by John Preston
There has been much debate in the media and elsewhere as to whether ‘stay put’ was an appropriate strategy in the Grenfell Tower fire which killed 72 people in London in June 2017. In my new book I look at why ‘stay put’ was in place at Grenfell and why this strategy cannot be disassociated from the wider social context of the treatment of racialised, working class, tower block residents.
Strategies of ‘stay put’ (where residents are instructed to stay in their properties in an emergency) are ostensibly based on evidence based policy but there is a tacit social purpose to these strategies. In the Cold War of the 1980s tower block residents were advised to stay at home but there was no modelling of the impact of nuclear explosions on such buildings (unlike the substantive research on detached houses). The strategy was based on reducing social disruption rather than saving lives. Even today, very little research has been conducted on tower block fires and as to whether invacution or evacuation are optimal strategies. It is only after 9/11 that there was a substantive academic interest in this area of research but this was connected to terrorism rather than fire safety. In the book I consider the history of ‘stay put’ and why changes to preparedness are ultimately only made for reasons of interest convergence (when they are in the interests of elites) rather than due to community action and protest. Following a disaster there will be a retrenchment in terms of preparedness where any (notional) progress will be pushed back. Note that the Grenfell Tower disaster has not led to substantive reforms in tower block safety. Just as in Aberfan lessons learnt are never put into practice.
Grenfell Tower also reveals the disparities in preparedness in our cities. In Kensington and Chelsea, the rich are adopting their own forms of private preparedness and the market for panic rooms and bunkers is thriving in that area, whereas the majority are at greater risk due to austerity for the emergency services and the continuous capitalisation (rebuilding / gentrification) of London. The book ends by theorising ‘Disaster Capitalism’ within a new paradigm of ‘value critique’ whereby the paradoxical acceleration of the cityscape is undermined by falling profits and financialisation where property is only of speculative value. Grenfell is a symptom of ‘Disaster Capitalism’ as an everyday, rather than exceptional, part of the eliminationist tendencies of our economic system.
John Preston is Professor of Sociology and Deputy Dean (Research) at the University of Essex. His new (2018) book is Grenfell Tower: Preparedness, Race and Disaster Capitalism. Palgrave Macmillan https://www.palgrave.com/br/book/9783319968506