Poverty Exposes People to Greater Risks
by Tom Skinner
Poverty isn’t just struggling to get by in the present. It also means living so close to the edge that a single misfortune could spell disaster in the immediate future.
Sometimes this can mean homelessness, with factors such as relationship breakdown, a change in benefits, or a redundancy causing people to lose their homes. Because this happens to people one-by-one, the causes are often relatively hidden from the public eye.
On occasion this fragility of life hits home in a much more visible and shocking way. The fire in Grenfell Tower is one of the greatest tragedies to have hit the UK since World War II. The loss of life, the way people died, and the loss of hundreds of people’s homes is overwhelming.
What’s more, it looks like much of the devastation could have been avoided, and that this kind of avoidable tragedy disproportionately affects people in poverty.
Had building regulations been tightened up as experts had advised, had those regulations been well enforced, had fire-fighters been better resourced and positioned, had the local authority taken a more hands-on approach to social housing, or had the management company ensured better safety standards themselves, we might well have been looking at a much smaller-scale disaster, or even a near miss. People in poverty are evidently more vulnerable to leaders’ mistakes or negligence than those who are better off.
It is of course difficult to tell from early media reports, and we do not wish to jump to conclusions about where the blame lies. We do however know that many residents had been warning of the dangers, and felt they had not been listened to. We hope that the government inquiry and other investigations will be transparent, rigorous and unflinching, giving the victims a central role in the proceedings while dealing with the most urgent matters as quickly as possible.
Here in Greater Manchester authorities are moving quickly to ensure that buildings are in better, safer conditions than Grenfell Tower was, and cladding is being removed from some towers. While cladding understandably dominates the headlines, fire safety particularly in high-rise, low-cost and social housing requires attention to many other factors such as alarms, sprinklers, exit routes and inspections, while fire services must be adequately resourced for prevention work as well as emergency responses. There have been indications that local authorities will be reimbursed for any building work carried out to minimise fire risks in tower blocks, but the terms of this offer should be made clearer, as councils who quite rightly are acting quickly, are doing so in the dark as to the ultimate financial implications.
Beyond that we must ensure that all public services serve people in poverty – not just adequately within the law, but generously and in such a way that ensures as much safety as is realistically possible. We must change our culture and our practises, as well as policy, so when vulnerable people raise concerns, they are heard – in fact they must be encouraged to play an active part in civil life, and spaces created for this to happen. We must ensure that all homes, and other places where people are vulnerable, are safely maintained. Ultimately we must work to minimise poverty and its effects – the tragic event in London highlights just how essential this is.