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Comment: Why did people reject Corbyn’s call to take empty homes for the Grenfell victims?

PUBLISHED: 18:00 20 June 2017 | UPDATED: 10:25 21 June 2017

Grenfell Tower in west London after a fire engulfed the 24-storey building on Wednesday morning. David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

Grenfell Tower in west London after a fire engulfed the 24-storey building on Wednesday morning. David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

Grenfell proves once and for all that neoliberalism is failing all but a few profiteers, but the reaction to a call to requisition empty homes reveals just how twisted our real estate market has become. Here’s what we need to do about it

In Greek mythology there was a princess of Troy who was cursed by the gods to see the future yet never have her visions believed. When she saw her city burning people thought she was insane, and yet it came to pass.

Grenfell is tragic in every sense. At the heart there is the horrible human tragedy of the numberless victims, the survivors left in their wake, and everyone who saw it coming. In the burnt out wreckage there’s a Trojan Horse, and we all opened the gates.

We couldn’t have summoned a more gruesome symbol of London’s dark underbelly if we wanted. It’s the nightmare black skeleton, an inky negative of the gleaming glass towers that shine from every advertisement hoarding on a developer’s building site.

The smouldering tower is the smoking gun for a starting pistol that sounded for a race towards unbounded profit decades ago.

But when the leader of the opposition called for homes left empty by investors looking to turn a profit there was outrage from all sides of the media.

“Occupy it, compulsory purchase it, requisition it,” Jeremy Corbyn said on TV. He might as well have started to hum the Internationale.

To requisition the homes of the rich would open the floodgates to everything we fear about socialism. Once we let the state commandeer the homes of the richest, they could come for anyone and their two bedroom flat next. Give an inch and Comrade Corbyn will have us all up against the wall.

Besides, the London property market has been engineered to serve those looking to preserve their assets by getting them out of their failing states at home. If we start to act like one, the wheels of the money laundrette might stop spinning.

Most of the reaction Corbyn’s suggestion is scaremongering of the grimmest kind.

For one, councils make compulsory purchase orders all the time. Looming plans for HS2 are part of the reason property prices in parts of Camden are looking a little slow on the uptake. No one wants to drop a mil and a half on a house to have it bulldozed to make way for a train track.

The argument that disgruntled millionaires might demand remuneration from the council is a fair one. A lot of money could be wasted in payouts or court costs. Money means power because it costs dearly to get the law on you side.

A few of Grenfell’s missing were being threatened with legal action for lobbying the council about the fire risk when they were burned alive.

It’s so hideously ironic that a writer of Greek tragedies would think it a bit over the top.

Cuts to legal aid under austerity policies meant that the residents, many of whom were low income families, had no recourse when the council ignored their complaints and tried to bully them in to silence. Justice is not painted blind in the land of luxury million pound flats.

This same council farmed out lucrative contracts to private companies that cut corners in order to pad their bottom line. But the rot has set in deeper than just one rich borough.

Councils across London are in turn powerless against developers who run rings around them and their Section 106 responsibilities whilst they build no homes themselves.

We’ve turned our own blind eye to the shiny, empty towers because the speculation gave us confidence that property prices won’t crash, that it’s a solid investment, that everyone wants a slice of London.

Grenfell was built during a more idealistic time, where architects were concerned with social housing and councils had the dedication and cash to see their dreams through, if a little shonkily.

Now they let in the developers determined to push the prices up whilst pricing up the locals, whilst paying private contractors to truss up towers from half a century ago in cladding that looks modern but was £2 a panel of being flame retardant.

Meanwhile the Victorian terraced houses once built for factory workers over a hundred years ago command a premium as prices soar ever closer to the sun.

The reclamation of London’s land for its hardest done by is not going to happen today. The government can barely organise the relief effort, they’re hardly going to get their act together to organise a radical redistribution of property as part of the reparations for victims.

I wouldn’t bother chasing after the millionaires and their mansions either. Their disparate homes would be no use for sensibly re-housing a community that needs to stay together in order to heal, and we couldn’t expect those who have lost everything to be able to afford their upkeep in the long term.

What should happen is a halfway decent developer handing over the keys to a suite of new builds for the Grenfell survivors to live in for as long as they needed. It would be an audacious PR stunt, but it would be an atonement of sorts.

Of course, they’d rather they stayed empty and pristine. All the better to accrue capital gains.

More than anything the reaction to Corbyn’s suggestion has revealed just how derelict the system has become, and how pernicious the mindset it fosters is.

Even faced with the plight of the homeless peoples gut reactions was to shy away from giving anything more than token donations.

In our obsession with private property and neoliberalism and the endless upwards trajectory of growth London has made a Faustian pact. We’ve all colluded in a system that values profit over people.

Where was the trickle down economics here? The council wouldn’t cough up for a sprinkler system when it was giving its wealthy residents council tax rebates.

We have a government that scoops the cream off the top of the super prime property market through stamp duty, only to turn around and pretend there’s nothing left for building more homes for its most vulnerable.

We have to demand tighter rules and regulations around the provision and maintenance of social housing from both councils and developers.

We have to demand more funding for the public services who respond and mental healthcare providers who pick up the pieces long after the flames of media scrutiny have died down.

We have to use our voices to speak for those who have their volume turned down because they are not rich or white or lucky enough to be born in a supposedly safe country.

Rebuilding a better, more human society from the ground up requires us to hold those at the top to account.

Full socialism might not be the solution we want, but we certainly need a kinder, more regulated capitalism.

Even when the press pack moves on and the front page stop coming when the city closes its eyes we need to see a burning tower seared into our retinas.

There’s no catharsis coming in the final act here. There can be no peace until there is justice for Grenfell.

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