The deadly disaster of the Grenfell fire, Andy Southwark writes, has demonstrated how truly cold and callous the market, the fat-cat landlords, and the Tories really are.
Seven months on from the tragic blaze that claimed the lives of at least 73 people, the hulking wreck of Grenfell tower continues to cast a dark shadow over Britain. Above all, the disaster exposed how little the lives of working people really matter under capitalism.
In the wake of the fire, 160 social housing towers with the same deadly cladding as Grenfell have been identified. Yet only three of these have been safely re-clad so far, despite the fact that they are clearly in breach of fire safety building regulations. This inaction has left tens of thousands of working class tenants living with the daily fear that a similarly catastrophic blaze could rip through their homes and lives.
The widespread use of the fatal cladding was largely due to cost-cutting. But the twisted irony of capitalism is that the price of making these towers safe is now astronomical. Camden council has stripped the cladding from five towers in the borough, and estimates that the final cost once they are re-clad will be in excess of £50 million.
The Tory government are refusing to spend a penny for these safety works and are leaving cash-strapped Labour councils to foot the bill. Theresa May is perfectly happy to spend £1 billion on the DUP in her desperation to cling to power. But when it comes to stopping working families from being burned alive in their own homes, her purse is firmly shut.
The callous capitalist market
Even more sickening is the fact that profit-hungry building companies are exploiting the sudden demand for re-cladding by inflating their prices. Wandsworth council were initially quoted £5.5 million for making a residential block in Southfields safe. But four months after work began, the cost has now almost doubled to £9.9 million.
Contractors blame ‘volatile market forces’. The reality is that construction companies are cashing in over the dead bodies of the Grenfell victims. Yet this disgusting exploitation is simply the normal functioning of capitalism. Behold the glorious perfection of the market!
The scandal of flammable cladding is not restricted to social and council housing. 150 privately-owned towers have been identified with it. Yet in many cases the owners of the towers are refusing to pay the cost of making them safe.
Citiscape in Croydon is one such tower. The government has ordered the owner to remove the unsafe cladding at an estimated cost of £2m. Although the government insists that the freeholder is legally responsible for the costs, the company that owns the building has passed it on to the leaseholders by billing them £31,300 each and demanding they pay within six weeks.
Proxima GR properties, who own the building, are in turn owned by the family trust of Vincent Tchenguiz. This property mogul is thought to have a net-worth in excess of £850m. Mr Tchenguiz owns 300,000 freeholds in the UK, including 10 Hilton hotels. Last year he bought a new 165-foot superyacht. For such a man, the cost of making his property safe for his leaseholders is little more than small change.
In contrast, Alex, a charity fundraiser who owns a flat in the building, told the Guardian that the £30k+ bill was more than he earned in a year and there was no way he could pay it. Once again, the workers are made to foot the bill for the crimes of the rich. Meanwhile the government sits idly by.
The observations on the effectiveness of law made by Anacharsis – a Scythian traveller in the 6th Century BC – ring absolutely true today: “Written laws are like spiders’ webs; they will catch, it is true, the weak and poor, but would be torn in pieces by the rich and powerful.”
Expropriate the fat-cat landlords!
What is clear is that a socialist Labour government is the only way out of this mess. But such a government should not restrict itself to politely reminding tower block owners of their legal duties and requesting that construction companies refrain from profiteering from tragedy.
The real solution is to nationalise both the building companies and the properties of millionaire parasites like Mr. Tchenguiz. Then we could put this wealth to work in solving the urgent problems that we face today.