Bishop of Durham on lessons learned from Grenfell Tower tragedy

On 31st October 2019 Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth moved a Motion, “that this House takes note of the Phase 1 report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.” The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the debate, drawing attention to the work of churches and others in supporting the survivors, and the wider issues of neglect within the community.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, I thank the Whips Office for understanding that my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans cannot speak due to the change of time, and that I have been allowed to speak in his place.

It is important for us to remember that for the bereaved families and survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, who have now suffered for so long, the past week has been particularly difficult. The report mentions many contributing factors, including issues of fire safety, communication between emergency services, building regulations and the use of materials. In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, spoke eloquently on all those, and many other noble Lords will be able to speak about them from a position of informed authority.

However, faith groups such as the Church of England have played what has often been an unmentioned—although I thank the Minister for his strong mention—but critical one in the lives of Grenfell survivors. That is why I and all those on these Benches feel so passionately about our collective role in this matter. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, three of the main spaces used for public meetings were St Clement’s Church, Notting Hill Methodist Church and the al-Manaar Muslim cultural centre. The role of faith communities in bringing people together in the face of adversity was a critical factor in assisting in the immediate recovery from the fire. Local community groups, such as the Harrow Club, the Rugby Portobello Trust and the Clement James Centre, motivated by faith in the local community life, played an important role in the wider and longer-term response. Such local community groups, faith-based and otherwise, will always provide important spaces for social cohesion and the cultivation of habits of community building. Members from all faiths and none will join me in praising the wonderful work of all those groups and all they continue to do in the Grenfell area.

Amidst the tragedy and horror of that event in 2017, there is an opportunity for policymakers and community stakeholders to consider what is wrong in some of our society’s very fabric and how we can all work together to improve it. The social legacy of Grenfell is something that my colleague the Bishop of Kensington, Bishop Graham Tomlin, has spoken about repeatedly. The perception of neglect is very strong on the ground, yet there is also hope found in local groups and communities, which provide a vision of possibilities for society in and around Grenfell Tower.

Nevertheless, the neglect felt by many before the tragedy has not gone away. Prior to the fire, as Bishop Graham states, there was an overwhelming feeling that the issue of Grenfell was not being heard. There is a common thread of perceived neglect by authority figures. Stories are repeatedly told of residents trying to get the tenant management organisation to attend to repairs. When people complained about the service they received, they were made to feel that they were the problem. This disincentivised them to pursue it.

This feeling of being a burden on society cannot be solved overnight. Nor can the perception that the voices of Grenfell are ignored. It is clear that lessons have not been learned by wider British society. Members of this House will be concerned at the sense of outrage that survivors of the tragedy have felt at the media’s publication of and speculation about the report before they had time to read it themselves. Is this not a sign that Grenfell voices are still not respected, taken seriously or appreciated in and of themselves?

The experience of Grenfell residents about repairs to their homes raises wider issues of social neglect and the perception of affordable and social housing. Affordable and social housing has slipped down our list of priorities over the years, and with its loss of priority went effective opportunities for tenants to voice complaints or have a say in accommodation standards. Furthermore, as a result of our drastically reduced social housing stock, many have felt that they have become the,

“dumping ground of the most vulnerable in our society”,

to cite my colleague Bishop Graham again. As Christians, we believe that each person is created and loved by God and that within all people is an innate value. Moving towards a better regulated social housing framework would do much to work towards that valuing of every person.

Housing is a health issue as well as a moral one. The WHO’s report on health states clearly:

“Improved housing conditions can save lives, prevent disease, increase quality of life, reduce poverty, … mitigate climate change”.

We need to find a wholly distinct approach to housing, which sees it primarily not as a financial asset but as a home and a key to our well-being. All people deserve to live in a place that is truly a home. Until we can deliver on that ideal, the contributing factors to the Grenfell tragedy cannot be said to have been solved.

In conclusion, can the Minister provide clear data on the link between the quality of British social housing and the health of those communities? Can he explain to the House what steps are being taken to address the shortage of social homes and the quality of existing social housing? Above all, will he comment on the perception of neglect felt by far too many of our citizens?

…Rehousing the 201 households that lost their homes has been an absolute priority for the Government. Today, 95% of these households have now moved into their new permanent homes and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham alluded to, they must truly be places that they can call home. We will continue to support the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council to ensure that the nine remaining households can move into permanent homes, and that those affected continue to have access to the services and support they need to rebuild their lives. But of course, there is much more to do to restore trust in that community and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, bringing different faiths together to help with this is of paramount importance…

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke about his concern about the neglect of humanity. Let us never forget that this tragedy is about human beings: human beings who lost their lives, human beings who survived and human beings who keep fighting for the truth and justice they so rightly seek, but now it is also about human beings who are taking—and must continue to take—responsibility and bring about the changes we need to see. No report can change what happened that night or bring back those who lost their lives, but yesterday’s report is an important step on the road to lasting change, and we must work tirelessly and without delay to ensure that we achieve it, so that when we say “Never again” we really mean it.

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