Adam Wildman is Chief of Staff for the GLA Conservatives and a Bexley councillor. He writes in a personal capacity.
Maybe it’s because I grew up next to Grenfell Tower, or that I lost a member of my family in the fire, but next week’s anniversary of the tragedy has an added poignancy for me. It isn’t just the personal loss that resonates, but the symbolic nature of the fire and what it says about the role of the state in poorer communities.
The fire in Grenfell Tower, which broke out on the morning of 14th June 2017, killed 72 people and made 376 families homeless. In total, NHS professionals estimate that over 10,000 people from the community have experienced mental health problems because of what they witnessed that night. To describe the fire as a ‘tragedy’ seems almost inadequate.
The potential causes of the disaster have been widely discussed and we all await the final verdict from the official inquiry, but beyond the specific causes of the fire, what happened in Grenfell has wider, more symbolic implications.
In some ways, the fire could be seen as emblematic of the condition of social housing in this country. The large number of older tower blocks that subsequently failed fire safety tests adds weight to such a feeling.
Perhaps one of the reasons that the tragedy shocked so many is because it occurred in the capital’s richest borough. However, in contrast to the rest of Kensington, Ladbroke Grove is in fact one of the poorest areas in London. Golborne ward, where I spent a lot of my youth, is the joint most-deprived ward in London. In North Kensington, only about 30 per cent of pupils achieve five A*-C GCSEs at school. This is an area that is familiar with deprivation and its consequences.
In communities such as this, where many simply cannot afford to maintain their homes to a safe standard, the state has an absolutely essential role to play in guaranteeing the safety of residents and improving their overall living conditions. This is especially true if the residents in question live in social housing provided by the state.
In the case of Grenfell, this duty of care was not adequately fulfilled. Indeed, this tragedy is perhaps the stand-out contemporary example of the injustices famously cited by the Prime Minister.
The Government itself has been far from idle in its response. Theresa May has taken a lead on this issue and has committed £58 million for mental health support, rehousing and disaster relief.
It is also a positive move that the panel for the lead inquiry has been widened to include survivors. With public inquiries that impact on whole communities, it is vital that justice is also seen to be done. Bishop Jones, in his recent report on the Hillsborough disaster, said that the tragedy was made worse by the closed nature of the public inquiry. The same mistakes are clearly not being made by the Government with the Grenfell inquiry.
However, despite all of the Government’s good efforts, it cannot be ignored that the state very likely failed this community. Consecutive governments, of all stripes, have often overlooked the needs of poorer communities like where I grew up in Ladbroke Grove.
It can also be the case that we as a party sometimes view those living in social housing as in some way ‘other’, being as they are non-traditional Conservative voters. This can occasionally lead to complacency or, in some cases, even neglect. This is an attitude that we should urgently seek to change.
The Conservative Party, if it is to live up to its claim to be the party for workers and strivers, cannot consider any aspect of society to be outside its duty of care. If we are to fully win the working class that is increasingly being drawn towards us, it is vital that we ensure that no part of the country, no neighbourhood, no family is out of reach of the Party’s vision for a better and more prosperous society.
How we respond to tragedies like the Grenfell fire define us as a Party. The Prime Minister has done a great many things for those who survived. What is now needed is the promise that tragedies like this will never be allowed to happen again to poorer communities under the care of the state. A truly ‘one nation’ party could do nothing else.