The story of Grenfell, unfolding before us, is one of government failure followed by a shameless scramble by ministers to deflect blame. It is vital that we ensure the legacy of this disaster is not only that we prevent another fire tragedy such as this, but that we halt the Conservative attack on the very concept of social housing.
To be clear, council leaders in Kensington and Chelsea failed residents, but the blame does not stop there – just as the debate over Grenfell cannot be limited to fire safety.
Right now, this government is doing its best to ensure the public inquiry focuses on cladding and fire safety, because ministers know what happened last month is linked to a far bigger injustice that they are desperate to escape scrutiny on. At its core, the tragedy in Kensington cannot be understood except in the context of the continuing Tory attack on social housing.
If this government is allowed to turn the Grenfell Tower tragedy into a debate over only cladding and fire regulations, it will have escaped justice following years in which it has demonised those who do not own their own homes. What we have seen since 2010 is a full-scale attack on the values behind social housing and the quality of the socially rented homes the government is prepared to back.
For evidence, just look at what the government has done and said on social housing rent.
In 2015 the then chancellor George Osborne announced that the rent councils charge tenants would be cut by 1%, instead of rising with inflation. He didn’t do this to win the hearts and minds of council tenants. The government knows that rent money is reinvested in social housing, and knew also that the cut would drastically reduce the money available for repairs, refits and the building of new homes. In other words, the policy was a deliberate attempt to degrade the quality of social housing.
The message was clear. Ministers believed they could reduce the money available to maintain council houses and thus force people into the private sector.
Or look at the building regulations, and the lack of any local oversight. Buildings can go up and councils have no right to know what they are made of, if the developer chooses to have a private sector firm sign off on regulations.
We have somehow entered an era in which the basic principle that the state should provide security and comfort for its citizens has been abandoned by a government that is determined to provide only the absolute minimum.
And now we have heard that Martin Moore-Bick, the judge appointed to lead the Grenfell public inquiry, has said he does not believe his inquiry will be as wide-ranging as some hope. He won’t be able to say why councils aren’t allowed to force the private sector to make building inspections public. He won’t look at why uneconomical and unneeded rent reductions rather than a measured increase have denied council housing the billions of pounds that would allow for improvements. And he won’t look for the key to this whole tragedy and ask: what is the purpose of social housing?
My council, Newcastle, is calling on the government to make the funds available to prevent a repeat of the horrific Grenfell fire. Surely, in a civilised, wealthy society everyone has the right to live in a safe, secure home. As a country, we can and must do better.