Fire in neo-liberal London

The burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower is a visible reminder that public responsibilities should never be watered down.

Angela McRobbie
19 June 2017

Grenfell Tower, London. Credit: Wikimedia/Natalie Oxford, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

Imagine you are a Nigerian man in his early 50s. You’ve been living in London for well over 20 years. You drive a cab for an upmarket taxi firm ferrying people to airports and train stations. You work night shifts driving people to Heathrow, often in the early hours of the morning.

You have three kids, one who’s training to be a primary school teacher; the others are teenagers at school. Your wife works as a private nanny for a wealthy couple who live just 15 minutes walk away from your home in a high rise. Actually you’ve been encouraging her to become a health worker for the NHS: the employment contract is better and the hours are more fixed, less subject to sudden changes and the requirement to work through the night, often at short notice.

You feel you were lucky to get a council flat in tower block in West London when your first child was born. It’s only a short distance away from the cab company HQ. It’s nice to live centrally, partly because it allows you to work the hours you do and still see something of your kids when they get back from school. Any savings go towards a five-yearly trip back to Lagos.

You love London. You belong to the local Catholic Church and your kids are doing fine. Maybe they will end up with better jobs; the younger one aims to do a degree. She wants to be a documentary film-maker.

And then your tower block goes up in flames, along with your home, your family and your future, the sub-standard cladding of the building melting all around you, with no sprinkler system, no escape plan, and no way of exiting safely from the smoke and fire that suck the oxygen from your lungs.

This story is fiction, but it’s one that’s been told to me a hundred times in different iterations in my own cab journeys through London over the last few years. It could so easily apply to some of the residents of Grenfell Tower that was destroyed last week with so much loss of life.

In her well-known book The Global City, the sociologist Saskia Sassen emphasises the important presence of a service class of workers in metropolitan centres like London. They need to live near to where they work in order to get to their jobs in time. The city needs this army of workers, since it is they who allow the urban middle and upper classes to function. They are cab-drivers, private nannies, nursery assistants, office and street cleaners; they work in retail, or in restaurants and bars.

If they are young and good-looking they may get the more prestigious jobs as personal trainers in gym chains, teaching aqua classes or being a barista in a coffee house. If they are older, they’ll be doing care work or cleaning up in hospitals. They need the city as much as it needs them. Move out of London? No thanks. Their work would dry up. Who needs black-suited cab drivers in polished cars in places where better housing and more green space may be available? Who needs private day-nannies in Middlesbrough, where the best job on offer may be a call centre?

Sassen does not ponder in detail the question of housing provision for this sizeable sector of the new multi-cultural urban working class, but activists, and other sociologists like Loic Wacquant and Pierre Bourdieu, have drawn attention to the poor living conditions that low-paid city workers have come to expect, with little hope of improvement. They have become a fact of life, but until events like the fire in Grenfell Tower this has been an almost-invisible issue, save for those involved in tenants’ action groups or battling the local council to get a move to a bigger place.

Instead, in London at least, the question that has taken up so many column inches has been the plight of young people, especially key service sector workers such as nurses and teachers who cannot get a foot on the housing ladder and who can barely afford the obscenely high rents in a city with no rent controls and a stock of social housing that’s shrinking by the day. Attention has been focused on those who would like to buy their own home, not on those for whom this option is beyond any horizon of expectation, living as they do on minimum wages, or pushed into benefit dependency because of ill-health.

The fact that this population is so often over-looked says much about everyday life in neoliberal London. The city’s wealthier citizens may rely on people on low wages or in jobs that are insecure, but they come to public attention only when a horrific accident like this takes place. Otherwise they are left to the mercy of semi-privatised council services.

It is not surprising that local council leaders in London’s wealthiest borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where Grenfell Tower is located, have seemingly gone into hiding, along with most Conservative politicians.  Those in power have emerged only to utter offensive platitudes, like the Council leader who said that tenants did not want sprinkler systems installed, or the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, who floundered around trying to express sadness while saying she would commit five million Pounds to re-house those now without a roof over their heads.

She talked about giving them some money to buy the basics they need, while ignoring the billions of pounds required to bring Britain’s remaining publicly-owned housing stock up to standard. May and her colleagues must know that they have lost all credibility, having loudly and on camera congratulated themselves over the years on getting rid of health and safety provisions, ignoring fire safety rules and cutting back the fire service, out-sourcing housing departments to not-for-profit agencies that retain the ring of being socially worthy while ensuring their directors get private sector salaries, and abandoning the obligation to keep large numbers of people in safe, well-maintained  urban environments.

This is how the ‘New Public Management’ ethos has worked in practice. As John Clarke and Janet Newman have written, the aim is to reduce the role of the state and of local councils in areas like building control and safety by devolving these functions to private and non-profit agencies who will do the job more cheaply. This large-scale semi-privatisation also permits contractors to avoid adhering to the fine print of building regulations, not because they no longer exist but because—with so much devolution—no-one at the receiving end has a clear sense of who is responsible for what.

In Grenfell Tower and other blocks like it, each and every one of the policies designed to eviscerate the whole idea of social welfare and public housing has been playing out for years. When tenants have complained, they have received letters threatening legal action against them. Who would not be frightened off by this response?

People living there have simply not been listened to. Who, for example, thought that housing elderly people and people with disabilities on the upper levels of tower blocks was a good idea? Who are the private landlords who bought flats on a buy-to-let basis when mortgages companies refused to finance them, so that with some cosmetic tarting-up they could then be rented to young professionals for £500 a week with ‘panoramic views’ of London?

Victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and their relatives, as well as local community leaders, are reporting that no-one is taking charge of the scene of the disaster and its aftermath. ‘Where is the council,’ they ask? Perhaps the council barely exists any more, now that its responsibilities have been devolved down to hundreds of out-sourced agencies.

Where are social services? The same answer applies. In every instance, the New Public Management removes the idea of social responsibility from the vocabulary of public action. It rejects the idea that all citizens are entitled to safe and decent housing. Most of all, it abandons a commitment to equality.

Instead, there is the never-ending mantra of excellence, leadership, and ‘payment by results.’ We can now see those results all around us. They look like the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower.


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