On 14 June 2017, a fire in a faulty fridge freezer in a single flat turned into a devastating blaze that killed 72 people and destroyed Grenfell Tower. At the time I was living in South London, and I vividly remember watching from my flat as the news unfolded.
I couldn’t believe this was happening just the other side of London. It was heartbreaking. The fire itself, the lives that were lost, the individual stories that slowly emerged. The images of exhausted fire officers. The thought of people trapped by the flames, faithfully following the ‘stay put’ advice, waiting for a rescue that never came.
And it made me so angry. The unnecessary deaths and suffering, the failures that had allowed the tragedy to happen, the inadequate response of politicians and services in the days and weeks that followed. It encapsulated why politics matters – in this case, literally a case of life and death – and the ways it too often falls short. It reinforced my fundamental belief in the strength and ability of communities, a strength we always see at times of crisis. As an aspiring politician, but also simply as a human being, I try to carry the lessons of Grenfell with me.
Everybody’s voice matters
Tenants had been raising concerns about the risks for years. But they were met with indifference, even harrassment. The company managing the building didn’t listen, and nor did the local council. Without a strong local media or interested MP really taking this issue on, there was no one to make them listen. The most important skill for any leader – whether politicians, public sector or community leaders – is being willing to listen.
We need to push power out to the most local level
The local council failed residents in the immediate aftermath of the fire too, unable to respond quickly or adequately to what people needed. Survivors needed somewhere to live, they needed food, drink, clothing, and cash. And they needed those things immediately. But for days, the local council and its leaders were invisible.
Local residents, community and faith organisations stepped into the gap, as they so often do. There was a huge public response to the tragedy, the natural human urge to help, and donations flooded in. But they took too long to get where they were needed. The big charities faced similar challenges to the council – reacting too slowly, being too distant. It was those organisations already on the ground, who knew the community, who just got on doing what was needed in the moment.
Being a leader means showing up, and it means being human
Theresa May was widely criticized for not meeting with survivors and local residents during her private visit two days after the fire. We’ve seen in the responses of Barack Obama and Jacinda Ardern to national tragedies elsewhere, that acknowledging emotion, showing a human side is part of the role of a leader. The Queen gets this, as she showed at Grenfell and again more recently in her speeches to the nation during the pandemic. Jeremy Corbyn, for all his faults, got this. Boris Johnson does not.
‘Never again’ has to mean something
Whether it is Grenfell Tower or George Floyd, it is easy to say ‘never again’. And we mean it, in the moment. But the moment passes, and political and media attention moves on. What then?
A fire at Lakanal house in South London in 2009 killed six people, in circumstances very similar to Grenfell. A public inquiry took place, but its recommendations were never carried out. Three years after Grenfell, there are still thousands of blocks with unsafe cladding.
The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire is ongoing. An inquiry into the coronavirus response feels inevitable. Both are important, vital even – but official inquiries always come too late for the victims and their families. We shouldn’t wait to make sensible changes now. And when the inquiries do report, we must not let their lessons go unheeded.
If you hear church bells ringing at 6pm tonight, they are ringing for Grenfell. A multi-faith remembrance event is being held online. Cornwall Hugs Grenfell has shared this message. And later tonight the Grippers will join homes across the country ‘going green’ for Grenfell and remembering that dreadful night.