On Thursday, after months of speculation, the Metropolitan Police released the official death toll for the Grenfell disaster, putting the total number of fatalities at 71.
With previous rumours putting the toll at anything from 150 to 200 it seems an incredibly low figure. Indeed, immediately after the fire, high profile figures such as Grime artist Saskilla claimed in a BBC interview that he had been told personally by firefighters that around two hundred bodies had been identified. Later, singer Lily Allen put the figure at around 150, again based on eye witnesses she had spoken to.
Karim Mussilhy, an official participant in the public inquiry, whose uncle Hesham Raman died in the fire, has also expressed scepticism. CCTV analysis has shown that 223 people were known to have escaped the building, suggesting that the total occupancy on that fateful night was 293. It certainly stretches plausibility that a block of 124 flats would have so few people in residence, but the truth may never be known.
The devastation wreaked by the blaze, along with what are suspected to be a number of undocumented occupants and illegal sub-lets means that there’s a high probability that several people may have died in anonymity. With no family to enquire as to their fate and remains so completely destroyed in the inferno, they may never form part of the final body count.
In these circumstances the official announcement does little to quell the feeling amongst locals that the true scale of the tragedy is being ‘managed’ by the authorities in order to head off any further criticism of the response from the government and local authorities.
This apparent cynicism has been further demonstrated by the recent survey sent around by Kensington’s Conservative council asking local residents to score the tragedy on a scale of 1-10, something described as “Breathtakingly inappropriate and insensitive” by one local respondent.
But the death toll is something that the survivors of Grenfell have tried to put to the back of their minds for the time being as they focus more on the outcome of the public inquiry.
Mr Mussilhy has described a sense of exhaustion among survivors and relatives “We are grieving and we are sick of fighting with the police and council over the numbers” he said.
New Labour MP for Kensington Emma Dent Coad – elected on a wafer thin majority – said her key concern now was the large numbers of residents made homeless by the fire. Many are still in emergency accommodation, despite early promises made by Theresa May to have everyone re-housed within 3 weeks.
Figures released by Kensington and Chelsea council indicate there are 123 households and evacuees still living in hotels and bed and breakfasts. With Christmas approaching it’s looking likely that many of the survivors will not be seeing in the New Year in their new home.
Dent Coad has also complied a report on income and housing divisions within Kensington and Chelsea and the fault lines she has exposed offers a stark representation of the socio-economic divisions within the area.
Across the borough, life expectancy is the highest in the country, but this depends on where you live within this hugely disparate constituency. If you’re a resident of Knightsbridge, near Harrods, you can expect to live to 94, while a man living near Grenfell is looking at an average lifespan of 72, a figure which the report identifies as having fallen by 6 years since 2010.
Across the borough child poverty stands at the London average of 27%, but in the poorest areas it can reach a staggering 58%.
One street in Knightsbridge has a 0% health deprivation rating, but in a block on a council estate two miles away it’s 65%.
On the World’s End estate, residents have an average income of £15,000 a year, while owners of nearby homes on the other side of the King’s Road pull in a tidy £100,000 a year.
Little wonder then that the constituency has become such an exemplar of class apartheid where billionaires and paupers live side by side, often as close neighbours.
The fateful cladding that is believed to have been a major factor in the fire at Grenfell was a key element in a beatification programme designed to smarten the view and tidy away the brutalism of the tower blocks.
The subsequent treatment of the survivors and statistics such as those exposed by Ms Dent Coad, many of which have been known for some years, demonstrate the same cynical process of social cleansing. It’s clear that even experiencing one of the largest peacetime urban disasters in UK history hasn’t significantly changed that perspective.
Reports were emerging last month from a raft of local councils that central government has already reneged on its promises to foot the bill for urgent remedial works on similar buildings to Grenfell. Despite a pledge made in July by Sajid Javid, that lack of financial resources would not prevent necessary works going ahead, claims for the cost retrofitting fire suppression systems and other safety improvements on vulnerable buildings are being pushed back.
It’s evident that, as usual, the Conservatives are full of fine words while the cameras are rolling, but revert to type when they’re asked to put money where their claims of morality are. They’re blatantly applying cost benefit analysis to the issue and have judged that the lives of the poor are worth less than the cost of a few sprinkler heads.
Their priority is to move on from the disaster with the minimum of fuss and expense. In that sense it’s easy to see why the exact number who perished on that terrible night is probably of less concern to them, and certainly of less worth on an individual basis than the oligarchs that are busy buying up our capital.
But the rest of us shouldn’t allow any of the dead or the survivors to be forgotten, ignored, side-lined or silenced in this way. The burnt out husk of that tower should remain in all our memories in the same way that it dominates the London skyline now. It should be burnt into the conscience of every politician and activist as a testament to the folly of community division and social prejudice.
Otherwise, no matter what the numbers turn out to be, the suffering of every single resident of Grenfell will have been for nothing.
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