Grenfell Tower, through palimpsest; a site which demonstrates how the unequal power dynamics in regeneration partnerships exacerbates exclusion and reinforces structural inequality.26 minute read

Grenfell Tower is an austere concrete tower, built in 1974 (Wismayer, 2017). It is located in and owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) but was managed by the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) until 1 March, 2018. In 2016, the KCTMO managed a £10 million refurbishment in partnership with Rydon and other contractors, as part a wider £57m neighbourhood regeneration scheme with the aim of “improving existing housing stock” (Planning Application, 2012). New cladding was added  to the outside of the building as part of this. However, in June 2017, there was a fire which claimed the lives of at least 71 people and left the tower uninhabitable (Boys Smith &  Kruger, 2018). This incident revealed the effects that unequal power dynamics in  regeneration partnerships can have on communities. The tower is due to be demolished in late 2018 (Ministry of Housing, 2018).

 

Figure one. Grenfell before and after refurbishment.
Fig 1: Grenfell before and after refurbishment. (The Sun, 2017).

Theme identification:

 Regeneration is a vision which leads to the resolution of urban problems and seeks to improve socio-economic, physical and environmental conditions of an area that has been subject to change (Roberts et al 2016). Regeneration has a clear aim of improvement (Tallon, 2013). However, recent regeneration projects are skewed towards profit-making at the expense of improving conditions for residents. Consequently, even though there is a push for community participation, the politics and power dynamics present in partnerships exacerbate exclusion and reinforce inequality (Sloane, 2017). To this end, commercial developers have been accused of jumping on the bandwagon for their own ends rather than for the benefit of the community (Greig-Smith, 2005).

Exclusion is complex and difficult to ‘pin down’ (Kearney, 2011). Therefore, I will draw on three, often conflated but distinctive types of exclusion; deliberate, structural and discursive exclusion (Agger & Larsen 2009). Deliberate exclusion refers to the intentional exclusion of certain groups from the process in order to reach a consensus. Similarly, structural exclusion refers to structures which make it more difficult for certain groups to participate internally and externally. Lastly, discursive exclusion refers to the exclusionary way issues are framed and articulated (Pløger, 2001).


Research aim:

By looking at the Grenfell Tower through a palimpsestuous lens I aim to understand the changes that have occurred to the tower and the surrounding areas, what is reflected into the present and what is no longer visible. Firstly, I will assess the methodological tools used to answer my research question, highlighting their implications and limitations. I will then analyse the tower as a palimpsest of immigration. Following this, I will juxtapose North Kensington to other parts of the borough to analyse inequality. I will discuss how layers of housing policy and ideology have shaped the tower and left lasting visible and invisible changes. Focusing on the most recent regeneration project, I will argue that the unequal power dynamics in regeneration partnerships exacerbated exclusion and reinforced structural inequality.


Methodology and reflectivity:

I used a combination of extensive research methods and intensive research methods. Intensive research is often qualitative and therefore subjective (Cloke et al, 2004). Therefore, by using subjective data, I was able capture the concerns and perspectives of the residents. Balancing this with alongside objective data, I was able to put their experiences into context. It was important to reflect my positionality as an outsider looking in to ensure that my research was valid, unbiased and balanced (Hay, 2000). The extensive methods included archival materials held at the Kensington Central Library. These provided a rich insight into the current and previous residents. Newspaper articles provided insight into the aims of the original slum regeneration project which led to the construction of Grenfell. It also portrayed the discontent many of the residents felt about the project. Importantly, it revealed that an earlier fire had occurred in the tower block in 1979 (See Appendix C,D,E). However, archival material is limited because it did not contain information about more recent regeneration projects. Consequently, archival data was only used in relation to the initial regeneration project. I supplemented this with secondary data such as articles and interviews which were useful in analysing the more recent forms of regeneration and exclusion.

Given the sensitivity of the matter, it was important to observe the community and gain insight without disrupting their lives in the way conducting interviews might have. Therefore, more appropriate intensive methods such as covert participant observations we adopted. While attending a silent march, I observed how the tower had become a memorial site decorated with flowers and notes addressed to the victims. I was able to connect with the site and understand how it functioned as a community without being overly intrusive. This method also allowed for a degree of detachment because participants were not actively involved which reduced ethical concerns and the potential for confirmation bias.

Secondary interviews from various sources provided information from different perspectives. I scrutinised sources thoroughly to verify the the quality and the validity of the interviews. I also relied on blog posts from the Grenfell Action Group which offered insight into the discontentment and complains of residents. Lastly, the documentary series: Abroad Again: On the Brandwagon (2007) discussing the broader agenda of regeneration projects was used. Mainly relying on secondary data limited the scope of my analysis as I was unable to tailor the data collected to my specific research question.


Palimpsest:

A palimpsest is created by a process of layering whereby the existing text is imperfectly erased, therefore when new text written, ghostly traces of the past resurface. This is how the past has the ability to find its way into the present (Dillon, 2005). When a building or area is regenerated, previous memories are not completely blotted out but rather, they are transcribed into the present in forms of layers. The previous layers interact with the present layers to produce an “involuted” phenomenon which is incapable of being disentangled (De Quincey, 1998). I will be exploring what parts of Grenfell remain and parts that have been “erased” albeit partially and therefore seep through the present layer. Analysing the tower as a palimpsest reveals that themes of inequality and exclusion run deep through Grenfell’s history.

Reminder of immigration:

igure two. Some of the victims of the fire.
Figure 2: Some of the victims of the fire. (The Guardian, 2017)

 

North Kensington was made up of immigrants from different parts of the world, some fleeing war and persecution; the Ethiopians, Somalians and Spaniards. Some responding to the call to rebuild the Empire after WWII; the Windrush generation and others fuelling London’s migrant division of labour (Wills, 2009). North Kensington was in Vertovec’s words, “super- diverse” (Vertovec, 2007). Present day North Kensington even more so, with less than half of residents born in the UK, the fourth lowest proportion in England and Wales (Baker, 2011).

Grenfell itself was home to the working class, people of colour, council tenants, migrants, refugees, and Muslims; groups which are specifically targeted by opportunistic nativists and right-wing politicians and press (Madden, 2017). Immigration left its mark on Grenfell and North Kensington at large as its past occupants are a reflection of who occupied Grenfell at the time of the fire. It also presents a different picture of Kensington to the status quo.

Reminder of the contrast between the North Kensington slums and other areas in the borough

Figure three. Map showing income distribution in RBKC (The Economist, 2017).
Figure 3: Map showing income distribution in RBKC (The Economist, 2017).

 The area which Grenfell was built on was in the words of Labour MP Sir Stafford Cripps “the most tragic of all the slums in England”. It was notorious for “the cheap but squalid homes that only the poorest or most marginal would accept” (Boughton, 2017). This tended to be immigrants who had been excluded from housing elsewhere. This is a partial reflection of the area today. Although it has been regenerated, the deprivation still lingers placing it among the 10% most deprived areas in England (English Indices of Deprivation, 2015). In contrast, other parts of the borough were among the 30% least deprived in the country (English Indices of Deprivation, 2015) (Fig. 3). The borough is home to the UK’s most expensive street Kensington Palace Gardens, where the average property value is a staggering £35,696,711 (Howard, 2017). This street is only a nine-minute drive from Grenfell showing that extreme wealth and extreme poverty live “side by side” (Massey, 1996). Despite the fact that the borough is among the top 10 most unequal boroughs in England, this extreme discrepancy of wealth is “not a unique product of our times” (Davis, 2017) as can be deduced from Booth’s map (Appendix, A). Grenfell Tower serves as a palimpsest of the inequality which has plagued this borough in the past and a reminder that these inequalities are still present.

Reminder and reflection of changing housing policy

“Nothing in this country is more riddled with layers of history and ideology than housing,” (Gapper, 2017). Grenfell personifies this statement. It was built in the Brutalist fashion which became popular after WWII. This form of architecture used concrete; a less expensive material which allowed for quick construction in order to meet demand (Calder, 2016). The design of the tower serves as a reminder of that era. Housing policy in the post-war era was focused on creating “the living tapestry of a mixed community” where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street” (Berube, 2005). Thus, regeneration projects led to the clearance of slums and council tower blocks were built to replace them (Taylor, 2000). The houses pre-Grenfell were termed as “unfit for human habitation”. Properties were seized from their owners under Compulsory Purchase Orders as part of a slum redevelopment called Lancaster West (see Appendix B).  Grenfell was one of the tower blocks built as part of this development.

Yet before Grenfell was completed, high-rise council estates were already becoming “slums  in the sky” (Hanley, 2007). The assumptions behind urban regeneration policies had changed; attempts to rebuild community and improve service coordination in the 1960s were replaced by more aggressive economic redevelopment programmes fuelled by neoliberalism in the 1980s (Stewart & Taylor, 1995). This was initiated by Thatcher’s “right to buy scheme” which led to the mass privatisation of social housing. This was continued by New Labour’s policy to reduce the public sector which was painted as an intrusive enemy of entrepreneurialism, while the private sector was portrayed as the ‘epitome of efficiency’ (Tucker, 2017). Although there was an attempt to shift the focus back to the community through programs like the New Deal for Communities, these were largely overshadowed by economic concerns. Grenfell is a palimpsest of these contrasting policies which peer through the surface. It reflects decades of housing policy, instigated by Thatcher, in which the government and local councils retreated and left the private sector to fill the gap, often inadequately (Forrest & Hirayama, 2009).


Current regeneration policies, inequality and exclusion

Figure four. An artist impression of the proposed Grenfell Tower post-refurbishment.
Figure 4: An artist impression of the proposed Grenfell Tower post-refurbishment ((Dening & Elmer, 2017).

 

Current regeneration projects still contain neoliberal traces from the past. Projects are now mostly carried out in form of partnerships between the central and local government, the private sector and local communities (Ball & Maggin, 2005). In the context of Grenfell, I will be analysing the relationship between Rydon, a private contractor, the KCTMO, a supposed tenant-lad organisation and other community led groups such as the Grenfell Action Group (GAC). Public-private partnerships are seen as a solution to acute resource constraints and often involve private developers receiving lucrative long-term contracts and land to build homes for private sale (Mackintosh, 1992). Resultantly, it has been suggested that these projects have become skewed towards profit-making at the expense of improving conditions for residents. Simultaneously, there is also an increasing effort to consult and involve with community in order to be more receptive to their needs (Bailey, 2012). I will argue that despite this rhetoric of support for community participation in regeneration partnerships, the reality in the context of Grenfell has been problematic (Balloch & Taylor 2001). Although partnership as a term implies a measure of equality, the community members involved in regeneration partnerships are not necessarily equal (Hasting et al 1996). Additionally, partnerships are not immune to society’s unequal power relations (Taylor, 2000). This could lead to certain members becoming deliberately, structurally and discursively excluded which, in turn, reinforces inequality. The argument is not that regeneration leads to exclusion in itself, but rather that the inequality in regeneration partnerships, envisaged by unequal power dynamics exacerbates exclusion and reinforces inequality. Ironically, these initiatives aimed at relieving inequality and exclusion actually perpetuate them and fail to address the underlying causes.

Deliberate Exclusion

The need to strike a balance between control and participation in order to reach a consensus could lead to the exclusion of communities. This is because ‘bureaucratic or project management perspectives necessitates the exclusion of other conflicting views, in order to reach the goal’ (Agger & Larsen, 2009). In the case of Grenfell, the council’s goal was to reduce the cost of regeneration as an email from the KCTMO revealed (Dening & Elmer, 2017). To this end, the KCTMO approved the substitution of the material originally chosen by the resident in favour of a cheaper, more flammable option. Reasonably, cost ought to be and is a significant consideration in regeneration projects. However, deliberately excluding residents from the process of cost-analysis meant that the scale was tipped too far in the direction of cost-effectiveness at the expense of safety and quality. It is not the intentions behind deliberate exclusion that are problematic, rather, it is lack of representation it promotes in decision-making that are questionable. It is arguable that had the residents been informed of the substitutions and the implications of substitute, they would not have approved of it. It is also plausible that if the KCTMO had recognised regeneration as a long term solution as opposed to a “quick fix”, they would have be more cautious about cutting corners to save costs (Tallon, 2013). However, deliberative exclusion alone cannot account for the type of exclusion faced by residents.

Structural Exclusion

Structural exclusion refers to inequalities which make it more difficult for certain groups to participate in the process, and which favour those with resources. Applying Young’s (Young, 2000) distinction between external and internal exclusion to Grenfell, we can observe that the partnership was externally exclusive because it excluded tenants. The KCTMO was an anomaly, usually being referred to as a “fake TMO” (Power, 2017). TMOs in the UK are grassroots community groups aimed at improving local conditions in a small area. However, the KCTMO ran the whole borough’s housing stock of over 10,000 units; a task which only the Council not the tenants could manage. This essentially excluded the residents from a process which was designed to engage them more in the running of their homes by giving them more responsibility (The Housing (Right to Manage) Regulations 1994). Nonetheless, the KCTMO board included eight residents (Dening & Elmer, 2017) which shows that not all residents were externally excluded. However, just because they were not externally excluded does not mean they were not excluded in other ways. The residents were internally excluded because the concerns and opinions of Rydon and the Council dominated the decision-making process (Fung, 2004). This was highlighted by the relationship between the KCTMO and the residents. The Grenfell Action Group (GAC), a resident led group, repeatedly made complaints and warnings which “fell on deaf ears” and were “brushed  away” by the KCTMO. David Collins, a member of the Grenfell Tower residents’ association, said it had “repeatedly reported concerns to the KCTMO including fire safety concerns which were not investigated during the regeneration works (Booth & Wahlquist, 2017). Not only were they ignored, some were “threatened with legal action” (Tucker, 2017). Most notably in November 2017, frustrated by the response from the KCTMO, the GAC wrote that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.” (Grenfell Action Group, 2016). These complaints resembled those made about the terrible conditions such as the singular escape route after a fire outbreak in the block in 1979, only four years after the tower was built (See Appendix C,D,E). This shows that traces of the flaws from the tower’s conception are still visible and suggests that the layer of regeneration was an attempt to remedy these shortcomings albeit inadequately. Like the complainants 38 years ago, the residents’ concerns were excluded by more dominant concerns about the appearance and aesthetic of the tower. The argument here is that while residents were “included” in the process, their concerns were subdued by the concerns of more powerful actors due to the structure of regeneration partnerships. This shows that regeneration partnerships are embedded in an unequal power structure which further disempowers already disempowered groups, while empowering others and reinforcing inequality (Baeten, 2017).

Discursive Exclusion

Discursive exclusion refers to the way material is articulated and discursively constructed in regeneration projects (Pløger, 2001). The “discursive articulations” of planning programmes, highlight those who hold the power to define the problems and formulate solutions (Agger & Larsen, 2009). The Grenfell regeneration proposal was based on problems which were not defined by the residents. During the consultation, questions mainly focused on the need for new cladding and glazed windows which were priorities for the council but were less focused on the fire concerns which the residents had(). This shows that the power to define the problem and the solution can have a huge impact on the outcome in practice. This in addition to the “top down” structure of partnerships means that more often than not, those at the top define the problems and create solutions. Although the residents were asked to suggest other areas of improvement, the regeneration plan largely focused on what the council had already identified to be the problem. This implies that community participation is essentially a tick box exercise offering the residents a façade of accountability and involvement. Simply trying to involve residents after the problems have been identified is an ineffective way to include them in the process. Rather, consulting with the residents first and then defining the problems from their perspective might be a better way of including them in the process.

 

Gentrification

Figure five: A letting advert for a 2 bedroom flat in Grenfell Tower.
Figure 5: A letting advert for a 2 bedroom flat in Grenfell Tower. (Open Rent, 2017).

 

In the longer term, regeneration-exacerbated exclusion could lead to a process of gentrification, which could further exclude residents through displacement (LeCates, 1981). Regeneration and gentrification are often conflated because the differences might not be as apparent in practice. Nevertheless, they can be distinguished. Gentrification is the process by which higher-income households displace lower-income residents, changing the character and appearance of a neighbourhood (Lees, 2000). This shows that gentrification has a key theme of displacement, a feature which is not a central aim of regeneration projects. Regeneration is primarily concerned with the renewal or improvement of an area, as such, regeneration precedes gentrification. In the context of Grenfell, some signs of gentrification were apparent. For example, (Fig. 5) shows a picture of a newly refurbished two bedroom flat being let for just under £2000 a month. Additionally, one resident accused the Council of “social and ethnic cleansing” (Snowdon, Sherrif, Bowden & Rajan, 2017). This may be an indication of displacement by higher income individuals. However, at the time of the fire, displacements of this sort were not pronounced as most of the residents were still social tenants from working class backgrounds. This could be explained by the fact that the tower had only recently been regenerated and as such the effects of gentrification cannot yet be seen in the short-term. It also supports the conclusion that regeneration and gentrification can be distinguished and are not interdependent.


Grenfell: the current layer of hope.

 Regeneration partnerships can create an exclusive and oppressive environment for the community. However, Grenfell as a palimpsest of the failures of housing and regeneration policy, is contributing to and accelerating the process of ideological and political change. It is bringing issues about accountability, inequality and exclusion to the forefront (Madden, 2017). These issues which were previously covered and marginalised can no longer be concealed and peer through London’s skyline in the embodiment of a burnt tower. Grenfell serves as a palimpsest not only in its physical form but also in its conceptual form. The narrative of Grenfell is invading space and culture. During his performance at the Brit Awards, Stormzy reminded the audience of the displaced residents of the tower, urging Theresa May to compensate the survivors (Beaumont-Thomas, 2018). Similarly, Kwame Boateng produced a short film to mark the first anniversary of the fire as an attempt to “continue the dialogue” (O’Hara, 2018). In addition to this overt forms of resistance and remembrance, silent marches are organised on the 14th day of each month as a symbol of unity, to show the powers that be that the residents are not going anywhere and will continue to grow and unite” (Butcher, 2018). These silent marches ‘communicate dissent wordlessly against the indifference of the state, the disregard of politicians and the Londoners whose attention has moved on’. ‘The silent indifference is countered with an active but soundless provocation’ (Les Back, 2017) making the marchers impossible to ignore. However, it is also a symbol of hope. Disasters are often occasions for solidarity and extraordinary forms of spontaneous mutual aid (Solnit, 2010). The multicultural crowd at the silent marches echo this and convey a solemn realisation of conviviality (Gilroy, 2004). The response by the local community symbolises Jonathan Lear’s notion of radical hope, hope that an as-yet- unarticulated but better future can be created despite a devastated present (Lear, 2006).


Conclusion

This essay discussed the extent to which the unequal power dynamics in the regeneration partnerships in Grenfell exacerbated three forms of exclusion, and reinforced inequality through a palimpsestuous lens. Attempts to reach a consensus and save costs led to the residents being deliberately excluded. The peculiar structure of the KCTMO meant that an organisation aimed at including residents failed to achieve its aim, which led to residents being externally excluded. Residents were also internally excluded because their concerns were overridden by more dominant views. Further, the top-down structure of partnerships meant that problems and solutions were defined and articulated by those at the top, leading to residents being discursively excluded. Given the high cost of regeneration projects, partnerships between the public and private sector are necessary. However, integrating the residents into the process is problematic as certain actors have the economic power to skew the regeneration project towards their agenda. In the longer term, the effects of exclusionary regeneration projects could lead to gentrification, traces of which were apparent but not pronounced in my findings. As silent marches pervade London, the current layer of Grenfell is being inscribed in places other than the physical tower. Grenfell is a palimpsest: its design, a reminder of previous housing policy. Its remains, a reminder of the inequality in London society. Its memory, a catalyst for change.


Mirabel Anosike

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Tucker, P., (2017). The Grenfell Tower fire was the end result of a disdainful housing policy. The Guardian, [online] 20 June. Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/20/grenfell-fire-housing-policy- social-housing-tenants. [Accessed 20 April 2018].

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Appendix A

Not available.

Aerial map of part of the RBKC. The small read dot indicating the site of the Tower. The blue circle depicting the more affluent areas of Kensington. (Booth, 1899).


Appendix B

Map of Lancaster West Estate.
Map of Lancaster West Estate.

 


Appendix C

 

Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower.

 

Appendix D

Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower.
Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower. (Kensington Central Library Archives).

 


Appendix E:

Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower.
Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower. (Kensington Central Library Archives).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower. (Kensington Central Library Archives).

 

Appendix E

 

 

Newspaper article from 1979 reporting the fire outbreak at the Grenfell Tower. (Kensington Central Library Archives).

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