Talk by playwright Nathaniel McBride at the Architectural Association Symposium on The Cladding Crisis - Friday 24 February 2023
I live in Kensington and have been involved in local politics for some time. In early 2017, I was thinking about writing a documentary play on the history of housing activism in the borough. Then the fire happened, and the focus of the play shifted. Initially it seemed impossible to write about: the over saturated coverage of the event gave the impression that whatever could be said, had been. Then I discovered the Grenfell Action Group blog, which was kept by two residents of the Lancaster West estate: Ed Daffarn and Francis O’Connor. The blog described in weekly, sometime daily, posts, the council’s plans to regenerate and socially cleanse large parts of North Kensington, the botched renovation of the tower, and residents’ efforts to fight back. It became the basis for the first version of the play, which was performed as a staged reading in early 2019. A full production planned for the summer of 2020 was delayed for two years by the pandemic.
Although the delay was frustrating, it did give me an opportunity to incorporate into the play new information that was coming out of the public inquiry. Anyone who followed the inquiry will know how shocking some of its revelations were, and I used these to substantially rewrite the script. The production finally came on stage in the summer of 2022 at the Maxilla Social Club, a community centre just a few hundred yards from Grenfell Tower.
The first scene of the play shows witnesses to the inquiry blaming each other for the installation of flammable cladding on the building. The second shows the regeneration plan of which the renovation of Grenfell Tower was part. The third shows how residents of the building were raising fire safety concerns about it years before the fire happened, and how most of these concerns were ignored.
These scenes don’t show the refurbishment itself, but they do provide some of the context for it. I am showing them because, in my view, what happened during the refurbishment cannot be understood without an understanding of this context. How the materials came to be selected, how those materials were even available to be selected, and how the residents were treated when they organised against what was happening: none of this can be understood without this context. It is often said that the Grenfell Tower fire was the result of systemic failure, in the sense that, in order for it to happen, not one but a whole series of things had to go wrong. I think this is true, but I also think that when we see failure of this kind it is worth asking whether we are seeing a system fail, or whether we are actually seeing it function by an altogether different set of purposes and priorities to those we ascribe it.
If we assume that the purpose of the system by which Grenfell Tower was renovated was to produce improved housing for its residents, then obviously it failed catastrophically. But if on the other hand we consider that its purpose was to promote, directly or indirectly, the privatisation of public goods, or to generate, directly or indirectly, revenues for the council and private corporations, then a different picture emerges. We see a system running normally, even successfully. By the logic of this system, the fire is a contingent and exogenous event, because creating safe and habitable homes had never been its purpose to begin with.
I am not going to try to describe this system in any detail, but I am going to suggest that it was shaped by three determining factors: austerity, deregulation and estate regeneration. Austerity in the form of local government cuts increased the pressure to carry out the renovation works at an unrealistically low cost. Deregulation helped ensure that the guidance to the building regulations was so ambiguous that highly flammable materials either actually complied with it, or were widely believed to do so, depending on one’s interpretation. Estate regeneration was based in part on the design and build contract, which, once it was signed, handed effective decision-making power over which materials to use to the contractor, who had a direct material interest in choosing only what was cheapest. At the same time, the blurred lines of responsibility it created ensured that each participant in the renovation could assume it was the other’s responsibility to check for compliance. The fire safety experts hired for the project, who in any case were mainly concerned with telling their clients what they wanted to hear, could be fired at will. Meanwhile, the council’s overworked, underfunded building control department was reduced to the status of a rubber stamping body.
From the point of view that the interests this system was designed to serve, it functioned properly. The renovation was delivered ‘on budget’, and the council had a building it considered an eyesore, whose appearance could potentially discourage investment in its regeneration project, done up cheaply. The contractor, Rydon, increased its profit margin by getting rid of the expensive zinc cladding that had been originally specified, and replacing it with aluminium composite material. And another fragment of the masterplan to gentrify the area, to make the neighbourhood an attractive investment opportunity for developers when it came to rebuilding the neighbouring estates, was put in place.
Admittedly the renovation itself generated a great deal of conflict with the residents. But that conflict was ultimately effectively managed and contained by those individuals and organisations whose job it was to do so. The TMO relegated their complaints to its labyrinthine and glacially-paced complaints system. Rydon’s contract manager mollified and cajoled, then bullied and threatened, any individuals offering serious resistance to the progress of the works. Any hope residents may have had of getting this system to take their needs into account by cooperating with it proved vain. The only time they won any concessions from it was when they disrupted its functioning by refusing the contractors access to their homes. This precipitated the intervention of the local MP and did result in the TMO agreeing to place boiler in people’s kitchens. But their calls for a review of the system itself – the independent investigation of the TMO and the council’s tendering processes – came up against the sham court of appeal that was the Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee. As the inquiry revealed, this body made a show of agreeing to an investigation while orchestrating behind the scenes a response that would ensure it was buried in bureaucratic manoeuvring. Tellingly the one member of it who stood up for the residents was accused of having a ‘conflict of interest’ – a clear admission that the council’s and the resident’s issues were two quite different things – and excluded from the committee.
I have said that the purpose of the system was not to produce safe, habitable homes, but to facilitate capital accumulation. Nevertheless, those homes were the necessary means by which that purpose was to be achieved. Without them, that accumulation could not take place.
We can think of it as a weak point in the system, and one that came under increasing strain as the pressures of austerity increased. Some years ago two sociologists, Cooper and Whyte, produced a study of austerity which theorised it as a form of social violence. As I understand it, their point was that, when harm is the foreseeable consequence of an action – or non-action – then we can ascribe to that action the intention of causing it. Thus if the foreseeable consequence of estate regeneration is the forced removal of local population, then regeneration is a form of violence.
I can see how might be considered a contentious argument. But if we accept it for the moment, it does cast a certain light on what I have already said. The structures I have been describing were not only used to administer that violence; they themselves became subject to it. They started to become dysfunctional or break down completely, allowing the violence to get out of hand. The result was that, instead of being delivered in measured doses over years or even decades, as the social cleansing of North Kensington had been envisaged, the violence was inflicted it in a single night, in a highly public and visible manner. A controlled and covert form of violence became blatant and overt.
In this sense, we can talk about the system having failed by its own logic. The processes of capital accumulation were disrupted: the plans for the further regeneration had be to put on hold, and the privatisation of public spaces like the North Kensington Library and the borough’s further education college had to be abandoned. In addition, large sums had to be spent on rehousing and compensating the people who’d lost their homes.