I was discussing the Grenfell inquiry with friends last night. We were vociferous, and of divided opinions. But I also wanted to see where we might go beyond the inquiry.
We already have a highly polarised, and political, debate.
The great danger – the more political the inquiry becomes, and the more personal, the longer it will take, and the more ensnared it will become. The local MP has called for the inquiry chair to be replaced: she wants ‘somebody with a bit of a human face’. We recently had the Mail seeking to disparage judges and the rule of law, we now have Emma Dent Coad seeking to do the same. Whoever heads the inquiry needs first and foremost to be impartial.
George Monbiot in the Guardian has damned the enquiry as a stitch-up. I don’t believe it will be – or can be. It will, as did Chilcot on Iraq, develop its own momentum. Monbiot has already decided that the Grenfell Tower disaster is a crime pure and simple. He’s linking it with the government’s Red Tape initiative, intended to cut back regulations, including building regulations. Let the inquiry takes its course – the government’s attitude to regulation is already a big issue – let’s see where the evidence trail leads us.
What we don’t need is calls to boycott the inquiry on the one hand, and the kind of sustained disparagement of groups of local campaigners as agitators (the speciality of the Telegraph) on the other.
But the inquiry should be only part of our response. There’s a wider field in play.
What we need above all is a radical focus on building new homes, and a radical reappraisal of the role of tower blocks in public housing. This was for me the main point of our discussion last night – would any significant change, wider social change, come out of the Grenfell aftermath and enquiry?
I want to see us, see the country, the government, establish a different direction of travel. Policy goals and green papers will follow later. But after forty and more years of failure housing as an issue now needs to become centre stage.
Put in simple terms, we need a radical increase in the building of new homes: new homes for the young; new homes in areas of rapid population growth; but above all new homes for the urban working-class, who have been shovelled into ill-kept tower blocks for far too long. Ultimately and long term I’d to see high-rises, with all their empty space around, replaced by something much more low-rise, more community-focused.
Building would need to be of a much higher standard, and funded by local councils to whom the government would devolve funding. Housing associations would be encouraged to build up and not sell off their housing stock.
The Grenfell tragedy has focused minds – we need a rigorous, impartial inquiry – but we also need to look beyond.