On the facts established in the report, there is prima facie evidence that the human rights of those who died in and were affected by the fire were violated. The rights to life, to family life and to property are all protected under domestic law through the Human Rights Act 1998. The UK is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which recognises the rights to adequate housing and to the highest attainable standard of health. If there is a foreseeable risk to human rights of which the government (local or national) is or should be aware, and the government is in a position to ameliorate that risk, then a failure to do so amounts to a failure to secure the right in question. Human rights, however, are effectively ignored in Moore-Bick’s report.
Kensington and Chelsea Council has said it will rehouse 68 families from Grenfell Tower in luxury Kensington Row apartments, where prices start at £1.7 million. But the housing crisis that led to the fire – the overlapping effects of underdevelopment, neglect, cuts and sell-offs of social housing stock – has left many other people in the borough homeless, or in unaffordable or substandard accommodation. Thousands languish on waiting lists for the ‘very few social housing properties available’. Meanwhile, 1399 privately owned homes in the borough lie empty. Senior Labour Party politicians have suggested that the council should use compulsory purchase orders to ‘requisition’ empty investment properties. The idea was met with outrage from people scandalised by the thought of a government ‘land grab’: ‘The state shouldn't seize private property backed by the implicit threat of violence,’ GQ’s political correspondent, Rupert Myers, tweeted. But councils have been using compulsory purchase orders for years.
My five-year-old son goes to school near Grenfell Tower. Nadia Choucair, his teaching assistant, was last seen waving a makeshift flag from her window on the 22nd floor. ‘I’ll remember her even if I’m 100,’ my son said. Nadia’s mother, her husband and their three daughters, Fatima, Zeinab and Mierna, are also dead or missing. So is Yaqub Hashim, a friendly six-year-old, who a few weeks ago I watched running around Grenfell Tower’s playground, with its superhero murals. He lived with his parents, older brother and sister, Firdaws, who was deputy head girl at the school before she left last year. Other families with children at the school were hospitalised. Some escaped the fire; others evacuated their nearby homes; others heard the screams or watched as flames engulfed the tower.
There was a moment in her interview with Emily Maitlis on Newsnight on Friday when Theresa May mentioned a woman who had escaped the Grenfell Tower fire in just a T-shirt and knickers. The woman stays with you. Very briefly, something broke through the repetitions and evasions of the official discourse being deployed by the government, Kensington and Chelsea council, and ‘interested’ corporate parties who insist that regulations were complied with and profess to welcome any investigation.
‘Do you know any of them?’ a man asked me as I was looking at pictures of missing residents of Grenfell Tower on the railings of the Methodist church nearby. I told him I didn't. ‘They're all dead,’ he said. There was a protest on Friday at Kensington Town Hall. The council owns Grenfell Tower, which was managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. ‘Don't destroy where we live. We've got people sleeping on lawns. We can't let them destroy where we live,’ a young woman said into a megaphone. ‘You told them to stay inside,’ another woman said. ‘You killed them. Justice will be served to them. We're not dumb. Our eyes are not closed. We know exactly what you've done. Don't let them sell your house. Don't let them kill you.’ A group of people had entered the town hall during the protest and there were reports of an occupation on social media but the crowd outside was calm. No one from the council came to talk to the protesters. ‘We're going back to the scene of the crime. Let's go back orderly. We'll represent Notting Hill,’ a man announced.
In 1893, the London Daily News published an article about Notting Dale, an area in north Kensington also known as the Potteries for its brick-making kilns and clay pits. ‘A West End Avernus’ was the headline: poor, overcrowded, with shocking housing – if there was an entrance to the Underworld, then this, the article said, was it. A grotesque report inspired by the piece a couple of years later blamed the bad condition of the area on the ‘vicious proclivities of the people themselves’. They were, the report said, ‘loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes’. One of the clay pits made by the 19th-century brick makers was so large that it was called the ‘Ocean’: it was filled with slime. The houses nearby were said to be of ‘a wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal’. The wells were contaminated. The risk of cholera was high.