Grenfell fire: ‘The choice is between austerity and affordable housing’

This piece was initially published at Al Araby.


A local action group in the UK has held protests outside a Barnet Council committee meeting, after it was revealed the same flammable cladding that decked the Grenfell Tower was used on high-rises in the North London borough.

The Barnet Housing Action Group (BHAG) – supported by local representatives of the Labour and Green parties – have put pressure on the council’s housing committee to ensure residents of high-rises are safe in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster earlier this month, which led to the deaths of at least 80 people.

The protest on Monday followed a statement by Sajid Javid, secretary of state for communities and local government on Saturday, when he revealed that many more high-rises in London had used the same flamable cladding as the West London tower block.

“The cladding from 34 high-rise buildings, in 17 local authority areas, has failed the combustibility test,” said Javid.

“It is the responsibility of the landlords and freeholders to advise their residents what to do in the event of a fire in the building.”

High-risk tower blocks

The number of tower blocks that failed fire tests rose to 120 on Wednesday.

Barnet Housing Action Group told The New Arab two days before Javid’s statement that flammable cladding was found on buildings in Barnet.

Janette Ewens, a member of BHAG, said that they are pressing the council to ensure the same safety standards apply to private landlords, as well as social housing.

Ewens argued that the problem remained fundamentally structural. “The choice is between austerity and affordable housing,” she said. “You can’t have both.”

The action group also denounced the practice of Barnet council “moving poor people” out of the borough.

This was repeated by Ben Samuel, Barnet Green Party candidate for Hendon constituency, who told The New Arab that the practice of shifting economically deprived residents out of the UK capital was not limited to Barnet borough.

“[In Harringay] the council have been telling the people to get out, to move out of London, to go hundreds of miles away,” he claimed.

“The agenda of Harringay council is to move out the poor. [They want] only rich people here – only the ‘desirable people’ here – people who pay taxes, young families who don’t have any benefits, any social care needs, to make money.”

Samuel believes that Barnet represents a wider problem in the capital and one which the government has shown little interest in tackling.

When asked to confirm or deny the claims, a press officer from Barnet Council told The New Arab that it was difficult to verify the information.

Cost-cutting

The Green Party candidate for Chipping Barnet, Phil Fletcher, said that Barnet council’s cost-cutting measures was a response to the reduction in government grants under the Conservative government in 2013.

Barnet Council adopted the “easyCouncil” model in 2013 – under the label “One Barnet” – and signed a ten-year contract with the private firm Capita worth a reported £474m to provide services to residents.

This included “corporate programmes, customer services, estates, finance, human resources and payroll, information systems, procurement, revenues and benefits”.

Part two of the contract stipulated that Capita would manage highways in Barnet along with the “planning and development, regeneration and environmental health and trading standards services” in the borough.

Residents of Barnet opposed the public-private model when it was announced, with one disabled resident challenging the contract in the High Court. Maria Nash managed to delay the completion of the contract by three months, but it was eventually signed in March 2013.

Activists from the housing action group said they hoped more people will question Tory austerity in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire.

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