Kwasi Kwarteng: Grenfell raises fundamental questions about the kind of society we want to be
This tragedy forces us to reflect on the nature of our society and our ability to connect with people across the community, writes Kwasi Kwarteng
The fire at Grenfell Tower last June was a national scandal. I have known the area of North Kensington and Notting Hill, where the Tower stands, all my life. I still find it hard to comprehend how such a disaster could have happened there. My mother’s cousin lived on the 24th floor of Trellick Tower in the 1980s, about a mile away from Grenfell Tower. I visited her numerous times, and can well imagine the sheer terror that gripped residents as their building and homes were engulfed in flames.
What happened was an appalling tragedy. Seventy-two people lost their lives as a result of the events at Grenfell. More than 300 lost their homes, and almost all their possessions. Others living in the area, as well as fire fighters, police officers and ambulance crews, have been deeply traumatised by what they saw that night.
Notting Hill, of course, has a particular resonance with the Afro-Caribbean community. After the Second World War the area became a hub for families who had left the Caribbean and Africa to make a new home in Britain and it was here, in late August 1958, that far right thugs showed open hostility to many black families in the area. Many people engaged in fighting, and it was this bad feeling which prompted the organisation of what would become the Notting Hill carnival.
Notting Hill will always have a special place in the heart of the Afro-Caribbean community in London. However, over the past 20 years or so, the area has changed. Property prices have risen and a new, wealthier community has been attracted to the area.
There was a feeling among some of the local community that they had been side-lined by the changing priorities and “gentrification” of the area. There is a suspicion that, as the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has got wealthier and wealthier, the people running the borough have forgotten some of the less-advantaged members of their community.
I know many councillors in Kensington and Chelsea, and they are among the most hard-working and selfless councillors anywhere in the capital. They take their civic obligations seriously. I am fully confident that they always have the best interests of all their residents at heart. Yet the perception among some residents at Grenfell Tower is very different and, as we all know, perception is often reality in politics.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire we saw the anger that some survivors have felt towards those running the borough. Some residents have openly said that their relative lack of wealth has led the Council to neglect their needs.
Everyone has been struck by the dignity with which those affected have reacted to unimaginable disaster.
Central government clearly now has a role to play. Funds for rehousing, new mental health services and investment in the Lancaster West estate is to be welcomed. However, some residents who lost their homes are still waiting to be rehoused. These people, quite understandably, feel let down and, together with the local authority, we must do what we can to speed up this process.
The Prime Minister’s announcement that the government will meet the costs of remedial cladding work on social housing high rise buildings is a step in the right direction. Following the final report of the Hackitt Review, the government has also announced that, subject to consultation, it plans to ban combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings.
The response to the Grenfell fire is one of the biggest challenges that the government faces. It forces us to reflect on the nature of our society, our ability to connect with people across the community.
The one minute’s silence to be held on 14th June should be a moment of quiet contemplation. The Grenfell Tower disaster asks fundamental questions about the kind of people we are. The government must answer those questions in a way that instils confidence with the public.
Kwasi Kwarteng is Conservative MP for Spelthorne