As raging flames consumed the Grenfell Tower housing complex, London’s genteel facade of civility melted away, exposing a hidden human tragedy at its urban core. The immediate cause of the blaze earlier this month was a lack of basic building safeguards, but the underlying tinder was decades of social disinvestment and callous neglect of the poverty and unrest simmering deep inside one of the world’s richest cities.
There will be, in the coming months, much recrimination surrounding the systemic regulatory failures that led to the tragedy. Street marches have unleashed rage at the erosion of working-class neighborhoods’ social services through budget slashing, and the political failures of government ministers to provide essential emergency response and restore community confidence, including identifying the victims. The Guardian has reported that the Tory-controlled council of tony Chelsea and North Kensington had over the years “stockpiled” hundreds of millions in funding reserves in order to subsidize wealthier constituents with tax breaks, even as the authorities simultaneously starved their public-housing budgets.
But however broken the budget, however dilapidated the buildings, the ideological underpinnings of the Grenfell tragedy were solid and rooted in London’s architectural and social history. The city has long practiced a form of modern “urban planning,” now replicated in hyper-developed cities around the world, that embraces structured inequality as social engineering.
According to the design-advocacy network Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the tragedy would have been “completely avoidable if even a small amount of attention had been paid to the residents at Grenfell themselves.”
Council housing like Grenfell has been a longstanding pillar of Britain’s welfare state, shielding working families from the punishing effects of poverty. These housing systems have, when adequately resourced, provided an institution for building dignified, cohesive working-class communities. But through the degradation of public services since the 1980s, from Thatcherite privatization schemes to the current explosion of breakneck gentrification in London, public housing has decayed as the social safety net has disintegrated. Engels’s descriptions of working-class drudgery in the Victorian East End live on today in a softer form in contemporary patterns of segregation and urban unrest.