushing for these changes themselves. Justice 4 Grenfell is working on ‘The Grenfell Act’, a proposed policy that ensures certain standards for social housing nationwide including the outright ban of certain materials and stricter fire safety requirements. These policies would directly affect the companies building, maintaining and managing social homes. There is a desperate need for the proposed regulations but Moyra is aware of the struggle to realise these changes and comments of the avoidance of the local government to meet and address Justice 4 Grenfell’s requests. She comments that “quite early in the campaign somebody said to me, you do know you’re taking on the state, this is going to be hard. Everywhere we go, everything we try and advocate for, we hit a brick wall because we are taking on the relationship between corporate bodies and the central government.”

For these housing regulations to be implemented the government would have to make changes to the current operation of the social housing system. They would have to acknowledge that the current relationship between local council and corporation does not work and has violent and dangerous consequences. It would also begin a process of accountability; changes would imply that certain processes led to the fire and that now they must be changed.


The tragedy of the fire is not independent from those it affected. Inequality cannot be extricated from identity and embodied experience. Various campaigners have sought to emphasise how race and class played a part in both the cause and the response to the fire, highlighting the discrimination present before and after June 2017. The residents and victims of Grenfell were largely people of colour, many of whom were also first- or second-generation immigrants.

Race and immigration scholar Lisa Lowe explores how ‘capitalism expands not through rendering all labour, resources, and markets across the world identical, but by precisely seizing upon colonial divisions, identifying particular regions for production and others for neglect, certain populations for exploitation and still others for disposal’ [3]. Those who have historically been discriminated against continue to suffer through varying forms of disenfranchisement—in the case of Grenfell, through poor housing. There is a long and complex history of urbanisation and race within Britain and its empire, and current research confirms that the British urban landscape is highly racialised. In England, a country that is 82% white, most children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks are black or Asian. Throughout the UK, children from brown and black families are more likely to live in overcrowded housing of poor quality than white people, and they are 75% more likely to experience housing deprivation.  

Amidst the historical injustice of housing the black and brown population, there has been a reported rise in hate crime against immigrants in the UK.  The toxicity of the current climate since the Brexit vote in 2016 has emboldened such behavior and racism is becoming more overtly apparent, and seemingly normalised, in both political and everyday discourse. Moyra is clear in her discussion of the ever-present racism present before, during and after the fire. She comments on a racist ‘joke’ she saw on Facebook, about ‘why so many people couldn’t get out of the tower...because all the signs were in English’. In a radio interview, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke of the lack of ‘common sense’ of those in the fire. There is much apparent hostility towards the Grenfell residents, typical of discrimination to those deemed Other. They are viewed as inferior, as lacking in intelligence, and are to blame for their own misfortune. It is their own fault for being in that situation, in those buildings, on that day, at that time. It is their own fault that they are dead.

There is a sense, Moyra says, of being ignored or of being viewed as difficult, due to the residents’ ethnic ‘difference’. So much unconscious bias works its way through institutions in this way, with the assumption of racism as ‘an individual mentality or as an exception from normality, rather than as a form of structural coercion that is built into capitalist structures and institutions’[4]. Choices made to serve certain interests are choices of what services and people to invest in, who to protect, and in dangerous situations, who to save. There was no social policy that protected those who lived in fear, and little action now, even in the face of over seventy dead.


In this light the public performances of sorrow by British politicians appear hollow and morally vacant. They are carefully managed displays of empathy that tread the line between showing sadness but not remorse; performances that treat Grenfell as an isolated tragedy rather than as the culmination of an economic and political project built on the precarity of Britain’s poor and working classes. That these performances of outrage stand in contradiction to the lack of recognisable action suggests that this loss is not great enough to ensure long term change. As Moyra hauntingly puts it, “we are the collateral damage”.

Activism remains slow and repetitive. Justice 4 Grenfell has had small wins, such as prolonging the rent amnesty for Grenfell survivors, ensuring a longer period of rent-free living. The wins also include the sustained way the community has been working together in the face of such a tragedy. Moyra mentions the intensity of having to face each other in difficult times and work out what it means to be a community and what it is to support one another.

But, as Moyra reiterates, it is a continual struggle. The survivors are in limbo; wanting to move on but being without the material means to do so is a constant mental battle. There needs to be change, not only for the physical safety of residents, but also to release some mental anguish. There is a sense of being forgotten about, and of being left out of the national conversation. The community desperately needs to have a sense that the situation is shifting. Moyra recalls London rapper Lowkey’s song ‘Ghosts of Grenfell’—implying the residents left behind are the ghosts referred to—unable to heal and unable to move on, stuck, as hollowed out versions of their previous selves.

Moyra understands the struggle for justice at Grenfell as a small part of a wider political movement, one that centres the need for decent, truly affordable and well-maintained homes. Grenfell must be kept within the public’s consciousness. Hopeful at the support Justice 4 Grenfell has received around the country, especially within young activist groups, she sees the future of such a social movement gaining power through public displays of protest, of occupation and civil disobedience. “What do we have to lose?” Moyra asks: “nothing, except our bloody chains.”


[1] Lowkey. Ghosts of Grenfell. 2018. Genius. Accessed 10 January 2020).

[2] MacLeod, G. “The Grenfell Tower Atrocity: Exposing Urban Worlds of Inequality, Injustice, and an Impaired Democracy.” City 22, no. 4 (July 4, 2018): 460–89.

[3] Lowe, L. The intimacies of four continents. Duke University Press. 2015: 150.

[4] Danewid, I. “The Fire This Time: Grenfell, Racial Capitalism and the Urbanisation of Empire.” European Journal of International Relations (2019):8

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Melissa Fielding