On 10th October SWAN London held an open event attended by over 60 people, entitled 'Social Work and The Grenfell Tower Tragedy' at London South Bank University, examining the context and aftermath of the appalling fire in Kensington on 14th June this year.

 

A panel of activists, residents, academics and workers addressed the meeting.

 

There was analysis on the context of mature austerity and the impact of cumulative cuts to local authority and housing budgets leading to this event; the death of working class people in their own homes.

 

Anna Gupta, Professor of Social Work at Royal Holloway University, talked about the horrendous circumstances whereby children in the richest borough in the UK could burn to death. She drew links with the decisions to save money on type of cladding on the Grenfell Tower block and years of the council and Tenancy Management Organisation ignoring local residents and their warnings about fire safety. She commented that the absence of an organised, swift and human response from social services, has some connection with how social work has often been reduced to an individualised focus, ill equipped to respond to a community wide catastrophe. She discussed how analysis of environmental and social factors (poverty, housing precarity, immigration status and other factors) were often secondary factors or absent from children and family social work assessments, which instead focused on parental harm. She made an appeal for social workers to rediscover community social work and for social work students to call for this to be covered on social work courses.

Moyra Samuels from the Justice 4 Grenfell campaign talked about the impact of the fire on the local community which, in addition to the survivors of the tower, was left traumatized. For the 'Justice 4 Grenfell' campaign and survivors of the fire, Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council has become known as the 'Rotten Borough'. She talked of how, as a teacher, she is aware of how social workers in the context of austerity are overloaded, under resourced and were unsurprisingly unable to respond effectively to events in the community. She discussed the social cleansing of the working class afoot in London, asset stripping of community resources in North Kensington (including the local library and college), the absence of an organised response from the state and the swell of spontaneous 'social work' from the community themselves providing assistance with food, clothing, accommodation and more. Justice 4 Grenfell are calling for housing of the same standard or better for those who have lost their homes in the fire; to hold to account the sorely limited Moore-Bick enquiry and to seek that those council leaders and officials - who sought to save money for a council in surplus over the lives of the residents - are brought to justice and jailed.

Mari and Dave from the Latimer Community Art Therapy group also spoke about the purpose and value of art therapy. They discussed how they and others set up a free service to help children begin to address the horror of the events they had witnesses in the fire, while at the same time - very belatedly - starting to work at arms lengths with social service. They talked about the art pieces created by the children and young people to express themselves. They also discussed their experiences of being temporarily locked out of the local community venues by Kensington and Chelsea Tenancy Management Organisation, when they expected support for the work they were doing.

Glyn Robbins, Housing Worker and member of Defend Council Housing, juxtaposed how vilified social workers would have been if the blame for this tragedy could have been pinned on them rather than media reaction to members of the establishment. Glyn noted that while we could be at a turning point for social housing after fresh commitments given to non-market housing by the Labour and Conservative party leadership, things were far from certain to improve. He talked about the broken promises of Communities Minister, Sajid Javid, who claimed that the residents of Grenfell and other social housing tower blocks would have 'whatever it takes' to keep them safe, reneged upon almost every day since.  He talked about our collective responsibility as social workers and public servants to keep Grenfell Tower and its legacy on the agenda when it fades from media attention.

A challenging debate followed with plentiful contributions and questions: was Grenfell was an example of 'Corporate Murder'?; how were social workers perceived by the community around Grenfell Tower?; questions of how to rejuvenate a divided, underfunded social work in the face of dire social need; how to bring back the spirit of community social work; how social workers and housing officers might work in partnership together when often pitted against one another; how to keep the debates alive about defending public services and working class communities alive.

 

All those present were invited to the Grenfell Tower Silent Protest in Kensington, this Saturday on 14th October and were encouraged to keep the debate about Grenfell, Social Housing and Public Services alive in their workplaces and communities. Those from different community &housing campaigns and social work organisations pledged to work together.

 

One of the most telling contributions was from a social worker who lives in North Kensington (though who practices in another borough). She looked at the signs for free art therapy when walking through her local community and longed to put up a sign saying 'free social work'. Why is state social work, so divided from the communities of which it should be a part?