JEREMY CORBYN’S determination to see victims of the corporate manslaughter at Grenfell Tower properly rehoused is a contrast to the total absence of leadership shown both by the government and Kensington & Chelsea Council.
Even in the face of the appalling human tragedy of last week, and despite Conservative MPs now lining up to condemn their Prime Minister’s cowardly response to the disaster, residents are still being let down.
Desperate women and men trying to find information on missing relatives have complained of a glaring absence of information, without local authorities taking responsibility to assist people or explain who to apply to for information. Rumours of lists of people who died compiled by doctors spread through the community without being verifiable.
“Where are the government officials, where are the council officials?” one asked the BBC — a further condemnation of a local authority so craven even our state broadcaster can’t prise an interview out of it.
Theresa May might talk of a £5 million emergency fund, but her government has dismally failed to rehouse the homeless, with many still lacking secure accommodation.
As Corbyn says, there are a number of ways of dealing with this in a borough with 1,399 vacant houses: “Occupy it, compulsorily purchase it, requisition it...”
But our government daren’t risk it.
May and the mutinous MPs giving her 10 days to shape up or ship out are equally terrified of violating a taboo central not just to neoliberalism but capitalism itself: that property rights are sacrosanct. They take precedence over human rights. They take precedence over human beings.
And if they wobble and acknowledge the right of Grenfell residents to stay in the local area after losing homes and loved ones to a totally preventable catastrophe, even if that means housing them in buildings which owners neither need nor use, where could it lead?
After all, land-banking by the super-rich helps no-one. It pushes property prices up — one reason why a decent home is a pipe dream for millions of young people in this country.
In Kensington, astronomical house prices have further undermined what remains of the borough’s social housing. The Conservative government told councils in 2015 they had to fund the extension of right to buy to housing association tenants by selling off housing where property prices were highest.
Housing charity Shelter found that in Kensington & Chelsea this sell-off policy would hit 97 per cent of council housing stock, the highest proportion anywhere.
Aside from house prices, land-banking kills off communities, just as second homes do in poor rural areas such as Cornwall. Absentee owners don’t shop or use local services, starving small businesses and creating ghost towns.
Requisitioning the draughty mansions of Kensington for Grenfell tenants would put the grotesque social consequences of property speculation under the spotlight — paving the way for serious action that would start to address a housing crisis that has been worsening for years.
Corbyn’s demands are rooted in the immediate humanitarian crisis sparked by the Grenfell fire. But he has been highlighting the disastrous consequences of the degradation of social housing for years, under both Conservative and Labour governments which largely refused to listen.
This government shows no sign of listening either, too fixated on a still mysterious stitch-up with the DUP and a controversial bid to cancel the 2018 Queen’s Speech, both sticking-plaster solutions designed to keep a Tory in Downing Street whatever the cost to our country and however illegitimate their rule becomes.