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Khadija Said

Remembering Grenfell: five years on and still no justice

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We still don't know what will become of the tower's remains as survivors and the bereaved wait for answers and action years after the blaze.

13 Jun 2022

Content warning: this article contains mention of death.

Five years ago, smoke pumped thick into the night sky as the residents of Grenfell Tower attempted to escape a horrific blaze that eventually defeated them. The fire on the 14 June 2017 claimed the lives of 72 people, while dozens were injured that night. Survivors and former residents have been left traumatised, constantly reminded of the government’s neglect

Never has there been such a stark reminder of death in London. To this day, an oversized green heart hangs over the tower, with white wrapping cloaking a multitude of injustices the victims are yet to receive compensation for. Underneath lie the remains of a once-thriving community, a delicate memory box to those who lived there. For most, it’s a haunting skeleton; a representation of pending restitution.

The tower’s outline hovers like an upright tomb in the London skyline as the inquiry into the circumstances of that night continues. Cladding companies, risk assessments and the many failures to prevent the fire are being dissected. Yet some of the recommendations of the inquiry have already been rejected by the government, such as legal obligations for high-rise buildings to plan for a fire evacuation, particularly for disabled residents. Recent Home Office papers claiming residents should ‘stay put’ in the event of a fire and wait for emergency services have caused outrage, knowing this was the same policy before the fire. History of victim neglect runs deep and feels dangerously repetitive.

Another conflict presents itself as the question still remains over the future of the tower. 

“If the removal really is for safety reasons, then why has it taken years?”

Valid and heartfelt suggestions from the community for a memorial on the site submitted to the Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission centre on reflecting peace, evoking hope, remembrance and the demand for justice. Considerations include a potential garden, artwork or a building as long as it reflects unity and honour. However, any decision by the government on the structure’s future has been postponed for months, and the delay has become a reminder of negligence. 

Talk of what to do with the tower ebbs as alleged safety concerns over the building’s current structure and the extensive damage inside flow. After the fire, the tower was ‘‘classified as a dangerous structure’’ by the Ministry of Housing and has since deteriorated internally and continues to throughout the seasons. Safety risks to locals and a neighbouring secondary school were posed by structural experts last year recommending top-down demolition. It suddenly emerged the government had made a decision – yet again, without consulting the community.

In response, some campaigners called for the tower to remain as a vertical garden because demolition may release debris, asbestos, potentially even more trauma, all at once. Justice4Grenfell, a group of survivors, asked the important question: if the removal really is for safety reasons, then “why has it taken four years?’’

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said the latest position on demolition hasn’t changed. “We know how important and sensitive a decision on the future of Grenfell Tower will be and one has not yet been taken. Michael Gove recently met with bereaved families, survivors and residents to discuss their concerns about the future of the Tower. He has since confirmed in writing that ‘we will carry out further conversations with the community before a decision is made’.” 

“Grenfell may ultimately be demolished because the government can’t cope with a physical reminder of its guilt”

The decision to tear down the charred tower is reasoned by the government to protect the memory of the victims. Yet it feels like a strategic move the government has been playing to shift blame since the night of the fire. Deferring on a decision where they’re perhaps prioritising profit as they often have historically.

“What evidence do we have to trust the government that they will deliver on what the bereaved families want?” Yvette Williams, an organiser from Justice4Grenfell asks. So far, it has stalled to avoid accusations and failed to spend half of the allocated funds to remove similarly dangerous cladding from buildings. There is fear that Grenfell may ultimately be demolished because the government can’t cope with a physical reminder of its guilt. 

The bereaved are dealing with trauma made worse by a lack of finality. The collective failure of the government – the lack of legislation that’s passed, the slow process of removing cladding – has shaken a community who deserves and requires closure. Grenfell United, a group of survivors and bereaved families, has since said that demolishing the tower while the inquiry and investigations are ongoing would only  ‘‘serve those accused or those that haven’t acted.” The frustration is immeasurable.

Devaluing human life is a recurring theme here. Anger, outrage and upset are expected reactions from a wounded community, many of whom have been busy trying to prevent another disaster like Grenfell from happening. Justice would be respecting the victims, letting them decide and finally taking action that benefits those affected. 

At each turn, painful choices are being made with little regard for the voice of the survivors and understanding of the effects the fire has had on their lives long-term. Five years ago, expectations were high, but the government has continued to disappoint this community and the wider public. We still don’t know what will become of the land Grenfell occupies. All we know is what once occurred there will forever be in our hearts.

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