THE power of faith communities to bring about social cohesion must be recognised by the Government if it is to ensure that a disaster like the Grenfell disaster and its aftermath never happens again, the Area Bishop of Kensington, in London diocese, Dr Graham Tomlin, warns in a new report.
The Social Legacy of Grenfell: An agenda for change was published on Monday, ten days before the second anniversary of the fire that destroyed the tower block in west London, killing 72 people. It was written by Dr Tomlin and is based on conversations that he had with residents, volunteers, community groups, faith leaders, and activists, among others, at the end of 2018 and earlier this year.
Speaking last Thursday, before its release, Dr Tomlin said that the churches, faith groups, and local organisations in the Kensington Area who came to the aid of people affected “had deep roots in the community and were trusted in a way the council and the Government were not. At the same time, [these groups] could only do so much; what was needed was a wider co-ordinated response, and that is where things fell down at the time.”
The report describes Grenfell as “a seismic moment in both local and national life. . . In the weeks that followed, discussion raged over questions which the fire seemed to highlight: social inequality, poverty, immigration, housing, the role of local and national government and so on.
“It seemed that for a brief moment, the Grenfell Tower fire shone a spotlight on a whole series of social issues that we were all dimly aware of, and yet often ignored.”
The “faith dimension” to the disaster is one of five key social issues explored in the report. Churches and mosques were the first to open their doors to feed, water, and offer pastoral care. Faith leaders also worked together and with the community to mourn the victims, to celebrate the community, and to plan for the future.
“Yet such groups can struggle to get support and funding,” Dr Tomlin writes. “If we do not act to support churches, other faith communities and community groups, we will lose a valuable source of social capital that hold our society together.”
One participant told him: “The potential that faith communities have is under-recognised and yet they tend to be trusted by the community. Yet Councils often have a degree of suspicion towards faith groups, concerned that they may have a subversive agenda.”
Dr Tomlin was writing during the first phase of a public inquiry into what happened on the night of the fire. The inquiry was due to publish a report in time for the second anniversary, next week, but it has been delayed until October (News, 24 May). Phase two is to consider the issues that contributed to the fire, including the design and modifications of the tower, fire safety, governance, communication with residents, the emergency response, and aftermath.
“To extend the scope of the Inquiry to broader social issues would risk making what is already a long and complex task even longer and more complex,” Dr Tomlin writes. “Yet if all that we do is to think about fire safety and building regulations, we will have missed a vital opportunity.”
PATributes and “Missing” bills posted on a wall near Latimer Road, close to Grenfell Tower, in the aftermath of the fire, in June 2017
Dr Tomlin explained: “Grenfell was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address some fundamental questions about how we live together: if we just focused on fire safety and building regulations, we would miss an opportunity to do that more radical thinking about our life together.
“It is also about honouring the people who died in Grenfell: we owe it to them to do that deeper thinking about what lessons we can learn from it.”
Most residents of the tower have now been rehoused, although some families are still waiting for a permanent home. The council took “longer than hoped” to rehouse the people made homeless by the fire, Dr Tomlin said, and the housing stock offered was often not what was needed. The trauma of the fire has also led to a wave of mental illness in the community, exacerbated by anxiety over levels of toxicity in both the air and the soil.
“It is not an easy place to live at the moment,” he said.
The delay to the public inquiry’s interim report — without any indication of its direction — was a further blow. “This was a disappointment for local people because they are looking for some closure, for progress and change. The longer it goes on, the harder it is to process what has happened . . . to deal with the lack of answers.”
His report does not attempt to give answers, he said, but to “stimulate the imagination” of what the future of diverse communities such as Kensington, and wider society, might look like.
It focuses on five issues: renewing democracy; humanising welfare; becoming neighbours; providing homes; and valuing faith.
Renewing democracy is about improving the relationship between the community and the Royal Borough of Kensington Council (RBKC) — characterised by the “sense of alienation from power, a disconnect between people who lived in the area around Grenfell Tower and those who were making decisions about their lives” both before and after the fire.
He writes: “I have often heard Council representatives expressing a desire to connect with the community, yet also striking a note of desperation in knowing how to do that effectively. Something in our political and local systems seems to prevent that happening, leading to a dangerous sense of isolation and disaffection.”
Renewing democracy, he writes, will require effective consultation, proper representation of the people, and a change in culture “from a paternalistic assumption that those in power know what others need, to a more devolved form of democratic life”.
On humanising welfare, he writes: “Repeatedly, the experience was recounted of how the provision of welfare to a vulnerable and hurting community often felt disabling and condescending. Getting assistance after the fire often meant turning up to an impersonal office, waiting in a queue and asking for help.”
To encourage neighbourliness, racial and social inequality — including the extremes in wealth, income, housing, and education — must be rectified, and isolation reversed through building community: vigils, street parties, fund-raising, and local business. Nearly half the children in the borough (48 per cent), for example, are educated privately, the report says.
Finally, Dr Tomlin calls for a “broader mix” of affordable and “good quality social housing” in the area, to provide homes and “to reduce the sense of stigma” attached to people living on estates.
He writes: “In RBKC, there was far less affordable housing than in other boroughs. The result was a very polarised community with the extremes of wealth and poverty living so near each other mentioned above. Properly affordable housing would ensure that middle income people and families can live in areas such as Kensington & Chelsea and help bridge the gaps between extremes.”
The Church, too, had a responsibility to act on these issues, he said, and would be doing so through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commissions on Housing, Neighbourhood and Community, and Democracy (News, 12 April).
Dr Tomlin concluded: “We pray in the Lords’ prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom Come, on earth as it is in heaven.’ Part of our role in the Church is to imagine this . . . In a way, this [report] is an exercise of the imagination. . . It is not trying to find answers but to stimulate the imagination and hopefully stimulate people who have the responsibility to put policies in place, to think big about what our society could be like.”
A former Chair of Grenfell United, Shahin Sadafi, said: “This is an excellent paper. It is a unique and honest look into how Grenfell has created a ripple effect in time. Society can truly turn the Grenfell tragedy into a positive movement that forces people to step back from their day to day lives and take note of the issues that could benefit everyone.”
A local councillor, David Lindsay, who is responsible for families and children’s services, said this week that the Grenfell recovery was a “key priority” of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. He agreed that the disaster had highlighted the importance of housing, social engagement, and cohesion in London, but that the “disparity in wealth and income, in education, values, and attitudes” in RBKC made addressing these areas particularly complex.
“While making serious inroads into these issues has undoubtedly taken longer than we would have hoped, it is probably fair to say that nowhere has been really successful.”
The full report can be viewed here.
Read more on the story in Andrew Brown’s press column