One blames who one wants to blame. This is usually true – and seldom more so than after the Grenfell Tower horror, in which roughly hundred people may have burned to death in a single building amidst the greatest city on earth. There is an intense focus on the role of cladding in the disaster. Many of the Left cry that it proves that the Right, in the form of Kensington and Chelsea council, doesn’t care about the poor. But this is not easy to square with it spending £8.6 million on refurbishing the tower. Some on the Right mutter that the core of the problem was Tony Blair’s Decent Homes Standard, which requires homes to have effective insulation. This is to turn scepticism about man-driven climate change into dogma. Energy efficiency reduces the demand for energy use. We on Right cannot both shrug our shoulders at the rampant use of energy, and then complain when unsightly wind farms spring up to blight the countryside.
Others point out that the cladding cannot have been the single, and perhaps was not even the main, cause of one the worst British disasters in modern times. That it is premature to draw hard and fast conclusions about what happened only two days after the calamity won’t stop the media and many others doing so – especially in the age of Twitter. But a key question is whether there was a single cause of the horror, which is a clear and present danger to all those living into similar accommodation, or whether there was a multiplicity of reasons for it, and the blaze was a terrible pile-up of these: building contractors brought in to repair a gas main who flouted fire protection, a lack of sprinklers in the building (Nick Paget-Brown, the council leader, claims residents didn’t want them), curtains left open on a hot summer night, regulations that may have been ignored…the potential list is long.
It is striking that the normal procedure for dealing with fires in such buildings – by which residents stay in their flats and the fire service tackles the problem at source – failed completely. The tower simply went up like a Roman candle. The firemen know what they’re doing, and that the usual method succeeds all the time in a mass of cases up and down the country, which naturally attract no publicity, but failed so lamentably in this one is suggestive. Obviously, it won’t do to wait until the public inquiry ends before taking any action at all, and Harry Phibbs made a good start yesterday by focusing on transparency. As he said, it is should be a requirement for all housing associations and local authorities to publish on their websites the fire risk assessments for all the blocks that they own. Residents shouldn’t have to jump through the Freedom of Information hoop to get them.
None the less, a report later and action soon won’t stop people reaching a view now. Some tragedies take on a dimension greater than themselves, and become a symbol of their age. So it was in 1993, when a child, Jamie Bulger, was murdered by two older boys. This wicked act was transformed into an image of much that was wrong with Britain at the time, an impression driven by brilliantly effective interventions by the then Shadow Home Secretary, Tony Blair. Jeremy Corbyn is in the same line of business now. He wants to present the Grenfell Tower blaze as capturing the essence of what’s wrong with Theresa May’s Britain. He is painting a picture of a Britain starkly divided into haves and have-nots – in which the rich can live safely in tower blocks with spectacular views, snug in the knowledge that the necessary safety provision is in place, while the poor are simply left to burn.
This may be a distortion of the truth, but it is not wholly wide of it. Millions of pounds were indeed spent on the cladding, but it is claimed that this was none the less slapped up on the cheap, with the safety of residents consequently compromised. Nor was energy efficiency the sole reason for its installation. Part of the reason that the upgrade took place was to improve the look of the building from nearby conservation areas and luxury flats. Corbyn is seizing his moment. He is calling for empty homes owned by rich people to be requisitioned by the state – some would say stolen – to house those left homeless by the Grenfell horror. That this is an attack on property rights will not trouble the young people who chant “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” when the Labour leader speaks at rallies, or the ageing Marxists who rejoined Labour when he became leader.
They should be careful what they wish for. How long would a owner have to be absent before Corbyn’s commissars would be permitted to pounce? ConservativeHome has yet to carry out an audit of the housing arrangements of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. But if, say, Emily Thornberry owns an comfortable home in London, this site advises her, if his party wins the next election, not to take a long holiday: she may return to find it requisitioned. It is not enough for those of us on the Centre-Right, however, to mock Corbyn’s souped-up Marxism – or just to put the case for property rights, indispensible though these are to any settlement that underpins social justice. Again, the Labour leader is putting his finger on an important point. Most of Britain is not simply divided into haves and have-nots. The reality is more complex. But if anywhere is an exception, it is parts of the capital.
London has become, through the boom of the Blair years and despite the crash of the Brown ones, a magnet for the foreign rich. If you doubt, visit the capital, find the Thames, and gawp upwards at the new high-rise palaces of the oft-absent plutocracy, who are snapping up properties as an investment. The wealthy come; the poor remain – and no-one else can afford to buy, as house prices go through the roof and spiral skywards. The middle class is being driven out. London is not only an exemplar of the housing crisis. It is one of a Britain in which, to adapt Winston Churchill, finance is too proud and industry discontent. Our economy has become too southern, too financial-services focused – and unbalanced. Brexit may help to even the playing field, as the devaluation that is its shock-aborber gives manufacturing a shot in the arm, and so aids much of the rest of the country.
But supportive though this site is of leaving the EU, doing so is not a snap solution to all Britain’s problems. The Coalition slapped a 15 per cent levy on purchases of property over £2 million by individuals, and an annual charge on UK residential properties valued over £2 million owned by them. There is nothing remotely unconservative about using tax as an instrument to help rebalance London in favour of British nationals. A Conservative politician has been leading the intellectual way. Mark Field has now vanished into the Foreign Office. But before the rehabilitation of this sometime rebel, he proposed a series of measures, some advanced on this site, to levy taxes on non-resident, non-British owners of property through the abolition of the distinction between domicility and residence. “In New York, apartments can incur a tax of up to $20,000 if they are left empty,” he wrote, “might we look at such a plan here?”
The time has come to tackle London’s problems with justice, of which tax is a legitimate part, rather than with injustice – in the form of state theft. Corbyn has invoked Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as a description of modern London. It is disconcertingly close to the mark. And the title the great author considered using for Little Dorrit cannot be the epitaph for death by fire of scores of people trapped in a blazing building: Nobody’s Fault. Oh, and let’s get the brilliant Nick Boys-Smith of Create Streets in on the action, and consign the modernist atrocity of these tower blocks to history.