In 1977, two years before Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and started to liberalise the UK’s economy and housing policy, the punk band The Clash released “London’s Burning”. “I’m up and down the Westway, in and out the lights/What a great traffic system, it’s so bright,” sang Joe Strummer. “London’s burning with boredom now/London’s burning, dial nine-nine-nine-nine-nine.”

Forty years later, London burnt, not metaphorically but in horrifying reality. On June 14, six days after Theresa May had been re-elected prime minister, Grenfell Tower went up in smoke, killing at least 80 people. A refrigerator fire on the fourth of its 24 floors spread to the exterior cladding and engulfed the building in flames. The luckier occupants, many poor and vulnerable, struggled through choking fumes to escape and were rendered homeless.

From the Westway, an elevated highway that intersects wealthy and deprived districts, the ruin of Grenfell is starkly visible, protruding like a blackened tooth from North Kensington. “In a neighbourhood studded thickly with elegant villas and mansions, Bayswater and Notting Hill in the parish of Kensington, is a plague spot scarcely equalled for its insalubrity by any other in London,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1851 of the same location, then known as the Potteries and Piggeries.

Victorian North Kensington was slum-like and dangerous, used by pig keepers for 3,000 pigs, and crossed by open sewers. Cholera and typhus broke out there in 1849, causing the deaths of 50 people. The authorities finally acted to bring an end to what Dickens described as “the poisonous influence of this pestilential locality . . . in a short time, a good road was made and supplies of fresh water introduced.”

The Grenfell disaster is having a similar impact, crystallising discontent that was already evident in British society about the impact of four decades of deregulation and privatisation.

Workers remove external cladding from blocks in Wythenshawe, Manchester, after the Grenfell fire raised fears about the safety of cladding on tower blocks © AFP

In the immediate aftermath, it is forcing Mrs May’s government to address outrage at how so many were allowed to die. Her initial visit to the scene, when she failed to talk to survivors and residents, gave the impression of insensitivity. Those who lost homes have been offered new ones, and Sajid Javid, a former investment banker who is the minister for local government, talked of the tragedy having “shaken my comprehension of what it means to be in office”.

“It was not that we stayed silent, but that they never responded. It was not just that they ignored us, but that they viewed us with contempt,” says Yvette Williams, an organiser of Justice 4 Grenfell, a campaign group, about how residents were treated by the estate’s managers before the fire. Despite tenants’ warnings, the tower was clad in flammable insulation as part of an £8.6m refurbishment. There will be a public inquiry and the police have launched a manslaughter investigation.

The focus has fallen on the network of contractors and subcontractors that undertook the work and whether they breached regulations. Shares in Arconic, the US supplier of the aluminium composite panels, fell sharply after the fire and it will no longer sell those panels for use on towers. There are also concerns that both Conservative and Labour governments since 1979 have relaxed fire and safety standards and made them fatally ambiguous.

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UK housing in numbers

Slum clearance and house-building operations in Poplar, east London, in 1951 © Getty

1951 The first tower block in Britain was completed, in Harlow, Essex

1968 The peak of UK housebuilding, with 425,830 new homes built. But an explosion at the Ronan Point tower block in east London killed four people and undermined faith in high-rises

1980 Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced ‘right to buy’ legislation, enabling thousands of tenants to buy their local authority-owned homes. In the years that follow, this and the buy-to-let boom contribute to a substantial reduction in the stock of social housing, with just 8 per cent rented from local authorities

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But Grenfell provokes wider questions about social divisions in the UK and especially London, where those with high and low incomes often live cheek by jowl on adjacent streets. “Like the US and Hurricane Katrina, this country suddenly got a window into the lives of one group of the population that relies absolutely on the state for where they live, the conditions in which they live, and safety and security,” says David Lammy, member of parliament for Tottenham in north-east London.

More precisely, it follows decades of housing policy, initiated by Mrs Thatcher, in which the government and local councils retreated and left the private sector to fill the gap, often inadequately. “Nothing in this country is more riddled with layers of history and ideology than housing,” says Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics. “It is personal and political for everyone.”

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Britain’s 20th-century housing policy was born out of war. The initial drive to build houses came after the first world war when the Addison Act was passed to create “Homes Fit For Heroes”. Home ownership was the province of the wealthy then: in 1914, only 10 per cent of homes were owner occupied, and 89 per cent were rented privately. That was to change in the following decades.

A squatted street in Maida Vale, less than two miles from Grenfell Tower, in 1978. By 2017 these houses were worth £2m © Getty

Housebuilding boomed in the 1950s as governments tried to replace the 458,000 homes destroyed by bombs in the second world war, and house a growing population. The growth in council housing culminated in slum clearance of inner cities in the 1960s and 1970s. Tower blocks rose to replace them, and one was Grenfell, completed in 1974 as part of a slum redevelopment in North Kensington called Lancaster West.

“A splendid surprise,” The Architects’ Journal declared of the late 1960s master plan for Lancaster West. Peter Deakins, who drew up that plan, had worked at Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, the architecture firm behind the Barbican and the Golden Lane Estate in the City of London. Grenfell complied with the enlightened space standards set out in the 1961 Parker Morris report, and was part of a modernist vision of high-quality public housing.

There were already signs of a reverse. Building peaked in 1968 at about 426,000 homes, while Grenfell was on the drawing board. By then, private development was overtaking local authorities and housing associations, charitable bodies that offer low-income housing. “We wish to develop in our country the idea of a property-owning democracy,” said the 1951 Conservative manifesto, an idea that triumphed with Thatcher’s election in 1979.

Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy, introduced in 1980, allowed council tenants to buy their own homes at a discount. Her government curbed finance to local authorities, and encouraged housing associations and private developers to build instead. Homebuilding has steadily fallen, with 171,000 built in 2015, of which local authorities built 2,700. Property prices and rents have risen as demand has outstripped supply.

“It would be a terrible mistake for this tragedy to lead people to think social housing is the problem, or that tower blocks should be avoided. We desperately need more homes,” says Bob Kerslake, chair of Peabody, a large housing association. Philip Glanville, mayor of Hackney, says his inner London borough faces rising homelessness and overcrowding in private rental accommodation, because of this. “No one took the place of local government in building homes,” he says.

A shortage of public housing, alongside the duty of local councils to house the homeless, poor and vulnerable, leads to what is known a “residualisation” — council homes are increasingly allocated to people on very low incomes, rather than the broader spread of the past. Yet living on estates such as Lancaster West is preferable to being in shoddy private housing on London’s periphery. “Those in social housing are the luckier ones,” says Mr Lammy.

This applies nowhere more than Kensington and Chelsea, where the average rent is 96 per cent of the average income. It is virtually impossible for most people to afford to live in the streets surrounding Lancaster West and the days of financing and building huge new developments are past. Kensington and Chelsea’s priority, like that of many boroughs, is to make the best of history.

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The refurbishment of Grenfell was intended to improve the lives of its residents, not to cause a tragedy. As with other ageing towers, the flats suffered from cold in winter and overheating in summer. The council raised £10m by selling other property in the borough and decided to install new heating and double-glazed windows, and insulate it with thermal cladding on the exterior.

The project was run by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, a not-for-profit group set up in 1996 to run 9,500 properties. It was also supposed to represent tenants better, but had a fractious relationship with those living in Lancaster West. In 2014, it selected Rydon, a contractor specialising in social housing, to take charge of the work, supported by other specialist designers and contractors.

This failed terribly, raising questions about whether cost-cutting and poor oversight led to confusion and disaster. Mr Deakins points to the diminished role of architects in overseeing projects and specifying materials. “Architects used to be in charge, much to the anger of builders. Things have slackened a great deal,” he says. The Royal Institute of British Architects has criticised the lack of “a single point of responsibility”.

One supplier says cost-cutting on projects is common, leading to the substitution of cheaper materials after tenders are won. “Everyone said for years, one day this was going to happen. We all know about it but no one dares to speak up,” he says. Mr Glanville says one lesson for councils is not to depend on “the contract culture of the past 20 years” but to retain oversight. “If you do not have the expertise, how do you check that what you bought has been fitted?”

The approach was not unique to Grenfell. “On any major project, public or private, there is an ecosystem of contractors and subcontractors based on their skills and expertise. It is always a complex exercise. A housing block refurbishment does not look very different from building a hospital,” says Gavin Smart, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing.

But devolvement of responsibility makes it vitally important for there to be a clear set of safety standards, and fire experts say the UK framework has become vague and outdated. Greater self-assessment of fire risk has been combined with less exact rules than in other countries. “The external walls of the building shall adequately resist the spread of fire,” declares Section B of the 2010 Building Regulations, the main fire safety law, but Grenfell proved those words tragically empty.

(read Ben Okri’s poem here)

The disaster will impel action, as the Great Fire of London led to the Rebuilding of London Act of 1666, and the cholera outbreak of 1849 brought fresh water to North Kensington. Lurking behind it, though, are intractable conflicts about gaps between rich and poor, and housing scarcity. “Social housing should be built to the same standard as Buckingham Palace,” says Ms Williams of Justice 4 Grenfell. “There should not be a lower tier for certain people.”

In the mid-1970s, when there were still inner London slums, Joe Strummer lived in a squat (occupied house) in Maida Vale. A house on the same street sold for £2.1m last year. Thatcher would soon take power and Grenfell Tower had just been completed.

“You could never build something like that today,” says Ben Rogers, director of the Centre for London. “It is part of a long, sad tale.”

Additional reporting by Naomi Rovnick

Letters in response to this article:

Social housing with a troubled history / From Howard Husock, New York, NY, US

MacInnes nailed it in his 1950s London novels / From Tom Orchard, Manchester, UK

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