Seven months on from the Grenfell fire and we don’t yet truly know what will change. The lives of the survivors and our community, certainly: affected indelibly and forever. We will never forget those we lost. The public inquiry is in place and we await to see the lines of questioning adopted and the conclusions it reaches.
But how much the tragedy will change our attitudes and behaviours as a country is still very uncertain. We simply do not yet know whether what happened and what we have seen will change our attitude to social housing and to communities like ours.
The terrible tragedy also brought out the best in so many. In the aftermath I was part of a community devastated by tragedy that also came together to help so many who were in need. From the volunteers who came to my church and many other centres to hand out food and water, to those with legal expertise who have given their time in the months that follow to offer representation and advice to hundreds of families affected, we have shared a determination that the survivors would not be on their own in their grief.
As our community seeks to rebuild, so too must the whole country look to understand what happened and to find strength from despair. The public inquiry will look in depth at the causes of the fire and the response of the emergency services. But what of the bigger questions, the questions for our society that were posed by what we saw in Grenfell?
Grenfell residents have talked about feeling not listened to and like second class citizens: their voices are too easily dismissed by those in positions of power. While worrying, this is not unique. The experience of those in North Kensington have been echoed by many right across the country who feel the same way.
And Grenfell faith and community leaders, including myself, have talked about those in social housing being stigmatised. But we are reflecting a national problem, not something unique to our particular corner of West London.
As someone who believes passionately in the role social housing can play in our society, these problems trouble me deeply. We must not miss the opportunity to address these problems. The debate which we promised each other would happen in the weeks after the fire must take place.
So it is to address these deeper questions of power, of community and about the future of social housing that, with the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, we are establishing an independent commission. We don’t start it knowing all the answers and our commissioners are not experts but truth seekers. We hope to find answers through a process which involves as many people as possible, from every region. We believe we need a big conversation involving all those in social housing, all those who need it and all those who live in and around it to chart a better way forward.
No-one should ever be made to feel like a second class citizen because of where they live or where they call home. We need a fresh look at all these questions and we need a new future for social housing which reflects the views of all those who can benefit from it. I hope all those who are able to contribute to this important new commission will do so, so that together we can help shape a better future for us all.
Rev. Mike Long is the minister of Notting Hill Methodist Church and the chair of Shelter’s Big Conversation on social housing.
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