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Grenfell Tower residents saw this tragedy coming, but were ignored ... was it because they were poor?

By Holly Baxter

I was woken up on Wednesday morning at 4am by the buzz of my phone: a friend was standing outside the Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, watching it burn, and felt like she needed to speak to someone. She lived down the road - was born and bred in the borough, back when it was slightly less affluent than it is now - and had been alerted to the fire by an impossibly large plume of yellow smoke outside her window as she got ready for bed around 1am.

When I spoke to her, she'd been wandering the streets for three hours, talking to other residents who had come out of their homes to find out what the commotion was and stayed because they knew someone who lived in the tower, or simply felt they couldn't go back to bed, knowing what was going on a few metres away.

Although this happened in Kensington - a famously prosperous area of London with an extremely high number of properties worth £1m or more - it didn't happen in a block of luxury mansion flats. It happened in a high-rise building on a council estate.

Those responsible for managing social housing in the area on behalf of the borough were the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), a company which says on its website that it is responsible for nearly 10,000 properties - and a company which the people who lived at Grenfell Tower had complained about for many years.

The Grenfell Action Group residents' association had consistently warned about the possibility of such a tragedy; they updated their website on Wednesday with a post which reads: "Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC (the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea). All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time."

Links to their earlier posts prove it: in 2013, they warned that shutting down the block's car park would mean just one narrow, restricted road for emergency vehicle access, something which eyewitnesses reported slowed down the fire engine response this week; the same year, they wrote a long post about continuous electrical surges which had been causing fire hazards in the building; and, in November 2016, their frustration about what they called inadequate fire escapes culminated in a frighteningly prescient post titled Playing With Fire.

Of course, we don't know for certain what caused the fire at Grenfell Tower yet. But whatever caused the initial spark, the fact that it escalated into an all-consuming blaze implies that something, somewhere went seriously wrong.

We've been here before. In 2009, a tower block fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London led to the loss of six lives and Southwark Council's criminal prosecution for fire safety lapses (the council paid a £570,000 fine).

Just three months ago, it was reported that a Government delay in reviewing fire safety regulations for tower blocks - one of the recommendations made after the Lakanal House inquest - could lead to future tragedies.

Kensington is a borough with a serious wealth disparity: it is the most unaffordable area of London, yet it also has the highest rate of out-of-borough homeless placements, one of the highest rates of residential overcrowding and one of the highest rates of wage inequality.

As Grenfell Tower shows, the time has come when even the politicians of boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea have to listen to the concerns of all their residents.

Those people have lost almost everything - everything except the blog they were keeping to detail their endless frustrations with the company contracted to take care of the building they lived in. That, at least, cannot be erased by the flames.

Politicians said it after Lakanal House, but this time they actually have to mean it: something like this should never be allowed to happen again.

Belfast Telegraph

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