Grenfell Tower fire: Jeremy Corbyn calls Government's response an 'unacceptable failure'

Exclusive: On a day when anger threatened to boil over, the Labour leader joined Sadiq Khan in urging the Prime Minister to guarantee residents would be rehomed in the borough

Joe Watts,Katie Forster,Will Worley
Saturday 17 June 2017 12:25
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Grenfell Tower fire: Protesters storm Kensington Town Hall

The Government has been accused of an “unacceptable” failure by Jeremy Corbyn after a promise made just 24 hours earlier to rehouse all Grenfell fire victims near their old homes began to crumble.

On a day when thousands of people took to the streets to demand answers and justice over the deadly blaze, the Labour leader said ministers had a duty to stick to their guarantee, but officials attempting to find places for those displaced gave the impression of being overwhelmed.

Demonstrators chanting “justice for Grenfell” and “May must go” marched from the Home Office to Downing Street, while a separate rally made its way from Kensington and Chelsea council headquarters to the burnt out shell of the 24-storey tower.

Earlier, hundreds gathered at the town hall, where scores forced their way into the building, to deliver a list of demands, including the immediate rehousing of all victims within the borough.

The Government admitted it may be necessary to push some residents out across the capital, despite Communities Secretary Sajid Javid having repeated the promise to keep people local hours earlier.

The Prime Minister sought to undo bad publicity from her failure to meet residents on a site trip on Thursday, by finally visiting victims in a London hospital.

She later, under heavy policy guard, visited St Clement’s Church, a community hub that has been offering support to residents since the fire, but was greeted by angry crowds, who shouted “coward” and “shame on you” as she left via a side door, again, without facing the public.

Inside the church, the Prime Minister announced a £5m fund for emergency supplies, food and clothing. She said residents would be rehomed within three weeks “as far as possible within the borough, or in neighbouring boroughs”, but stopped short of guaranteeing they would not be sent further afield.

She added that “some people may actually want to go to another part of London where perhaps they have a greater support network”.

Earlier, Londoners confronted and shouted at a Tory cabinet minister at the scene of the fire, while Ms May’s chief of staff fled reporters asking why he had failed to undertake a called-for safety review.

With rehousing victims a main priority, Mr Corbyn told The Independent: “It is absolutely critical that all the residents of Grenfell Tower are rehoused in the community they love.

Grenfell Tower Fire: Theresa May leaves church to chants of 'coward'

“It is unacceptable that at this time of intense stress and trauma for them, the council and the Government are not able to guarantee this. The entire community has been affected by the fire and are looking to the country to assist in their hour of need. We must not let them down.

“All those made homeless by the fire must be housed in the borough, using all methods possible to make this happen, including, if necessary, requisitioning empty properties.”

His call was echoed by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who wrote an open letter to Theresa May demanding that she confirm “as a matter of urgency” that everyone from Grenfell Tower and other evacuated properties “will be rehoused locally immediately".

“Although additional local authority resilience arrangements have been activated today to provide additional leadership to the local operation, I would urge the Government to provide all necessary assistance and satisfy itself that the operation is functioning to the standard local residents have the right to expect.”

The Mayor also said the public could not "afford to wait years for the outcome" of the full public inquiry announced earlier in the week by the Prime Minister, and demanded a timeline on how long it would take to check existing buildings thought to be at risk of similar fires.

He also asked that the local community were given as much information as possible on the number of victims and identities. Police have confirmed at least 30 are dead, but there are still more than 70 unaccounted for. During the town hall protest, locals chanted "not 17", referencing an early death toll released by police.

On Friday morning Communities Secretary Mr Javid was asked if he could guarantee that everyone affected by the blaze would stay locally, replying: “Absolutely. We will keep that guarantee.”

He added: “I think it is hugely important for local people, goodness knows they’ve gone through so much and no one can add to that by asking them to move from their local area.”

But by the afternoon Kensington and Chelsea Council said 110 households had been given temporary accommodation, and that while it was working to find more the situation was difficult.

A spokesman said: “While we will try do our utmost to ensure those affected remain in or near the borough, given the number of households involved, it is possible the council will have to explore housing options that may become available in other parts of the capital.”

Residents staying in temporary accommodation said they felt “abandoned” by the Government, and expressed deep concern that they did not know where they were going to be rehomed.

Genet Shawo, 38, who lost her five-year-old son Isaac in the blaze, said she was staying in hotels, but has not been told where she is supposed to live next.

She said: “I need a place in the area. My son is going to school in the Borough. They haven’t said anything yet, it’s day by day. They called today and said it’s another hotel. But I need to be in one place, I can’t move every day. I need that today. I don’t know how long I’ll be in the place I’m in tonight.

“Where is the Government?"

Ms Shawo’s sister Maseret added: “She needs somewhere to stay. Yesterday she was in a hotel near Ladbroke Grove station. Today she has to move to another hotel in High Street Kensington. It’s not local – we have to be around here, we don’t have a car.

“It’s painful. Family have come from all over to help. But even in this hard time, the council has to do something.”

Larry Castro, 60, who has lived in Grenfell Tower for 26 years has been staying in a hotel in Earl’s Court since the blaze.

“I’m angry,” he said. “The fire spread so quickly, like they’d put gasoline on it. The Government, until now they have offered no support. They’ve given us £500. But that’s nothing. We can buy trousers. We said we’ll wait, but when will we know? When? They won’t give us an exact date.

“[Theresa May’s visit] is not enough.”

Protests outside Downing Street on Friday evening (Getty Images)

Father Alan Everett, the vicar at St Clement’s, said it was “hugely important” for families to stay in the local area.

“There are tight networks here,” he said. “There was a promise they would be able to stay in the local area, but how many options there actually are remains to be seen to enable that to happen.

“There's an area that's been evacuated including the surrounding accommodation. Grenfell Tower will eventually have to be demolished, and something else will be built. I have no idea how long that will take, so the people who have to be rehoused, that will take some time. Whether people be able to be rehoused on a temporary basis locally is an open question.”

Reece Saint, 23, who lives two streets away, said: “I don’t understand why Theresa May came. She’s abandoned all communities like this, not just here. It’s different class people that are suffering. I know four or five people from Grenfell Tower who are dead. I don’t know anyone who survived.”

On a day when angry residents stormed Kensington Town Hall and protesters shouted at the Prime Minister, Mr Saint warned that demonstrations could turn soon violent.

“Now it’s all love and prayer, but soon it will turn into, maybe like a war zone. Riots might start, worse than before,” he said.

Tensions on the ground boiled over in the afternoon as protesters outside the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea headquarters stormed the building. Hundreds of people, gathered outside the town hall, said they wanted answers before surging towards the building's entrance.

Police, including a number of mounted officers, arrived at the town hall after the disturbance.

Having initially entered the building, protesters were called back away from the foyer by an organiser, Mustafa Mansour, who urged them to remain calm.

A disturbance briefly broke out near a different exit to the building, reportedly as police tried to escort council staff out. Bystanders told The Independent that two people who emerged from the town hall were punched.

People gathered in the lobby shouted “we need answers” and “we need to be heard”. A young woman at the top of the stairs urged peaceful protest.

“There's going to be no violence, but we're staying here until we get answers,” she said.

The crowd then chanted “we want justice” and “you left them there to die”.

Kensington Town Hall Grenfell Tower protest: People chant "Shame on you!"

Once the crowd dispersed, people made their way up to Notting Hill and towards the site of the tower. Throughout the march chants of “justice” had rippled up the crowd.

“We are here today because you must look at that building with tears streaming down your face,” one woman told the group as they neared the foot of the tower.

Pausing, the hundreds fell silent for a moment before breaking into applause and cheers for those killed.

“We need answers and we need answers now,” another man said through a megaphone.

“This should not be happening in the United Kingdom, this should never happen.”

Other demonstrations spread throughout the capital, with around 1,400 descending on Whitehall, shouting: “May must go.” Others performed a sit-down protest at Oxford Circus and gathered outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House.

Chris Imafidon, whose home overlooks Grenfell Tower, gave an emotional address to the crowd heading for Downing Street, holding a poster for one of the young children missing in one hand and a scorched piece of cladding in the other.

He said: “I'm not here because I support the Tories, Labour or Liberals.

”I'm here because this child ... on Tuesday went to bed and now nobody knows where this child is.“

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