This Play About Grenfell Underlines The Problems With Social Housing

Dictating to the Estate is performed by the Grenfell Tower site, five years after the fire that shouldn't have happened.
Dictating to the Estate

It’s been five years since the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, the most devastating residential fire in Britain since World War II. People all over the UK watched in horror as the tower block was engulfed in flames, killing 72 people.

The names of those victims are projected onto a screen in the final chilling scene of Dictating to the Estate, a new documentary play about the events leading up to that catastrophic night in 2017.

The play, written by Nathaniel McBride, is being performed a stone’s throw from the Grenfell site at Maxilla Social Club, a community centre in the heart of north Kensington, which became a collection point for donations after the tragedy.

Five years on, newspapers have published plenty of think pieces about social housing, gentrification and the cladding scandal. But McBride’s play explores what really led to this state of being, and what this says about the lives of the working class and immigrants living in London.

His dramatic text is based entirely on real-life documents and testimonials from the months leading up to the disaster, with council reports, email correspondence, statements from contractors and blog posts from residents performed by actors.

HuffPost UK spoke to McBride about the importance of this play and why we should never forget what happened at Grenfell.

Kevin Percival

McBridge has lived in the borough for 16 years but was out of the country when the fire occurred. “Up until that point of spring 2017 I’d been thinking of writing a play about the history of social activism in North Kensington. North Kensington has a long history of activism specifically around the issue of housing,” Mcbridge explains.

“But when the fire happened, my initial reaction was ‘I can’t ignore this, but I don’t see how I could write something about this.’ It seemed impossible.”

Then he read the Grenfell Ash blog, which was created by two residents in the area. They were social activists in the neighbourhood who kept a blog documenting and reporting on local issues, including the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.

“That was a very important source of information and I suddenly realised that this could be a way of approaching it as a play,” McBridge says. “So I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to write about the fire itself, but the events leading up to the fire and the context of the fire was what was important to me.”

Kevin Percival

Though he’s lived in Kensington for several years, the playwright doesn’t live in North Kensington, where the singed tower still stands, shrouded in protective sheeting and decorated with a green heart.

Kensington is the richest [area] in the country with the highest property values, but the northern part of the of the borough is poor and has some of the worst poverty rates in London,” Mcbridge explains.

“I stood as a local counsellor in 2018 to 2022. And you know you’ll cross the street and you’re in a completely different socio-economic world. There’s massive social divisions and differences concentrated within a very, very small geographical area.”

Dictating to the Estate is a documentary-style play, this means that “nothing in it is invented or added, barring a few lines or words just for dramatic purposes,” McBridge says.

“One rule I had when I began writing was only to use documents that predated the fire. Because they were not written with hindsight and they had this extraordinary charge as a result of that – particularly when you’re reading blog posts or letters from residents, warning about fire safety issues.”

Kevin Percival

Mcbridge believes it’s important for people to remember Grenfell because it exposes what’s wrong with government policy on “regeneration” and “deregulating health and safety regulations on buildings”.

While some flats were privately-owned leaseholds, the majority of the block was comprised of social housing.

“Regeneration is basically about knocking down social housing and replacing it with buildings from private owners and renters and making large profit for building development companies,” Mcbridge says.

I don’t think anyone can understand how this fire happened in one of the richest boroughs in the country.”

The fire spread rapidly up the 24-story building due to the flammable exterior cladding used in refurbishments. Similar cladding has been used on at least 481 other buildings in England and a battle for removal and compensation continues.

The play features a speech from David Cameron, in which he vows to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and quips that “some accidents are inevitable”.

Mcbridge continues: “Originally, the plan was to knock down the tower, because it was apparently ugly. But they couldn’t afford that. So they did the next best thing which was to camouflage it. So I hope that that’s one of the things that it will highlight.”

It’s impossible to ignore how race and class also intersect with the housing scandal. Grenfell was home to the white working class, BAME Brits, refugees, European migrants and asylum seekers. More than half the adult victims had arrived in the country since 1990.

When asked what he wants audiences to take away from the play, Mcbridge says: “I’d want the play to expose the ideology policies, institutions and individuals that created the conditions that made Grenfell Tower possible.

I would just add that I hope that people will recognise the events that it presents from their own experience, perhaps from people living in social housing.”

Dictating to the Estate will play at the Maxilla Social Club, Kensington until the 12th of June, you can buy tickets here.