Housing

Seven years after Grenfell Tower fire: Residents fear they'll die before seeing justice

No prosecutions have been brought as the seventh anniversary of the Grenfell fire is marked. Residents say they're struggling to move on

Grenfell Tower is wrapped in plastic. Image: Eliza Pitkin/Big Issue

“I went through the largest national tragedy in this country since the Second World War, the biggest fire since the Second World War. I’ve watched 72 people perish in front of me on the night,” says David O’Connell, who lives in a flat in Lancaster West estate, home to Grenfell Tower.

“I can’t move. I have to carry on living in the area. It’s traumatic for me and my partner. On top of that, I have to pay for something that’s more expensive and doesn’t necessarily work better than what we had before.

“I don’t want to be spending my time doing that seven years after. I want to be trying to get my life back together.”

Seven years after the fire, residents speak of promises of change and justice unfulfilled.

The Grenfell Inquiry’s final report won’t be delivered until September, while the Met has admitted charges won’t be brought for another year. It has left residents fearing many will die before seeing any justice.

Meanwhile, a promised refurbishment to transform the Lancaster West estate into a “model 21st century social housing estate” continues. Originally supposed to finish in 2020, it has dragged on, disrupting lives. Residents, describing life on the estate as living on a building site, say they have been told the cost has ballooned £80million beyond the council’s capabilities.

Beyond Kensington, the fire sparked promises for change from Westminster, as well as prompting a years-long dispute over work to fix dangerous cladding on buildings across the UK.

“What is alarming is that nothing has changed for the residents of the estate and in fact things have got far far worse,” said Kimia Zabihyan of the Grenfell Next of Kin campaign group

“There is no advocacy for the residents who were abandoned and forgotten by this government, who blithely left the welfare of its citizens at the heart of this tragedy to the very same council that was under criminal investigation for the fire that killed their friends, neighbours and family. 

“We cannot sit back and say nothing. These residents are part of the struggle and the injustice they were subjected to as witnesses to the horrific manslaughter of their community and have been left powerless to hold the very council that is culpable to account.”

‘It’s getting more and more expensive to live on a building site’

There is no end in sight for many of the issues present when the Big Issue spoke to residents on the estate in 2023, ahead of the sixth anniversary. An original budget for the refurbishment was £120m. Resident David O’Connell says council representatives told residents at a meeting it will now be closer to £248m. Kensington and Chelsea Council said it did not recognise these figures, but acknowledged inflation and high borrowing costs had driven up budgets, and that the first block is due to be completed in early 2025.

He doesn’t yet know what the final charges for the refurbishment will be, but expects at least £15,000 if he remains in his flat – or around £60,000 if he moves out.

“It’s getting more and more expensive to live in a building site, with the remains of the tower,” O’Connell says.

After a dispute with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, leaseholders on the Lancaster West estate have been refunded a total of £7,680 for mistakenly billed service charges in the 2022/23 financial year.

These include repairs done poorly, overpriced works and the purchase of a gazebo.

However, they also include a total of £618.09 for work as part of Grenfell anniversary events, including cleaning a memorial and hanging lanterns.

“All people wanted after the fire was to have the basics working,” O’Connell adds.

“There’s lots of good people, there’s been lots of good intentions, there was lots of money promised, but the management has been appalling. It has run out of control.”

Families, locals and campaigners are still pushing for justice. Image: Grenfell Next of Kin

What are political parties promising Grenfell residents?

Building safety and cladding remediation work became one of the key political issues arising from Grenfell, with tens of thousands of residents discovering their homes were covered in unsafe materials. Promises from Westminster followed.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto described Grenfell as the starkest symbol “of the failing housing system”, and promised “system-wide change so that a tragedy like Grenfell never happens again”. This included a £1bn fire safety fund.

The Conservatives’ winning manifesto acknowledged that “no report or review can truly capture the heartache, sorrow, anger and grief that many people feel”, promised to work with industry, housing associations and individuals to make homes safe, and pledged to support residents with the removal of unsafe cladding.

In 2022, Conservatives passed the Building Safety Act into law, which protected leaseholders from some costs associated with fixing unsafe buildings – but only after many leaseholders described facing bankruptcy from post-Grenfell bills. 

Their 2024 manifesto also contained a mention of the tragedy, pledging to make developers fund remediation work on mid- and high-rise buildings.

Progress remains slow on the issue.

As of April this year, 1,975 residential buildings have started or completed remediation of unsafe cladding, accounting for 46% of buildings where a fire risk has been identified, according to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

A total of 2,361 buildings are still awaiting safety work with scores of people living in uncertainty. 

The government department won a landmark legal case last month to force a freeholder into carrying out works to fix defects. DLUHC won a court case against Grey GR, owned by pension fund manager Railpen, using new powers under the Building Safety Act for the first time to speed up building safety work at Vista Tower in Stevenage.

This year’s general election is the first time that the anniversary of the disaster has fallen during a campaigning period.

The disaster and the wider housing crisis continues to loom large over the Kensington constituency. The Conservative candidate is Felicity Buchan – a former banker who served as the homelessness minister until Rishi Sunak called the election.

She’s going head to head with Labour’s Joe Powell, who runs Kensington Against Dirty Money, a campaign group fighting the number of homes with foreign owners left empty in the borough.

Hostilities will cease as attention turns to the anniversary of the fire.

Justice delayed as Grenfell inquiries and prosecutions remain elusive

The wait goes on to see if anyone will face criminal charges for their part in the disaster.

An update from the Metropolitan Police last month suggested survivors and bereaved families could be waiting beyond 2026 – almost a decade after the fire – before anyone is charged.

The force said it will take its investigation team at least 12 to 18 months to fully assess the Grenfell Inquiry’s report and complete evidential files to present to the Crown Prosecution Service to make charging decisions.

A team of 180 officers and staff have been dedicated to the investigation with detectives identifying 19 companies or organisations and 58 individuals as suspects.

The Met’s deputy assistant commissioner Stuart Cundy said: “Those who are most deeply affected have our commitment that we are doing all we can to get this investigation right. We owe that to those who died and all those affected by the tragedy. We are moving as quickly as we can, but we must be thorough and diligent in our investigation.

“This is one of the largest and most complex investigations ever undertaken by the Met, the scale and legal complexity is immense. We have been working since the night of the fire to leave no stone unturned in our investigation into what happened.”

“A lot of people will have died by the time they get round to doing anything with this. It’s the same thing you saw with Hillsborough, it’s the same thing we’ve seen with a lot of this,” says O’Connell. “It just seems to take forever to achieve any kind of justice in this country.”

Those who have died include Virginia Sang, who the Big Issue spoke to in 2023. In evidence given to the Grenfell Inquiry, Sang described spending the night of the fire outside “doing what I could to help people in the local area”. At 6am, she went home, had a bath, and went to work to open up a local GP surgery “in case the fire brigade might need something.”

Last year, she spoke of black ash blowing off the tower into her kitchen, and walked past pictures of those she knew who died in the tower.

“Virginia passed on, and that’s exactly what will happen,” says O’Connell. “People won’t be here to be angry or to remember.”

‘This council could and should have done more’

In a statement to the Big Issue ahead of the anniversary, councillor Elizabeth Campbell, leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, said: “Our thoughts will always be with the people who lost their lives, their loved ones and their homes on 14 June 2017. This council could and should have done more to keep our residents safe before the fire, and to care for them in the aftermath.

“We know how important the long-awaited Grenfell Inquiry report will be for the bereaved, survivors and the community. We are committed to learning from the report and recommendations, to ensure that a tragedy like Grenfell can never happen again. While the date is set for it to be published in September, we know that this is not the end of the road to justice for those affected.

“We will keep working to rebuild our relationship with our communities as we strive to meet the challenge the bereaved and survivors have set us – to become the best council for our residents and change the culture of our organisation for good, as a lasting legacy of the tragedy.”

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