One of the great social scandals of the Victorian age was the existence of rich and poor ghettoes cheek by jowl in London, just like in Notting Hill today. Then the poor were hidden away in low slums, behind the mansions of the rich; now they’re put into high-rise tower blocks. I must say, having visited the posh part of Notting Hill often, I never noticed the towers, though I did sometimes wonder where all the proles who swept their lovely streets lived.
In the 19th century it was cholera that forced governments to do something about living conditions in the slums, cholera not being class-specific, but in danger of spreading from poor areas to rich. With tower blocks there’s not that danger. The residents of Westbourne Park Avenue are not likely to be infected by disease wafting down from them, so there’s no pressing necessity for a local Tory council to look after their working-class (and often immigrant) neighbours in the same way. Indeed, in many of these prosperous inner suburbs the main task of their politicians was to save money by subcontracting their poorer areas out to private profiteering management companies, or – if they could – to ‘cleanse’ them in order for ‘developers’ to come in and replace them by ‘higher value’ residences. One rather extreme conspiracy theory floating around Kensington just now is that this was the hidden agenda behind the recent fire. Even short of this, however, there’s no doubt that the Grenfell Tower disaster was, indirectly, due to London’s extreme inequality, and therefore to the effects of late, uncontrolled capitalism. There’s a clip on the internet of David Cameron in 2012 announcing it as his ‘main task’ to do away with the ‘health and safety monster’, in order to liberate ‘business enterprise’. (See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-i-will-kill-off-safety-culture-6285238.html.)
The fire at Grenfell Tower is not, so far as I know, spreading directly to Westbourne Park Avenue, or even showering ashes there; but the sight of that horrible blackened stump so close on the horizon must have some effect on the rich people living around it; and on the reputation of recent Tory governments: the very people who cut fire, police and medical services, for example, in the interests of ‘austerity’. What will happen to it now we don’t know. It could be razed to the ground in order to provide space for upper-class villas, but surely not even the notoriously insensitive Theresa May (she even refused to meet the victims) could allow that now. Maybe it could be allowed to stand as it is – as soon as it has been stabilized – as a dreadful symbol and reminder over the next few years of the evil of late-stage capitalism. The surviving residents could be housed in some of the nearby dwellings that have been bought up by rich Arabs and left empty as ‘long-term investments’. One Labour politician has suggested this; only to be dismissed as a ‘Marxist’. So be it.