What an awful quirk of fate that just as Borough Market was observing a minute’s silence in memory of those who lost their lives in the terrorist attack 10 days earlier firefighters in another part of London were desperately trying to contain the Grenfell Tower inferno in north Kensington to prevent further horrendous loss of life - tragically to little avail.
Described as a symbol of resistance to the borough’s gentrification, the tower had “gone up like a piece of paper” according to eye-witnesses.
As the nation awoke to the news on Wednesday morning, the question we posed on the front page of this week’s issue, “What Now?”, which went to press last Friday, suddenly didn’t seem so important, not when questions that are literally life or death must now be asked.
How could fire tear through the building so quickly? Why were there reportedly no working fire alarms or sprinklers? What role did the cladding play, if any? What role did the refurbishment play, if any? Why did residents’ warnings fall on deaf ears?
Are shortcuts being taken when it comes to social housing tenants that are putting their lives at risk? Why did Theresa May’s new chief of staff Gavin Barwell fail to review fire safety regulations during his tenure as housing minister?
Some of these questions will no doubt be answered in the coming days and weeks. Clearly, there must also be an urgent wider review of building safety standards. This cannot happen again. Of course, many residents of high-rise buildings will now be worried that it could, which begs yet another question: will it scare people off tower blocks - and what will that mean for the role of tall buildings in addressing the housing crisis?
It would be overstating matters to say Barwell’s reputation is in tatters, but it is fair to say he has not had the best of weeks. After he bounced back from losing his seat by being appointed May’s chief of staff, the hope was that in his new role he would help ensure housing remained high on the political agenda.
However, there are a lot of ifs: if May clings on to power and he keeps his job; if his career isn’t fatally compromised by his failure to review the fire regulations; if the new incumbent doesn’t do the usual thing new ministers do and attempt to make their mark by reviewing all their predecessor’s policies.
The first response from most people to the news his replacement would be Alok Sharma was: “who?”
Worryingly, Sharma has no background in housing - he is a chartered accountant who had been in corporate finance before going into politics - and he has opposed a number of developments in his constituency of Reading West. He has also consistently voted in favour of cuts to housing-related benefits and in 2010 said he wanted to scrap housing delivery targets.
What this all means for the housing white paper, who knows. Let’s hope he sticks around longer than some of his predecessors - and that Lord Buckethead is drafted in to help out with the Brexit negotiations. He offered a rare moment of light relief in an otherwise relentlessly grim week and sounded surprisingly human for an intergalactic space lord - unlike the real politicians.