Small World: Trial and verdict by fire


Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Our daughter Katherine once lived in London in a block of garden apartments not too far from the swish London neighborhoods of Notting Hill and Kensington. She made good friends there, professionals for the most part, like her, one of whom she married and another with whom she often dined as he was rated one of the city’s most innovative chefs.

There were other neighbors to be sure who didn’t exactly blend in. They inhabited the three or four 24-story structures built for the less well-off by a socially conscious Labour government in 1974. There were a few contacts between the two communities, however, coming mainly as the high-rise folks walked to public transportation stops. Once, without obvious provocation but with misplaced irritation, three of the youth from down the street set fire to Katherine’s car — totaled it — no one bothered to search out the miscreants. Case opened; case closed. Forgotten.

But it was remembered the other day when the press carried graphic pictures of the early morning fire that turned one of the structures into a tower of flame. Eighty people killed, more hospitalized by the smoke and flames, some of the 500 residents still missing. In most of the American press it was a two-day tale — fire extinguished; the page turned.

In London, however, reporters investigated and editorial writers reflected. The fire was first noticed by observant Moslems who were having their last Ramadan meal before the sun rose and the daytime fast began. Some of them had smoke detectors in their apartments but the building itself had no working fire alarm system. It also had no sprinkler system — or as some reported, it had had a system, but it wasn’t working. The exterior, discolored by age, had been clad in cheap siding that was known to be highly flammable. More importantly, it made the structure less of an eyesore in the pricey neighborhood — never mind being an impending danger to its inhabitants.

Over a century ago Britain began to emphasize public housing. During the following decades, Conservative and Labour governments constructed millions of new housing units. By 1979, 42 percent of the country lived in what was called “council housing.”

Then came Margaret Thatcher. Her government pushed an ideological idea called “right to buy,” which promoted homeownership and offered incentives. At the same time, according to the Washington Post, public housing began to acquire a reputation. “People didn’t want to think of themselves as having a kind of reliance on the state.” Between 1979 and 2013, 1.6 million council homes (about a third) were bought by their tenants. At the same time, the number of new homes built dropped sharply. Today, just eight percent of England's residents live in public housing.

The result has been a decline in the rental units that exist. As The Guardian reported:

“Millions more tenants now find themselves in expensive, insecure, often poor quality private housing. Social housing waiting lists are growing, while house building is meeting less than 50 percent of demand. Across a range of indicators, housing is worse, and more costly, for more people. Rising house prices put ownership out of the reach of millions. Spiraling rents mean low-income tenants struggle to keep money aside for fuel and food. Overcrowding is increasing. The markets have failed dismally to meet housing demand.”

It boggles the mind to think that class-ridden, early 20th century Britain cared more for the poor than today’s London, one of the world’s richest, most expensive cities. These are turbulent times in Britain, the New York Times says, and the tower fire touches on many of the issues that are riling people. Over the past decade, a series of events has demolished the trust citizens once felt for their leaders: the financial crash of 2008, the scandal of parliamentary expenses, and the chaos in government following the Brexit referendum.

Amid this dissatisfaction with the status quo, voters in Kensington — a constituency once staunchly Conservative — elected their first-ever Labour member of Parliament. Today, the neighborhood fire looks like yet another of these “trust us, we’ll look after you” promises that officialdom fails to keep.

One is likely to find the same measure of dissatisfaction in our own country where the Housing Secretary thinks public housing is bad for the character of the poor. Will it take a disastrous fire to rile us too?

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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