Local media knew about this for YEARS but refused to take it up or investigate, leaving a lone Grenfell Tower blogger to document the unfolding disaster. One so-called “local” journalist was actually filing copy from Dorset!
“[Edward] Daffarn [a social worker who had lived in Grenfell Tower for 15 years] is understandably emotional when reflecting on the last few months, but more than that he is angry. Angry with the way he feels Grenfell residents were treated by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – the people who were entrusted to maintain the estate and keep its residents safe. Angry with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, which was meant to scrutinise the KCTMO. Angry with a society which didn’t seem to care about people like him – people who live on housing estates – until it was too late.
“The reality is if you’re on a housing estate it’s indifference and neglect, two words that sum up everything about the way we were treated,” he says. “They weren’t interested in providing housing services, keeping us safe, maintaining the estate. They were just interested in themselves.”
It wasn’t for us to tell the council what they should be doing we were just trying to raise an alarm.
Edward Daffarn, Grenfell Action Group blog
Daffarn and fellow Grenfell resident Francis O’Connor had been blogging on behalf of the Grenfell Action Group since 2012. They wrote about issues that concerned their tight-knit community – air pollution, the closure of the local public library, and their fears that corners were being cut during the refurbishment of the tower.
“We wanted to record for history how a community on a housing estate in the fifth richest country in the world could be ignored, neglected, treated with indifference. We never thought we could make change. We just wanted to record what was happening,” he says.
Daffarn and O’Connor shared a theory that Kensington and Chelsea – a London borough more widely known for its museums, designer shops and flower shows – actually wanted its council estates to go into decline, so that the residents would leave and expensive flats could be built in this sought-after location. For this they were described as fantasists.
“We weren’t fantasists,” he says, visibly hurt. “We were trying to raise genuine concerns about how our community was being run down.”
The natural consequence, he concluded, would be loss of life. Which is why on 20 November 2016, frustrated and desperate, Edward wrote the blog post KCTMO – Playing with fire!
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”
A few months earlier a fire had ripped through five floors of a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush, just down the road. Edward was worried that if a fire broke out in his tower block residents wouldn’t know what to do. They had been given no proper fire safety instructions from the KCTMO. There were no instructions on individual floors on how residents should act in the event of a fire, there was only a recent newsletter saying residents should remain in their flats – advice which in the case of the Shepherd’s Bush fire would have led to fatalities.
There’s a lot of abusive behaviour evidenced forensically about what was happening to our community, but it wasn’t sexy so it never got picked up.
In March 2017 the KCTMO installed fire safety instruction notices in the entrance hallway to Grenfell Tower and outside the lifts on every floor of the building, again urging residents to “stay put” unless the fire was “in or affecting your flat”.
It wasn’t the first time the Grenfell blog’s authors had raised concerns about fire safety.
Before the blog began, when a school was built on the only green space the residents had, they wrote to the borough pointing out that access for fire and emergency vehicles had been compromised.
Later they blogged about the blocking of a fire exit with mattresses during the refurbishment and the power surges in 2013 that manifested in flickering lights, computers and stereos blowing up, and entire rooms filling with smoke. These continued for three weeks, Daffarn says.
“We were tenants we weren’t fire safety specialists but we were switched on enough to feel this was important and it was not being dealt with on our estate and that’s why we were blogging. It wasn’t for us to tell the council what they should be doing., We were just trying to raise an alarm.”
An alarm that went unanswered. The November 2016 blog post represented the last moment at which something might have been done to avert the disaster which followed six months later. But why didn’t anyone heed or investigate Daffarn’s claims?
Hidden within the story of the Grenfell blog is another story of the decline of local media. There simply was no local press on the ground in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea scrutinising the authorities and helping to amplify the voice of people like Edward Daffarn.
The last time he had the attention of a local journalist was in 2014 when Camilla Horrox, the reporter for the Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle ran front page stories about Grenfell residents’ concerns regarding the possible presence of asbestos on the site of the new school and about the power surges.
She had met Daffarn several times, and had been concerned about KCTMO’s dealings with the residents of the properties it managed.
But when the newspaper was closed down later that year Horrox was made redundant and all her Grenfell articles disappeared from the web. The Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle was incorporated into a website that reports on 29 west London districts.
Horrox’s replacement was expected to report on three boroughs – Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham – while based in Surrey, an hour’s drive away.
Some residents of the borough might have been under the mistaken impression that they did have a local newspaper. In 2015 a free paper, The Kensington and Chelsea News, was established to fill the gap left by the closing of the Chronicle.
But when I tracked down its reporter he explained that he was the sole reporter working on the paper, and on two other local newspapers – his salary was £500 a week and he did almost all his reporting from home in Dorset, 150 miles away. He made it to the borough only twice in two-and-a-half years, and the one story he ever published about Grenfell was from a council press release about the installation of the new cladding.
Though he always searched for a “good front page splash” for each of the three editions, he also made sure to find two pages of royal stories and two pages of entertainment stories.
Edward Daffarn didn’t take his concerns to the media in November 2016 because he no longer thought anyone would listen. But the blog was out there for everyone to see, he points out, if only they had been looking.
“We’d been blogging for three or four years and you go back over that time there’s a lot of abusive behaviour evidenced forensically about what was happening to our community, but it wasn’t sexy so it never got picked up.”
For Edward, what was going on at Grenfell wasn’t just a local story, but a national one. A story about invisible people in a society that cared more about celebrity and wealth than its most vulnerable residents.
Close to tears, he admonishes the nation’s journalists.
“If you look back now our whole community of North Kensington, the policy that the local authority was taking every public space and privatising it, that that could be missed by the BBC, by Channel Four, by these wider news agencies… The question should be for you, why did you miss it?
“Why aren’t our lives important enough for you?”