SVRN Blog 7 – Collective Amnesia/Collective Remembrance: Grenfell and the forgotten disasters of social housing, by Jessica White

In this seventh post for the State Violence Research Network blog, Jessica White, history PhD Candidate at the University of Manchester, discusses public commemoration of council housing tragedies (or the lack thereof), particularly in relation to the Grenfell Tower disaster. Jessica is also presenting at the ‘From the State to the Streets’ conference, being held between April 10th and 12th. For information on how to register for the conference, and on how to submit a blog yourself, see the links at the end of the post. 


Two years ago, I was asked to work as a waitress for a breakfast event in a recently-completed office block in the Square Mile, the financial district of London. It was a steamy June day, and ordinarily when working in these curtain-walled buildings, I would exploit the opportunity to see the spectacular views of London. On this day, however, instead of looking outwards to one of the most diverse cityscapes in the world, I was staring at the smoking remnants of the Grenfell tower block out to the West, whose fire was put out only hours ago.

It was an unforgettable image and one that I will never forget. It is only in retrospect that I am able to acknowledge the contrast between the pristine, mostly unoccupied office block where I stood and the overcrowded, underfunded high-rise in an ailing area of West London. While funding is being withdrawn from council housing across the country, private companies are pumping cash into these unimaginative glass towers. With the relaxing of height restrictions in the City since the ‘90s and the heaving financial and commercial success in the borough, these office blocks are being erected incessantly in the race to build the tallest building in the country. But it’s not just height that private developers are chasing. There is fierce competition over potential leaseholders, and developers are crafting new ways to expand their target market beyond the financial sector, which has traditionally dominated the Square Mile. For instance, the Leadenhall building (AKA the Cheesegrater) is currently home Black Sheep, a craft coffee shop, which would have been a rather off-brand move in the early noughties. This is no doubt a tool to market the office-space to trendy, creative types who might otherwise be tangled up in a co-working space in Shoreditch. By attracting a triumvirate of financial, commercial and creative industries, skyscrapers in the City are concentrating wealth in a tiny, non-residential district, sucking it away from everywhere else in the country.

1200px-Grenfell_Tower_fire_(wider_view)

There has not been much headway with regards to reparations for Grenfell. Recently, detectives suggested that any charges of manslaughter and corporate manslaughter in relation to the disaster may not be made until 2021. Elsewhere, a Dispatches investigation on Channel 4 examined the extent to which the London Fire Brigade’s ‘stay put’ policy is to blame for the number of deaths during the Grenfell fire. This latter example has helped to bolster a much broader tendency to systematically forget the previous failings of the British government in relation to social housing since the previous century, and place the blame elsewhere. The Grenfell disaster, while tragic and shocking, is not the first of its kind.

There is a long list of tragedies within British social housing which are a result of failed State action. In 1968, a gas explosion in Ronan Point tower, Newham, led to the partial collapse of the 22-storey building, killing four and injuring seventeen. The Ronan Point Disaster was so shocking that housing blocks above twenty storeys were subsequently banned. In 1974, in the Hulme Crescents in Manchester, a young boy fell off a balcony and died after minimal safety measures were put in place on the estate. From then on, Manchester City Council deemed the Estate unsafe for children and in turn rehoused those residents with two or more children. Even a decade later in 1985, a police raid into the home of Cynthia Jarret (in a search for her son) on Broadwater Farm Estate, Tottenham, shocked her into having a fatal heart-attack, triggering the Broadwater Farm Riots. The psychological violence inflicted on housing estate residents must also be noted. In the 1950s and 1960s, women, especially single mothers, across the country were being prescribed medication and sleeping tablets to help them overcome their depression. Many of these women had been rehoused in post-war slum clearance schemes and minimal transport links meant that these women were often immobile, voicing feelings of loneliness, boredom and isolation. So prevalent was this depression that it became known as ‘Housing Estate Neuroses’. Of course, it is unfair to stigmatise social housing as simply an arena for deprivation and catastrophe; it goes without saying that the experiences of post-war housing estates vary from person to person and region to region. In fact, my current research seeks to give a voice back to those tenants living on the Crescents, who are often stigmatised in the media and academic research. The Crescents were home to an abundance of community activism and solidarity, offering a balanced and ‘positive’ view of life within British social housing.

At the same time, accusations that the London Fire Brigade is largely to blame for the deaths at Grenfell mask the continued institutional failings of post-war social housing. There seems to a collective amnesia, which has meant that once more, the real culprits – politicians, urban planners, architects, housing managers and private developers – are simply let off with a first warning. Why are social housing tragedies forgotten in public memory, but terrorist attacks and the World Wars continue to be commemorated (sometimes obsessively so)?

An explanation for this forgetfulness can be uncovered through exploring the function of collective remembrance. It is often argued that as a collective, as a ‘nation’, we commemorate tragic incidents in order to prevent them from happening again, hence why ‘lest we forget’ is branded across war memorials across the country. If this is the true purpose of collective remembrance, then it would imply that we do not commemorate social housing tragedies because we simply do not care about them happening again.

The true purpose of collective remembrance is mostly political. For instance, Remembrance Day is not simply a publicly-instigated activity, but a political tool engineered by the wealthiest and most powerful individuals in society to serve their needs. While I acknowledge that commemoration of the World Wars can be a nod to those who sacrificed their lives for a better cause, the function of Remembrance Day is to legitimise war and to reinforce the boundaries of national identity. Simply the repetition of Remembrance Day in November and the sporting of the poppy are invented traditions that create solidarity among members of an ‘imagined community’. Compare Remembrance Day with World AIDS Day (1st December), which receives nowhere near as much publicity as it once did in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early noughties. There was once a political motivation to don a ribbon and show sympathy with the AIDS epidemic: it allowed New Labour to appear as liberal saviours in contrast to Thatcher’s homophobic blindness that prevented her from acknowledging AIDS for almost 4 years. However, in 2019, as HIV and AIDS are no longer considered death sentences, World AIDS Day has lost much of its emotional weight and appeal to the State. Meanwhile, Remembrance Day is still as popular as ever as it continues to benefit those in power, unifying the State with the public and preventing any potential resistance to its hegemony. As a result, the annual commemoration gives the State the license to carry out fracking, to bomb Syria and to provide weapons to the Middle East.

Collective memory has a political purpose, and it is for this reason that social housing tragedies are not commemorated and often fade into the past, going unnoticed. It is the reason why the Square Mile continues to see an abundance of construction, while council housing across the country fails to see a penny of investment. To acknowledge previous social housing tragedies would draw attention to government failings and the dwindling funding being pumped into the public sector. Since the 1960s, both Labour and Conservative governments have been guilty of privatising public housing stock and reducing the construction of affordable homes. For all parties, to publicly remember the tragedies listed above would locate the inherent cracks in our so-called ‘benevolent’ welfare system, questioning the State and the co-dependent relationship they hold with the British population. It serves no party’s political aims to recollect the long list of deaths associated with social housing and to prevent them from happening again.

I am not suggesting that we begin commemorating every tragedy that befell upon social housing residents during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Instead, politicians, developers and housing managers need to be held accountable, not the London Fire Brigade. At the moment, the most feasible way of holding these criminals to account through international bodies such as the EU and UN. However, in the long-term there needs to be a radical overhaul of housing in this country, whereby housing is maintained and held together by parties without financial or political interests. This is an idealist vision and is certainly easier said than done. But as long as social housing is used as a tool to leverage votes, capital and power, it can have no sustainable future in Great Britain.

Further reading:

Abrams, Lynn, Linda Fleming, Barry Hazley, Valerie Wright, and Ade Kearns, ‘Isolated and Dependent: Women and Children in High-Rise Social Housing in Post-War Glasgow’, Women’s History Review, 2018, 1–20

Power, Anne, Property Before People: The Management of Twentieth-Century Council Housing (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987)

Ravetz, Alison, Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment (London: Routledge, 2001)

Romyn, Michael, ‘The Heygate: Community Life in an Inner-City Estate, 1974–2011’, History Workshop Journal, 81 (2016), 197–230

Shapely, Peter, The Politics of Housing: Power, Consumers and Urban Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)

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