Why did the Grenfell Tower fire disturb our collective consciousness so much: far more than an iconic lesson in fire safety – not that those fatal errors weren’t horror enough? Why did it leave so many of us with a sickening sense of injustice: injustice against the affected individuals, but also more widely, injustice against a group of people who were – or should have been – part of the same community we all feel a part of?
It’s about trust at the heart of the contract between the individual and society. The trust that the state will provide, that we can only fall so far before we are caught, healed, schooled – and housed. Except in housing the contract is broken. The people living in Grenfell Tower had utterly lost faith in the system that should have protected them. Many were living complex lives, striving for happiness in a climate that for many of our fellow citizens has become unimaginably hostile. Many had known they were not safe, but nobody had listened.
In the year since the fire, media, political and public interest in social housing has soared. The fact so many of the Grenfell residents still have no permanent home a year later makes it impossible to ignore the black hole at the heart of the system: there is simply not enough social housing. Around the country, there are 1.15million households on council waiting lists, some of whom will have to wait for decades for a place to call home. At Shelter we’ve supported them for years, but for years no one has been particularly interested. After Grenfell, that is starting to change.
As a country we have been forced to look into the void where a critical part of our welfare state should be. I think many people assumed it was still there, while hoping they wouldn’t need it, or even live next door to it. We all now know the reality is that thousands upon thousands of people across the country still need it: they are striving and struggling to build their lives on nothing. That’s what many of the Grenfell residents are still doing. It’s what being homeless feels like, and it’s what our Shelter teams in North Kensington and across the country see every day.
Finally, the whole country has seen how marginalised those whom the state should be housing have become. We can’t unsee that burning tower. Ironically, in their death, the individuality of the residents of an “estate” has been brought to life. Surprise surprise, these are normal people with jobs and families like everyone else.
At Shelter we feel an acute responsibility to make Grenfell a turning point. A change is needed that is far more profound than replacing unsafe cladding and fitting sprinklers – important though those changes are. That’s why we’ve launched our Big Conversation on social housing, which so far has engaged over 30,000 people in setting a new vision for public housing. It is led by Commissioners who include former Labour leader Ed Miliband, Conservative peer Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, Grenfell survivor Edward Daffarn, Methodist Minister to the Grenfell community Mike Long, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, and others with expertise – including lived experience – in social housing, social justice and campaigning for change.
We hope Grenfell has shown up the urgent need to build more publicly funded homes. We won’t give up until that happens. But we want more than that: the Big Conversation will show how we can rebuild shattered trust, by ensuring the state provides housing that rebuilds communities, supports integration, promotes social mobility and gives residents a fair chance in life – in other words, contributes to exactly the sort of society we all want to live in but have forgotten how.
Indifference can be fatal. That’s what we know now. At Shelter it’s our job to make indifference as difficult as we can.
Polly Neate is chief executive of Shelter