When the Grenfell tragedy occurred two years ago I was seconded by my employers, a City of London charitable trust, to the Gold Group coordinating the government’s response to the disaster. Gold groups are set up in times of emergencies and disasters to report directly to the Prime Minister. I helped arrange essential services for what was, in reality, shell shocked individuals and families, who had lost not only everything material they owned in the world but in some cases their entire families.
Every day I had a sense of Deja Vue as what I was hearing and experiencing was almost the same as I had known more than thirty years before, a couple of miles to the east, across the city in Camden. The similarities were striking: a total lack of enforcement of building and fire regulations, disinterest by council officials and elected councillors and culture of ignoring potentially, and in some cases actually, life-threatening situations until disaster struck. The only difference was that Kensington and Chelsea, Grenfell’s council, was Conservative-controlled and Camden, Labour.
In 1984 I was working for the Bengali Workers Action Group, a grassroots organisation set up to deal with the working conditions of waiters and other staff in restaurants in the West End of London. This led to sorting out the mass of other problems that immigrant workers have so, when the tragedy occurred, it was almost inevitable that we would be involved.
One of these restaurant workers was Abdul Karim, who arrived back from his day’s work to find the hostel gutted by fire and his wife and two children dead. His family, and many others had been placed at the Olympus Hotel by Camden Council even though, as we discovered later, there were many empty habitable properties owned by the council available.
Most of the families were evacuated by the Fire Service when they were trapped in the upper parts of the four-story building after the main staircase collapsed. Investigations showed that all the fire extinguishers in the building were empty; there was no fire escape; accumulated rubbish blocked a rear exit and a potential escape route; the alarm system didn’t work; all of the doors in the building failed to meet fire regulations and were often missing or wedged open. In other words, a disaster waiting to happen. The police were convinced the fire was started deliberately and opened a murder investigation.
The property was owned, as were many other similar “hotels” rented to Camden Council, by London Lets, a company owned by a Mr Doniger, who charged the Department of Health and Social Security £250 a week per family. The situation was not unlike that involving the notorious 1950s landlord Peter Rachman, although he was renting to private tenants. Camden was a left-wing Labour council!
Appalled by the disaster, we in the Action Group organised a demonstration and march to the Town Hall on 22nd November 1984, comprising the families from Gloucester Place and other similar Bed and Breakfast hotels owned by Doniger, to demand immediate action.
The response from the council was totally dismissive and the families refused to leave the building unless the council would meet them. Faced with this, the Council Deputy Leader, Sandy Wynn, threatened to call the police and did bring in security guards. We stood firm even when he also threatened to turn off the electricity to the building! As far as the families were concerned, the council chamber was a safer option than the offer of other B & B accommodation similar to or worse than the ones they had left. For the next month, the council chamber would be our home, as I moved in with the families.
The following day, the 23rd and the second day of the occupation, things came to a head. At 7 pm three members of the Council, Richard Sumray, Mike Kirk and Bob Latham read out a statement to us to the effect that some of the families would be housed in Camden housing stock and the rest would have to return to their B & B accommodation. They then prepared to leave for a long weekend but were prevented, physically, by the families. The tactic of a “Gherao” is one used throughout Asia when peasants or workers have disputes with landowners and employers. The boss is physically surrounded, as is his home and factory until concessions are made. Very often this results in the state intervening as it did when twenty-five police officers stormed the chamber after three hours to release the councillors. They didn’t, however, try to evict the families which we took to mean, correctly as it turned out, that the council wasn’t yet, at least, prepared to be seen to throw already homeless families out onto the Euston Road in the middle of central London.
The whole thing was now settling down to a war of attrition. We had established a kitchen and meals were being brought in from local Bangladeshi owned restaurants as well as food donated by well-wishers and local businesses. We could wash in the toilets and the council, fearful of the press and, as we were now discovering, divided amongst themselves on what to do, just let things take their own course. They had demonstrated that not only had they lost control but that they were hopelessly divided amongst themselves.
An article in the Guardian on 3rd December highlighted these divisions and the reasons why the families saw no other way for themselves than this occupation:
“… it gives me no pleasure to attack a socialist local authority like Camden Council, already high on Nanny’s [Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] hit list. But nor do I derive pleasure from the way I have seen supposed socialists behaving and talking over the last week or so…and there has been one very moving moment. On Wednesday, November 29th, the leader of the council Phil Turner came to listen to the families describing the horrors of their lives and to discuss what the council could do and he burst into tears, an honourable man drove to weeping by the frustrations of his position. The occupying families believe Turner to be sympathetic to their case. They say …he is not getting support either from the housing department’s officers or from the majority of the Labour Group.”
This is what Turner would have heard, among other accounts: Mohammed Shamsud arrived in Britain in the late sixties to work and his family joined him three and a half years before the occupation. As he worked in a restaurant in Camden, he applied to that council for accommodation. The family were placed in a bed and breakfast hotel in Finsbury Park and then in a flat in a GLC block awaiting refurbishment. “It was like living in a state of siege,” said Mr Shamsud. White youths smashed their windows. Eventually, they were moved to the Marco Polo Hotel in Paddington, where they were given a single room on the first floor, which was their home for five months. It was damp, hot water was turned on for two hours a day and a hundred or so people shared kitchen facilities in the basement.
Family after family recounted similar stories and eventually, Turner made the following statements: “I am not ashamed of having wept for these people, although it does not help them in their plight. I wept, yes, with frustration at the council’s inability to respond to their misery, but also with rage that faced with 24,000 families in London living in accommodation, which is usually at best an affront to human dignity and at worst a death trap, the government is inexorably reducing our capacity to cope with the housing crisis.” He concluded by saying, “I understand the strength of the argument you have put about the political nature of this issue, about racism and community links and the need of the council to respond to the demands that are being made upon it….I think they are strong arguments.”
What Turner’s statement did was to exacerbate further the differences within the Labour Group, which put out a long statement to the effect that, while they were committed to rehousing the 700 families that were in bed and breakfast accommodation, it would be unfair to allow the ones that were in high-risk accommodation to jump the queue! They were, in fact, representing “the interests of those families who have not joined the occupation.” It was the logic of the madhouse and an attempt by our enemies in Labour to sabotage any deal with the families.
At a Labour Group meeting on 3rd December, supporters of the families moved a resolution accepting the main demands of the occupation. This caused further dissent in Labour, with threats of resignations, especially from the Housing Committee Chair Mike Kirk and his deputy Julie Fitzgerald. In spite of this, however, there was a growing feeling of victory within the occupation, especially when Friday 8th December was set as the day for registration for rehousing. Afraid of betrayals, the occupation continued.
In the group, both in the families and with people who had supported them, such as myself, there was a feeling both that we were winning, but also of tiredness. Camping out in what was essentially hostile territory was emotionally draining and the strain was beginning to tell on us all. We were right to continue the occupation as the whole thing almost fell at the last fence. On 11th December, the Labour Group wrote to us stating their wish to end the occupation as soon as possible and registration of all the families began. The council was aware of the approaching Christmas holiday and didn’t want the chamber occupied until the New Year, but they still tried to exclude the six families from the non-Doniger owned hotels. We held out and they gave in.
On 21st December the occupation finally came to an end and the families released the following statement: “Today we have gathered to celebrate our victory. The first victory of the homeless families in our campaign for decent and safe housing. We haven’t all got the accommodation we wanted, but what we have got now is far better than the death traps Camden Council put us in before. Their practice of putting homeless families into unsafe, unhealthy, oppressive conditions led directly to the tragic deaths of Mrs Sharin Akhtar Karim and her two children and it was our anger at these unnecessary deaths that that caused us to protest and to demand that Camden Council begin to take seriously its responsibilities towards homeless families.”
While writing this article I broke off to read the London Evening Standard and found the following, coincidence or what I don’t know. “Fire chief urges: Act now to avert another Grenfell. The government must act now to put sprinklers in buildings”. This quote was from the head of London’s Fire and Rescue who highlighted the still appalling lack of the most basic fire prevention in the growing number of tower blocks across the capital. The escalating price of land means that most new developments are a high rise and we are actually now building in fire hazards.
On top of this is the declining, and increasingly so, the ability of local authorities to monitor the existing fire precautions in an older building in multiple occupations. The massive increase in buy to let flats and houses, air BnB and a host of other loopholes in the various housing acts have produced thousands of fire trap properties simply waiting to explode into flames. The next Labour government must commit itself to a situation where to permit the existence of a Gloucester Place or a Grenfell Tower to exist is a serious criminal offence punishable by long terms of imprisonment. Enough is enough.