A year ago today, a fire ripped through a tower block in west London. At 12.54am on a warm Wednesday night, the London Fire Brigade responded to calls of a huge, fast-spreading fire at Grenfell Tower.
Residents said they were first alerted to the flames by a group of Muslim boys banging on doors. They had been up late to eat a meal after their Ramadan fast.
What followed was one of the worst disasters in modern British history. Seventy-two people lost their lives, and hundreds more were displaced from their homes.
But 12 months on, what impact has the blaze had on British society? Around 100 households remain in temporary accommodation, despite promises from the government that they would be rehoused. A public inquiry into the cause and spread of the fire is now underway, and a criminal investigation is ongoing.
But has it changed our attitude to housing? To immigration? To our neighbours? We asked survivors, activists, poets and politicians to tell us how this tragedy has – or hasn’t – reshaped our society.
Faisal Metalsi, survivor: ‘I hope the anniversary is going to be the beginning of this long road towards healing’
I think what this has done for me is actually woken me up to ways we can empower ourselves. I think people, in my community at least, are taking back control of their lives, so that has changed. And there is a lot more unity in our local community at the moment, so things are changing in our little microcosm of the planet.
The thing we have to remember is that it has only been a year at the moment.
It depends on the lens that you look though. I always say, ‘it has only been a year, and then again, it has been a really, really long year’.
It seems like it has taken time for authorities to listen. However, based on the feedback we had this week with the interview with the PM, it does seem like they are starting to listen. I would hope they are starting to listen. Only time will tell whether the campaigning that we as a community have been doing will bare any fruit. But it does seem like they’re listening.
I’m always hopeful. I think hope gives us something to look towards. Despair doesn’t allow us to repair ourselves. I’m always hopeful that things will move forward and progress in a positive way.
On the anniversary, I’m going to be with my community. I’m going to spend time with the new friends that I have made since the tragedy, old ones that were around before the tragedy. We are going to be here for each other. We’re going to make sure it’s a community day. We are going to help each other wherever we can and I hope it is going to be the beginning of this long road towards healing for our community.
Faisal Metalsi has lived in the area all his life. He runs Grenfell Speaks, a social media news channel.
Shahin Sadafi, survivor: ‘This is also about everyone suffering from this culture of indifference that has overtaken our country’
It has taken us nearly a year to be heard and I think now the government has finally realised that we are a resilient, strong, unified group that is not asking for too much. We are asking for really reasonable things, and we are grateful that they are starting to listen.
When you take a step back – and I think that is what will happen – we will actually realise that (survivors’ group) Grenfell United has gone from people that were literally broken on the streets after the Grenfell fire to becoming an organised hardworking group of people that have managed to campaign for the public inquiry to have a panel, for the inquiry to support the survivors and bereaved families, and to campaign for the government to release £400m to take down cladding across the country. We believe it is not just about Grenfell Tower but it is also about everyone else in this country that is suffering at the same hands of this culture of indifference that has overtaken our country.
Campaigning has given us hope that their is humanity in the heart of government and that they will really start to support the bereaved families to get justice. They will support the inquiry to be able to get the correct funding for the survivors and bereaved families, but also for the experts that are needed to get to justice. And they will support us in making sure there is a legacy by making sure that the learnings and the recommendations that come out of the inquiry lead to change and they take action on these recommendations. We need their commitment.
The anniversary is an opportunity to just be around each other, to love each other in the community and to continue to realise that for us we need a legacy for the 72 lives that were lost. We need a legacy of change in the culture of this country that allows people to be safe in their homes. For cladding to be brought down and also for justice and truth to be brought to the forefront of changes in progressive policy to government.
Shahin Sadafi lived on the 5th floor of Grenfell Tower. He is chairman of the Grenfell United survivors’ group
Emily Maitlis, broadcaster: ‘It was the first time I interviewed a British Prime minister with anger in my voice’
Grenfell was so many things to me. It was the first real disaster I had seen in my own neighbourhood; the first time I was able to respond to something with my editors’ endorsement as a human first and a journalist second.
It was the first time I got my kids involved, and perhaps a little bit of their own childhood ended when they began sorting donated toys for children their own age who had lost everything, including, for some, parents.
The first time I interviewed a British Prime minister with anger in my voice.
But it was also, crucially, a time when we got to know a whole group of people that would have remained – I am ashamed to admit – out of reach, unknown. After everything they went through, they could so easily have chosen to banish cameras and questions from their sight. It is an immense tribute to the Grenfell survivors that they chose to open up to us. They welcomed us into their deeply traumatised new lives and helped us correct so many false narratives that were in danger of being written from that night – a political story that said they lived in the tower on sufferance, that their way of life was some how neglected and second rate.
The word ‘community’ is overused nowadays – it has been corporatised and bleached of worth. But, in Grenfell, the word still had meaning. On the night of the fire itself we heard those extraordinary stories of rescue – human to human. Going through the unimaginable to save a life. I remember thinking at the time it was just what ‘good’ people did. But now I think I understand it better: they acted towards neighbours and fellow residents in the way you’d act to save a family member.
Those lives were already entwined long before the fire.
Emily Maitlis is the presenter of BBC Newsnight. She interviewed Theresa May in the aftermath of the fire.
Saskilla, Grime MC: ‘People are now raising the alarm in other underprivileged areas’
I believe that the Grenfell fire has definitely changed Britain forever. There are only a few tragedies that are on this scale, Hillsborough being one of them, that are very memorable in people’s minds. Until the day we die I don’t think anybody will forget Grenfell, especially if you live in London.
I had friends in the building and I was an activist, trying to help. I was down there the next morning doing whatever I could. I was shocked at the lack of empathy, the lack of emergency response from the government and I think that’s what impacted everybody.
I think mostly the Prime Minister’s reaction to it, as well as the council, is sticking in everyone’s minds.
Grenfell had impact because it showed a lack of empathy and a lack of care. And I think that’s what changed Britain, because people are now raising the alarm about safety in other underprivileged areas and buildings – people in Manchester, people in Newcastle, places that are nowhere near Grenfell. That’s what has impacted people more than anything. People are just trying to get change going with how these buildings are treated, and ensure the safety and security of their families.
But the loss of life doesn’t equate to the amount of change that we have seen. The amount of change that we have seen is nowhere near enough. There needs to be some sort of mass funding for the actual families, money raised should be sent to the people.
Saskilla has been actively involved in the Grime for Grenfell charity campaign and had friends who lived in the tower.
Anthony Anaxagorou, poet: ‘Holding politicians responsible is not a sign of misdirected anger or political posturing’
At 6.30am on June 14, 2017, I woke to a find a videoclip sent to me by a friend in the early hours of the morning. It depicted a large-scale council building submerged in flames.
As I turned the volume up the sound of sirens could be heard ringing over the lament of those standing helplessly below. Just before the clip finished I caught sight of an elderly man waving a white towel out his window, clouds of thick fumes spilling out around him, and my friend’s voice saying, “these are my friends, and we’ve literally just had to stand here and watch them die”.
For some time after, amid the circulating footage of a tower block the size of Grenfell engulfed in flames, and with the building’s structural legality in total disarray, along with an escalating death toll, people began to ask others not to politicise the disaster, or for politicians to refrain from the cynical opportunism often associated with tragedies of that proportion. I took to social media and wrote: “The burning of Grenfell Tower was political. The reason why people have to live on top of each other in such buildings is political. The reason why flammable cladding was used is political. The reason why Kensington council ignored the warnings from the building’s residents was political. Their deaths were political, so to suggest people should’t try to politicise the tragedy is to do a grave disservice to the victims because sometimes politics is the difference between life and death.”
Since the fire we now have much more of an understanding into how civic negligence, bureaucratic decadence and classism all confer to result in the deaths of 72 people. It’s been a year since that devastating morning. I hope many of us now see why holding local councils and governments directly responsible is not a sign of misdirected anger or political posturing, but a demand by the British public that we prevent this kind of catastrophe from
happening again, and out of sheer respect for those whose lives were lost as a result.
Anthony Anaxagorou is a poet and writer. He is artistic director of the London poetry Out-Spoken and publisher at Out-Spoken Press.
Dawn Foster, journalist: ‘Far more people are aware of the myriad housing problems facing Britain now’
Talking to people around the country about housing, inequality, austerity cuts and local councils, it’s clear that the vast majority of people were both utterly shocked at the disaster, and are understandably furious that such a huge loss of life could occur anywhere in Britain, but especially in the richest borough in the country.
The level of knowledge about housing issues amongst the general public has risen considerably: writing and talking about housing before, it was clear that technical details – such as on regeneration and refurbishment, how fire safety works, and what housing associations do – needed explanation for most people.
But after Grenfell, people quickly wanted to know how the fire occurred and what may have exacerbated it, and were willing to learn very quickly: far more people are aware of the myriad housing problems facing Britain now, from gentrification, the sell-off of social homes, housing inequalities and homelessness.
This feels like a turning point for the entire country, as the conversation has changed. What hasn’t changed is the attitudes of many politicians, locally and nationally: the Conservative party really should have not just behaved with more empathy and action for Grenfell survivors, and the local community who are still suffering and struggling with housing as well as the trauma, but should have read the mood of the country and promised more concrete action on housing.
Dawn Foster is a Guardian columnist who writes on politics, social affairs and economics
David Lammy, MP: ‘The people of Grenfell Tower remain ignored by those in power’
I had hoped that Grenfell Tower would be a watershed moment in British national life, where we reflected upon the importance of social housing and reconsidered the role of the private sector and profiteering in the delivery of our public services. Grenfell represented a breakdown in the social contract between the state and the individual. If anything positive could have come out of what happened last June, Grenfell would have sparked a renewed commitment to housing as a social good in Britain, not merely as a for-profit asset.
Yet one year on, the Government has failed to ban the flammable and combustible cladding that caused the largest death toll in a single incident in London since the Second World War. The people of Grenfell Tower remain ignored by those in power and had to fight to even to get representation on the inquiry conducted on their behalf.
Twelve months on from the Grenfell Tower, we must reflect on the fact that the government has gravely failed the survivors. Every promise that the government has made has subsequently been broken. When I stood at the foot of the smouldering tower last June, it did not strike me as remotely possible that so many people could be so badly let down, and that people who made it out of the tower that night would still be living in a bed and breakfast today.
As regeneration becomes gentrification and mixed communities cease to exist, Grenfell could have served as a call to action to put the ‘social’ back into housing and end the supremacy of the market in the provision of homes in this country.
We must reflect on this missed opportunity to change Britain, a tragedy in and of itself.
David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham.
Parveen Ali, photographer: ‘The country is divided again’
After the Grenfell tragedy, the whole country was shaken up and deeply affected. People put their differences aside and united. It wasn’t about race or colour. Each day I witnessed conversations between people who probably wouldn’t normally talk to each other. The community spirit was beautiful and something I haven’t seen in the UK for many years.
Sadly, I hate to point it out but I still see inequality, so have we truly learned from Grenfell? I think the answer is no. There is still social inequality and I don’t think the government has done any work to change that.
Many lives were lost, yet I feel we haven’t learnt anything. During Grenfell it was highlighted how much inequality there is and people were talking about it. Little or no action has been taken to put things right. Sadly I also see the country divided again. Will it ever change? I remain hopeful.
Tokio Myers, musician: ‘The risk of a repeat disaster is worryingly high’
I grew up in Kilburn, north-west London, from where I could see Grenfell Tower and it’s surrounding area. Having lived in the same environment and so close to Grenfell, the tragedy felt all the more personal to me.
It was immediately obvious that there was a huge sense of togetherness in the tower’s community and those surrounding it. The love and support offered by local residents and the emergency services was, and continues to be, truly humbling.
It has taken people a while to realise the enormity of the tragedy. The scary thing is that these towers are so commonplace not just around London, but the entirety of the UK. Most built in the same era, there are obvious flaws in the design and materials of these buildings meaning that the risk of a repeat disaster is worryingly high. Much more needs to be done to prevent this from happening again.
I was hugely honoured when I was asked to co-write Bridge Over Troubled Water, the Grenfell Charity Single. I was so moved by the incredible willingness of some of the world’s best artists to come together to perform on the track; an extremely positive initiative that I feel very proud to have been a part of.
Tokio Myers is a pianist, and won Britain’s Got Talent in 2017
Generation Rent, campaign group: ‘It showed how easily councils neglect responsibilities’
The Grenfell tragedy exposed how reliant tenants are on their local authority to keep them safe in their homes, and, due to austerity’s relentless demands for “efficiency”, how easily councils can neglect their responsibilities.
A year ago, the rise in unstable private renting had already made an impact at the ballot box, and there were signs that the government would improve its offer to thwarted first-time buyers. But it took enormous loss of life for the government to broaden its sights to those outside the swing voter demographics.
Private renters, particularly those on low incomes, struggle to exercise their rights to a safe home. Cuts have left councils unable to respond to complaints about negligent landlords, or to take effective enforcement action when they find disrepair.
Right now tenants, private or council, who face inaction from their council have nowhere else to turn. Karen Buck MP’s Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill would finally allow them to take their landlord to court. After two previous attempts, it is only after Grenfell that the government has seen fit to give its backing.