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Grenfell victims were subject to 'social apartheid' in north Kensington, Labour’s Diane Abbott says

Exclusive: Shadow Home Secretary backs calls for inquiry to probe whether race or class played part in disaster and denounces Theresa May's apology as 'too little too late'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Friday 15 June 2018 08:55 BST
Grenfell Tower: One year on

Grenfell victims were subject to "social apartheid" in North Kensington which meant fire safety in the block fell short of usual standards, Labour's Diane Abbott has told The Independent.

The home secretary said the "yawning gulf" between different social classes in the neighbourhood must be considered in order to understand how the fire happened, saying questions must be asked around how people were able to burn to death in the "richest borough in one of the richest cities in the world".

Speaking a year on from the tragedy, the Labour MP backed calls by Imran Khan QC, a lawyer representing a number of victims, last week for the inquiry to broaden the current terms of reference to probe whether race, religion or social class played any part in the disaster.

“You have to look at the social issues to get a good understanding of how Grenfell happened. You have blocks that are almost as high in Chelsea and Knightsbridge, but the private tower blocks, they all have sprinklers on every floor, and they all have two staircases,” Ms Abbott said.

“It was almost a sense of, well this is good enough for these types of people. If you’re building accommodation of that height in a wealthy area, the fire safety is taken for granted and is priced in.

“There was almost a sense that council tenants had to take what they were given, and clearly the fire safety standards are not what they would have been in a private sector block of a similar height.”

In an impassioned critique of the government’s response to the tragedy, Ms Abbot accused Theresa May of acting “too little, too late” after the Prime Minister apologised earlier this week for not meeting victims in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, saying her absence “depended the sense of abandonment” among survivors.

“The fact that she could physically get to Grenfell and speak to senior fire officers but could speak to survivors is very telling, and deciding a year later to say she’s sorry for that doesn’t cut it with me I’m afraid,” the shadow home secretary said.

“It should have been obvious to her from the get-go how important it was to meet the actual survivors. I think it is quite meaningful that the Queen got down there and met survivors before Theresa May did.”

Highlighting the fact that more than half of the families displaced by the fire are yet to be permanently rehoused, the shadow home secretary condemned the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) for being ”too slow” at engaging with the disaster, and much more concerned about “covering themselves”.

A total of 129 Grenfell households – more than half of the those that escaped the blaze - are yet to be permanently housed, with 72 of these stuck in emergency accommodation - many of them being families with young children.

“There is no excuse, they’ve had 12 months. I have spoken to survivors and various points, and they stress how unsuitable some of the offers have been. Often up tower blocks, which people found very upsetting. Offers too far from the community, when people have their schools and their friends and their job all in that area," she said.

“They seem to have adopted a take it or leave it attitude. Unforgivably, they seem to have tried to imply Grenfell residents are too choosy. All they want is a decent home, and to be closer to children’s school and their existing social connections."

The Labour MP also spoke out against blaming the firefighters for the high death toll, saying the so-called "stay put" policy would likely have worked had there been a properly regulated regime in relation to making the block fire proof.

"I would push back on any tendency to blame the fire brigade for what happened. It's not so much the stay put policy didn't work, it's that - it would appear at least - there were all sorts of failings in the way the cladding was put on and the way the refurbishment took place," she said.

"The firefighters saved 65 people. Some of them went in twice, or even three times. To try turn the blame on them is ridiculous."

Ms Abbott, who grew up in London and spent a lot of time in north Kensington, noted the neighbourhood now appeared "more socially divided than ever", with gentrification over recent years having formed a “yawning gulf” between social classes.

“There is something in particular about the council and its attitude to the northern part of the borough and the people who live there. It is almost a form of social apartheid. There is a sense that they regard those parts of north Kensington with very diverse populations as some kind of Bantustan,” she said.

The home secretary compared the area when she was a child - when "the big wedding cake houses had four doorbells because they were houses of multiple occupation" - to the present day, when "one merchant banker owns a whole house".

”It’s been a diverse area for as long as I can remember. I remember it all as one community. But the gentrification which has taken place is extraordinary," she said, adding: "Grenfell has shone a light on the profound inequalities."

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