Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Survivors will get a final say over the site’s future. Meanwhile, little has been done to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Eight months later, it still feels brutally early to be discussing a memorial at London’s Grenfell Tower. Destroyed on June 14 after flammable cladding turned a domestic fire into a lethal blaze, the still-gutted, uninhabitable public housing tower remains a grim reminder of last summer’s tragedy, where 71 people died and many more were injured or made homeless. Ultimately though, according to a U.K. government press release published Thursday, the site will become a formal memorial to the fire’s victims.
The announcement of the plan—which could also see the nearby Latimer Road Tube station renamed to Grenfell—strikes the right note so far, making it clear that residents of the West London housing project will get the deciding say on any kind of memorial that happens on the tower’s site.
The announcement is nonetheless treading on delicate ground. The aftershocks of this tragedy, after all, are still very much present. Eight months later, the handling of the Grenfell fire remains a running scandal of official incompetence and indifference, broken promises, and ongoing hardship for the former residents. Perhaps worst of all, at many sites across the U.K., a disaster like this could happen at any moment for all the same reasons.
This is, after all, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided with proper safety standards. The blaze was sparked by a small domestic fire that could have been contained under normal circumstances. A cheap aluminum composite cladding—banned on tall buildings in Germany and the U.S., but permitted in Britain—caused the fire to spread with alarming speed. Unbearably, residents were well aware of the flaws and actively petitioned to have them changed.
You might expect cladding of this type to have been stripped off every single building by now. In fact, this work has barely begun. At the time of the fire, 301 buildings across Britain were covered in the flammable cladding that proved so lethal at Grenfell. This week, the government announced that only seven of those buildings have fully removed the cladding. All told, only 4 percent of British social housing covered in the flammable material have been stripped and renovated.
Meanwhile, the trauma continues for the project’s residents. Just this week, the fire’s toll rose once more with the death of Maria Del Pilar Burton, a 74-year-old tower resident who had remained in the hospital after suffering severe burns. Burton’s neighbors, who were mostly public housing tenants, remain largely without permanent housing in one of London’s most expensive areas, despite a thin strip of public housing on its northern edge. By Christmas, only 49 of Grenfell Tower’s 207 households had found permanent homes. The rest remained in temporary accommodation or, for the majority, hotels.
Residents of the complex that surrounded the tower—living beneath a burned-out hulk where their neighbors died—are still experiencing intermittent hot water and central heating, and faltering gas supplies. Meanwhile, their social landlord has proposed to start charging them rent once more.
There’s an overwhelming sense from locals that they aren’t being sufficiently represented or listened to at the public inquiry. Take all that together and it’s no wonder why the Grenfell Tower disaster remains unhealed. Even before the fire, the neighborhood’s situation was paradoxical: London’s poorest ward, located within the city’s wealthiest borough, housing many people who believed that local officials saw them only as an inconvenience. That belief was only confirmed by the distant, unaccountable handling of the aftermath.
Much of the public agrees with them. Last month at the Brit Awards, Britain’s main music award ceremony, hip hop artist Stormzy made headlines by using a performance to ask, “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” A subsequent petition demanding more involvement for residents in the public inquiry has so far gathered 155,000 signatures.
Into this chaotic, embittered situation walks the proposal to preserve the Grenfell Tower site as a memorial. It might ultimately turn out well as a plan. If residents genuinely get to pilot the process, this memorial could be a fitting tribute and site of remembrance for the fire’s victims. Right now, it nonetheless feels like a monument for a tragedy that’s still far from over.