After Grenfell: Social Housing, Collective Action, and the Politics of Fire and Health

After Grenfell: Social Housing, Collective Action, and the Politics of Fire and Health

Early in the morning on June 14th, 2017 the Grenfell Tower public housing apartment building went up in flames, leading to the death of at least 71 people. The fire quickly made international news. The sight of a massive tower block, home to low-income renters who qualified for social housing, burning in London was jarring. In the months that followed, think pieces emerged from across the political spectrum condemning social housing policies and governmental failings in London and across the world. The scale of the tragedy is massive: a burned-out tower block looms over London and it appears likely that authorities will never know exactly how many died. But as the parliamentary inquiry into the fire began and other global tragedies replaced Grenfell in the headlines, the world’s attention has waned.

In London, the activist push to gain justice for victims and survivors and prevent a similar tragedy from happening again is only beginning. This is often the case with victims of trauma, who frequently organize in attempts to receive compensation for their experiences or change policies. 9/11 survivors and first responders famously advocated for healthcare benefits. And more recently survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, began organizing in an attempt to prevent further gun violence.

Grenfell is no different. In the face of institutional failings both before and the fire, activism on the part of survivors and the friends and families of victims has become a powerful form of political pressure and community support. Grenfell Connect has compiled resources, news, and updates for survivors and families. The hashtag #Women4Grenfell leads a silent march on the 14th of every month in memory of those who died and also to draw awareness to the continued need for justice. The Grenfell Muslim Response Unit has worked to support grieving families and ensure that victims have funerals. Grenfell United is gathering petitions and support for more comprehensive care for traumatized survivors as well as a public inquiry into the causes of the fire that includes the voices of those impacted.

How did one fire expose failings in the United Kingdom’s social housing system and galvanize social movements in London? Understanding the political ecology of fire and the political determinants of health can help to shed light on this issue.


The Politics of Fire and the Political Determinants of Health

In order to understand the political mobilization following the tragedy at Grenfell, it is necessary to conceptualize the politics of the fire itself. Additionally, it is important to explore how politics may have impacted the health and safety of those who called Grenfell Tower home.

Urban fires have become increasingly rare since the end of World War II. The massive reduction in urban fires has lead to an increase in scholarly research into the causes of modern urban fires. The concept of the political ecology of fire was first widely explored by historian Stephen Pyne. In Flammable Cities: Urban Conflagration and the Making of the Modern World, Bankoff, Lübken, and Sand argue that urban fires are inherently political. These fires have the ability to strengthen or undermine a government’s authority and change the way that metropolitan areas are governed. Similarly, the allocation of resources to fight and prevent fire and the distribution of vulnerability to fires are political issues.

The circumstances that led to the tragic fire at Grenfell have been well documented. Residents of the tower block repeatedly complained that the building would not be safe in the case of fire. Renovations completed in May of 2016 did not address many complaints about fire safety, but did add new exterior cladding to the building. Critiques of these renovations only to the outside of the building have centered on class politics in the community surrounding Grenfell Tower. The 2015 English Indices of Deprivation, a measurement of relative deprivation at the local level in England, show that although the borough of Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest in the United Kingdom, the specific area where Grenfell Tower is located is one of the poorest. Residents argued that by making the outside of the building more visually appealing, rather than making the inside safer for residents, the council was trying to appease wealthy neighbors around the Tower.

Michael Marmot’s Social Determinants of Health hypothesizes that an individual’s health is impacted by social and environmental factors such as socioeconomic status, education, access to care, and the physical environment where that individual lives. But public health scholars are paying increasing attention to possible political determinants of health. According to Ilona Kickbusch from the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, political determinants provide a way to analyze how “different power constellations, institutions, processes, interests, and ideological positions affect health within different political systems and cultures and at different levels of governance”. After the Grenfell fire, public health scholars like Dr. Martin McKee called for public health officials to commit to “making the invisible visible” by focusing on the political determinants of health.

Politics and Social Housing in the United Kingdom

The political ecology of the Grenfell fire includes the United Kingdom’s housing system. In the United Kingdom in particular, housing policies have a history of favoring landlords over tenants since the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher enacted a number of key changes to the UK’s housing law. For example, Section 21 of the Housing Act of 1988 repealed previous policies that protected tenants from evictions. In housing built after 1989, landlords do not have to provide justification for ordering the eviction of their tenants. This can be especially problematic in cases where landlords want to evict existing or rent-controlled tenants in order to replace them with higher-paying tenants. In some cases, the ease of evictions in the UK has resulted in landlords evictions tenants for making repair requests. “New Labour” politicians in recent years have also passed legislation that has impacted the fire safety of the United Kingdom’s social housing stock. The Regulatory Reform Order of 2005 allowed for a “responsible person”, a designation that includes landlords or owners, to assess a building’s risk of fire themselves, as opposed to a licensed professional or fire marshall.

It is no secret that London is currently undergoing a shortage of affordable housing. According to London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, only 738 social housing units were constructed in the city in 2014. That same year, only 3% of permits for housing construction was for social housing. Over 243,000 households were on London’s waitlist for social housing in 2017.

The Future of Safe and Affordable Housing

Following the tragedy at Grenfell, city councils across the UK began to enact policies to make their social housing safer. Cities including Nottingham and Swansea began mandating the installation of  sprinkler systems in public housing. Overall, the BBC estimates that UK housing associations plan to introduce £660 million in fire safety improvements. But these measures will do little to address the underlying institutional issues within the United Kingdom’s social housing system that allow these safety concerns to continue. Policies are still in place that allow renters to be evicted for reporting safety hazards to their landlords. 

Ultimately, the safety of affordable housing in London and across the United Kingdom will not improve until policymakers recognize that urban fires in 2018 are inherently political, and ignoring the political determinants of health will allow more people to be injured and harms by such fires in the future.


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