Sunday, June 18, 2017

Grenfell Tower

This is a hard topic to write about, but an important one. 

Around ten years ago, Dan Ellison and myself put together a bid for the Royal Geographical Society's 'Going Beyond' Land Rover travel bursary which involves a Land Rover and some cash. Sadly, we were not successful, although a future winner of that grant was Felicity Aston's Pole of Cold trip, which I connected with. The idea we had back then, was of turning the vehicle into what we called our 'space'ship, and we were going to arrive at various locations where we would meet up with prominent geographers and groups of school children, and be guided by them as to the geographies of their place. One of the geographers who'd agreed to meet us was Danny Dorling, who was at the University of Sheffield back then.

Danny was going to meet us in Sheffield and take us on a short journey, which would take about 15 minutes, but which would take us from one place to another whose residents had a life expectancy that was 15 years shorter at the time. Geography matters in these instances. The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, like any urban area of comparable size, is not homogeneous. There are differences within it.
Danny's '32 Stops' picks up that metaphor for a tube line running across London. Lives on the Line visualises this.

On Wednesday morning, we woke to the terrifying images of the fire overtaking the Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington. Through the days since, there have been many hours of news coverage, and there has also been a growing anger that this was an avoidable event, and that warnings apparently weren't listened to. There were also some longer-term political allegations relating to fire safety reports, and the reduction in funding to the London Fire Service (and other public and emergency services generally). Several London Fire Stations were closed in 2014 due to funding cuts, for example. At the time of writing, there are growing protests, and the building remains too unsafe for the next stage of the investigation and recovery process to begin. Local tube stations are closed for fear of falling debris, and firefighters at one stage thought the tower might collapse.

Nesrine Malik connected the tragedy with the way that migrants are treated.

The first victim named was a Syrian refugee, Mohammed al-Haj Ali. The list is now extending into a roll call of the marginalised, the maligned and the disenfranchised.

Lynsey Hanley, whose book 'Estates' I have blogged about quite a few times over the years as an important contribution to the discussions on housing was very clear about the link with inequality too. In her piece she also mentions Danny's data in this area, as well as highlighting the potential benefits when these developments 'work':

The geographer Danny Dorling has shown that black and minority ethnic people in social housing are disproportionately housed in flats, to the extent that, in his words, ‘the majority of children who live above the fourth floor of tower blocks, in England, are black or Asian.’ This is not to do with a shortage of housing, but is a reflection of the fact that not only are ethnic minorities more likely to be working-class by wage and occupation, but they experience discrimination – tacit or outright – when allocated housing.


Here's a story about a disabled mum and her son housed high up in the block... should they have been housed in such a place?

Danny Dorling has written on both inequality and housing, and his recent books have explored the idea that inequality is the biggest threat of all. His re-issued book, Injustice, has an important premise.

Beveridge’s five social evils are being replaced by five new tenets of injustice: elitism is efficient; exclusion is necessary; prejudice is natural; greed is good and despair is inevitable. By showing these beliefs are unfounded, Dorling offers hope of a more equal society. We are living in the most remarkable and dangerous times. With every year that passes it is more evident that Injustice is essential reading for anyone concerned with social justice and wants to do something about it.

There are plenty of luxury high rise blocks of course. Urgent efforts are now being made to assess the fire safety of all similar dwellings, one would imagine. A political cartoon in the Guardian, also today includes an image of these luxury developments which have sprouted up throughout London over the last decade, some of them controversial in the way that they have been funded or occupied.

There have been a great many images and political cartoons shared online which, taken with other information and stories are important ideas for students to be introduced to. There is also an aspect here which connects with teaching we do on the nature of risk, and the hazard risk equation. Are the sums working out differently if one considers the richer, and poorer, when it comes to housing safety?

A final story relating to the geography of the tragedy returns us back to the story of a journey between unequal places. The Guardian's Esther Addley followed the road that leads from the Westway, south to Royal Crescent Gardens. It seems that nothing much has changed in those 10 years since our idea.

The Illustreets app gives the area around Grenfell Tower a deprivation of between 7 and 9 out of 100 (0 being the worst), whereas less than a kilometre to the south takes you into areas scoring in the 70s... (100 being the best). Perhaps, as Simon Jenkins writes, it is time to stop building residential blocks, especially as one report said that no fire appliance in the UK could have reached the top floors. It reminds me of some of the book 'Vertical' that I read earlier in the year, and talked about at the time. In his book, Stephen Graham argues that it is the rich who segregate themselves by living higher...


I'm grateful to Brendan Conway for contacting me, and prompting me to think about this issue, and say something about it here.
He reminded me of the important role that schools play following such an event.  
Schools are doing amazing resilient work in the vicinity of Grenfell Tower to support students, their families and other schools.

The closest school to Grenfell is Kensington Aldridge Academy which is closed and currently hosted by Burlington Danes Academy and Latymer Upper School http://www.kensingtonaldridgeacademy.co.uk/

It can be seen on one of the first pictures on this page - see just how close the school is to the tower. 


Among the various initiatives started up, one is called #GreenForGrenfell in West London schools, but other schools might want to show support in a similar way https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-asked-wear-greenforgrenfell

Brendan shared just a couple of examples from schools he has worked with in that area:
One of them, Sion Manning http://www.sion-manning.com/sion-manning-hosts-st-francis-of-assisi-catholic-primary-school/ is itself deeply affected and they are now hosting St Francis of Assisi primary school (about 200 m from Grenfell Tower, so it's had to close temporarily) http://www.franassisi.rbkc.sch.uk/).  
Another, Holland Park School, appears to have very sad losses from their community and have also been providing magnificent support since the early hours of the disaster:


I know that other schools in the area will be doing all sorts of great things to help and support.  I just thought that this tremendous effort should be acknowledged.

Thanks to Brendan for sharing these stories, and I am pleased to be able to share them here. My utmost admiration goes to all those who are helping the residents and their families in whatever shape that takes.
I hope this post may have been helpful in some way.

If you want to help the residents of Grenfell Tower, there are several ways that you can do that.
The British Red Cross has launched the London Fire Relief fund, which is taking donations. 

First posted on LivingGeography on Saturday 17th June

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