From time to time an event happens that holds a mirror up to a society and gives it cause to interrogate the way it treats people and groups within it.
In the United States, the New Orleans floods that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 highlighted the neglect of poor, predominantly black neighbourhoods, and the under-investment in flood defences to take care of them.
The Grenfell House disaster is such a mirror for us. There cannot be a more terrible thought than the horror of families trapped in a towering inferno.
Who knows what all the detailed lessons will be in due course. I suspect that just like the Potters Bar rail disaster in 2003 we will see that so many diffuse organisations were involved in the management, maintenance, and refurbishment of the tower block, that nobody took genuine ownership or care. Sadly a feature of much public service provision at this time. One also suspects that financial decisions were made that jeopardised the tenants’ safety in favour of saving money: another repeating theme across public services.
Much of the detailed work of the inquiry/inquests/investigations will (and has to) look at who did what when and who failed to act. But when mirrors such as this are held up in such stark fashion we need to go right back to the basics of what is right in a just and fair society.
We need to go back behind John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” and think, if coming into society with no inkling as to our prospective fortunes or those of our family, would we want a family-life up a multi-storey tower-block to be one of the possible outcomes.
Social and particularly council housing was one of the great triumphs of the last century. I will not be alone in having fond memories of solidly built social housing and neighbourhoods in which parents grew up and grandparents spent very happy retirements. And there is still lots of really great social housing out there. But we seem to have declared a prolonged moratorium on progress. That’s even while remaining one of the top ten economies in the world.
The reality is that a trip behind the said veil of ignorance fifty years ago and now ought to yield very different results. The limits of human ingenuity and the scale of modern wealth mean that the range of acceptable outcomes must change to account for that progress. If the instinctive response to this tragedy is one that would not countenance such living conditions for our family and loved ones, that instinct must be listened to. Whilst the technocrats and money men may say to the contrary, politics is at heart about moral choices. Emotional and instinctive responses, built on our own experiences, expectations and relationships, must play a major part in those choices.
So, we need to take a progressive view about social housing. Not “progressive” in the political label/soundbite sense. Rather, progressive in terms of genuinely advancing the housing and neighbourhood conditions of those that have to rely on social housing; having expectations that befit 2017. For a start: families up tower blocks, ought not happen, it feels wrong, it is wrong.
But there is more to it. If we are taking the veil of ignorance approach we would want decent housing to be available to all who require it. It is not. We would want talking therapies to be available expeditiously if our mental health required. They are not. And so on and so on. People can make glib comments about magic money trees, but if these things (and many others beside) are the basics of a civilised society in 2017, then we need to simply make them happen.