Emma Dent Coad: “Grenfell survivors have a right to be angry. They shouldn’t have to hold onto their emotions”
Emma Dent Coad had been an MP for four days before the fire at Grenfell Tower which took the lives of 72 people, many of whom she knew personally. A lifelong resident of Kensington, the disaster and its aftermath has taken a deep personal toll on the 63-year-old. One year on, she tells Sebastian Whale why she will never stop fighting for justice for the victims and their families
In the early hours of 14 June 2017, Emma Dent Coat was woken up by the sound of helicopters. This being Kensington, the noise wasn’t especially unusual; she would often hear the whirring of engines passing by her home during the night. But the frequency seemed strange.
“Eventually, I put the radio on and I heard what was happening,” the Labour MP tells me, her eyes turning bloodshot. “So I ran down there.”
Dent Coad, who lives three blocks away, arrived at Grenfell Tower at five in the morning. By now the fire that is thought to have originated from a fridge had engulfed the building. Firefighters tried in vain to control the blaze, residents trapped inside switched lights on and off in a cry for help, desperate to escape from the toxic smoke and searing flames.
A year on from the tragedy, which took the lives of 72 people, Dent Coad cannot bring herself to relive what she saw. “I don’t want to talk about that,” she says holding her right hand up, tears forming in her eyes, her voice croaking. “I never will, actually.”
Her personal connection to the horror runs deep. “I lost people and I have friends who lost family members or their entire families. My children, who went to a primary school there, also lost friends or have friends who lost family members,” she says.
“It got to us too. But my loss is nothing compared to some people. I’m out there to help other people, I don’t talk about that side of it.”
Dent Coad had been an MP for just four full days before the fire. She was riding on a wave of elation after taking Kensington from the Conservatives at the general election by twenty votes. What happened has understandably dominated her first twelve months in parliament, and much of her life outside.
It doesn’t take long to recognise the deep personal toll the tragedy has taken on the 63-year-old. “Like most people, I had the six weeks of counselling. It didn’t make any difference. I was angry and upset before, and I’m angry and upset about it now. It helps you cope a bit, but it doesn’t actually make you better,” she says.
“It’s a bit of a fallacy I’ve heard, ‘people are getting counselling, they’re getting better’. They’re really not. Sajid Javid made a reference to that at one point. I thought, you really think you’re going to get better after six sessions of counselling after what you’ve seen?”
Dent Coad, who is one of six children and has three of her own, has lived in the royal borough all of her life. She studied design at the Royal College of Art and has written a number of books on architecture and design. She is midway through a PHD on architecture and political ideology under General Franco of Spain. She has served on the Conservative-controlled Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council since 2006. She is still to this day a councillor in the Golborne Ward.
She was not surprised, therefore, when the community managed to overcome the urge to rise up in the days after the disaster. Though unrest was growing on the streets, Dent Coad and others managed to put a lid on things, urging the crowd “don’t let the press write your stories, you’ve got to write your own”.
“The community we have is very, very strong and they always have been. Grenfell was the most horrible trial and it did bring people together. But that community and all the links were always there. There were people who’ve lived there for decades. It’s a very, very close-knit community,” she says.
But that anger lingers to this day. “I think they have a right to be angry if they want to be angry. They shouldn’t have to hold onto their emotions all the time. But they say, ‘okay, this isn’t how nice people behave, so don’t behave like this.’ I find that quite problematic, actually, that people are having dignity imposed on them even though they’ve chosen that themselves.”
The inquiry into what happened at Grenfell has only just begun taking evidence. The first seven days were set aside for harrowing commemoration hearings from victims’ families. Dent Coad decided not to attend.
“I couldn’t because I’d be too emotionally involved. I couldn’t step back and be the person who helps,” she says. “There are some things I have to withdraw from to protect myself. I can’t be effective if I’m getting too emotionally involved. I have learnt how to do that.”
The inquiry, which was called by Theresa May last June, got off to a difficult start. Critics felt that Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a former Lord Justice of Appeal who was appointed its chairman, would not be able to identify with the community. A compromise was reached after to appoint two panel members for the second phase of the inquiry. The probe will not consider the societal, economic and political aspects of the disaster.
Grenfell has become a symbol both for the inequality of Kensington and Chelsea itself – its affluence and poverty – and used as a broader emblem by some for modern day Britain. Dent Coad, who has written and spoken at length about the inequalities in her constituency, notes that the average life expectancy for a man in her ward has dropped by six years since 2010.
As the inquiry begins to consider what went wrong, Dent Coad says that at the end of the probe “we need an honest and fair appraisal” of how the tragedy occurred. But she fears a “hardening” of attitudes, with the fire service coming in for criticism from some quarters for putting in place ‘stay put’ orders until 02.47, nearly two hours after the beginning of the fire.
“The advice is correct for a building that is being maintained properly,” she says, arguing you cannot blame the fire brigade for the failures in safety at Grenfell. “I feel that’s what’s happening at the moment and that’s desperately unfair,” she adds. She says there have been fires at three blocks in her ward recently, and the advice from emergency services was still to ‘stay put’.
The tower itself was built in the aftermath of the tragedy at Ronan Point, a 21-storey block that partially collapsed in 1968, killing four people and injuring 17. This meant that Grenfell was erected at a time when architects were especially keen to build solid concrete framed buildings that were “almost stronger than they needed to be”.
“I think it’s very unfair to criticise the fire brigade for something that is completely unprecedented. [But] that was going to happen, a hardening, spreading out the blame as far as possible,” she says.
Dent Coad branded Dame Judith Hackitt’s recent report into building regulations and fire safety a “betrayal” for its failure to call for a ban on flammable cladding. She argues that the families not only want justice but to ensure that there is no repeat of the disaster.
“The idea that there’s going to be a fudge now about this cladding, I was quite literally gobsmacked when I heard that,” she says.
“People died in the most hideous way you can imagine. And now we’re going to say it’s okay just so long as we tighten up the rules a bit? For a lot of people, it’s quite visceral for them, the fact that that ruling has not been made.
“It’s not a technical exercise this. It means everything to people who are affected. That’s why people felt so strongly about it, me included.
“I did feel like it was a complete betrayal. That means that this could happen again tomorrow.”
Throughout our conversation, Dent Coad is particularly critical of the Kensington and Chelsea Council, with whom she has a vexed and highly charged relationship. “The council has failed and are failing people every single day,” she stresses.
Dent Coad claims she did not see any officers from the local authority at the scene of the fire. She accuses the council of turning down help in the subsequent days, before the Gold Command was forced to step in. “Genuine chaos prevailed until the weekend,” she says.
Nearly a year on from the disaster and “hundreds” of the families have still yet to be rehoused, Dent Coad says. She has 250 people (around 120 households) on her books who have not been found accommodation, of whom around 30 households have people with disabilities requiring adaptable homes. The council, which has purchased hundreds of homes, have three that are compatible, she says.
Dent Coad also rails against “certain” press outlets for their “absolutely appalling” claims that survivors have turned down suitable accommodation. “The idea that people are hanging on for some super luxury home is absolute nonsense and offensive, too. No one would want to be in a Premier Inn for a year if they were being offered something decent,” she says.
Dent Coad has taken to filing Freedom of Information requests to get “the information we need” from the council. “That’s not okay,” she adds. She has met with many ministers, including newly appointed MHCLG Secretary James Brokenshire two weeks ago.
“If the government does the right thing I will praise them. Similarly, with the council,” she says. “But, while you’re messing up and you’re messing up people’s lives, I will criticise you every single day. I mean that. It’s not tribal politics. If they do a good job, I will praise them. And they’re not. It’s as simple as that.”
The “right thing” in Dent Coad’s eyes, is recognising weaknesses and addressing them. This would involve appointing commissioners to address the housing situation. “Instead, they’ve been defensive and they still are. Part of that defence, of course, is discrediting anybody who criticises them, which I’ve come in for a lot of,” she says.
Dent Coad’s predecessor Victoria Borwick alleged that she shared “collective responsibility” for what took place at Grenfell, having previously sat on the council’s Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). Though Dent Coad welcomed a commitment to upgrade Grenfell Tower while on the TMO between 2008-2012, she had long left by the time the refurbishment was discussed or any of the decisions made about the detail of the work were carried out. Following the allegation, she received 300 death threats. “I had nothing to do with it, I was nowhere near it,” she says. “But, mud sticks. There are still people who think I’m responsible or who will say that just to try and bring me down. It doesn’t work.”
Alongside her association with Grenfell, Dent Coad has become renowned for her musings on the Royal Family, many of whom are her constituents. A staunch republican, she believes that they are guilty of “sucking money out of the economy”. She also believes that Britain’s constitutional monarchy is not sustainable “in the long-term”.
With Grenfell survivors still in need of rehousing, the contrast with nearby Buckingham Palace jars greatly for the Labour MP. She is particularly animated by the cost of the renovation work that is needed to the Queen’s official London residence – and has a solution to make it more palatable. “There are other places they could live. It will then belong to us if we pay for it,” she says.
For her views on the Royal Family, which have come in for widespread scrutiny inside and outside of Parliament, Dent Coad has also received death threats. She has installed CCTV at her house, carries a GPS tracker, and occasionally has police outsider her surgery.
Though she says she is baffled by the “vitriol” that she receives for her unapologetic republicanism (“we can’t even have a debate about it without me being threatened with death”), it is not this that so heavily burdens Dent Coad.
Forty minutes in her company gives some insight into the responsibility she feels to ensure that justice is done for the 72 people who died at Grenfell. The impact it has had on her own life is made evident by her fragility when talking about the subject.
Often, we forget that politicians are humans too. And while national attention veers intermittently away from the disaster, those in the community, including Dent Coad, will never forget what happened.
“Some people have moved on. Local people haven’t,” she says. “It’s with you for life. You may have better coping strategies, but it doesn’t actually make you better. It’s always in your head.”