A home should be a human right, not a commodity

Grenfell survivor Nicholas Burton has huge respect for firefighters who enter burning buildings to save lives. He believes firefighters around the world deserve great respect and admiration from those they serve. After all he has been through, he is well placed to judge.

Nicholas was rescued, along with his beloved late wife, by two firefighters from Soho station as flames embraced the building, acrid smoke filling the dark and treacherous stairwell. When he left the building at 02.33, riot shields protecting him from falling debris, he thought his wife was dead.

But Maria Del Pilar Burton, known as Pily, was to live for another seven months, when she became the 72nd person to lose their life as a result of the fire.

Firefighters from North Kensington provided a guard of honour as her funeral cortege passed the station.

The huge losses from that terrible night at Grenfell highlighted the human cost of “light touch” building regulation that could allow tower blocks to be swathed in flammable cladding.

GROWING CRISIS

But it also threw the spotlight on the growing crisis in social housing and affordable homes – and how global money is fracturing communities and pricing local people out of cities.

This is a theme explored in a new film PUSH, which features Leilani Farha, the UN’s special rapporteur on adequate housing. In the film, which explores the global housing crisis, Nicholas takes Leilani around what is left of Grenfell, and points out the huge new build housing in the area, bankrolled by global capital – way beyond the reach of the local community.

Working with Leilani has awakened in Nicholas an urge to learn more about the global property market. He is reading his way through books on the housing crisis and his conversation is peppered with references to the outlandish excesses of corporate capital in the housing sector, the lack of affordable housing and the astonishing wealth of global corporations and hedge funds.

“A home should be a human right, not a commodity,” says Nicholas.

He was brought up in Ladbroke Grove. The dignified silent walk to remember the lives lost in the fire weaves through the neighbourhood on the 14th of every month, but Nicholas has seen the borough of Kensington and Chelsea transformed by “a property market on steroids”.

He worked as a catering manager before leaving in 2015 to become a full-time carer for Pily, who had developed dementia. The two bought their Grenfell Tower home under right to buy legislation in the 90s.

Sitting in his flat in North Kensington in a “Change the World” t-shirt, he acknowledges he is an unlikely activist and campaigner.

It is a role he has grown into since the fire, as a committee member of Grenfell United in its early days and as a survivor who felt able to share his personal story to highlight the plight of those who lost family, friends, homes and possessions that night.

He has been attending the Grenfell inquiry, and spoke movingly of the loss of his wife when survivors gave their testimony.

He wants those responsible to be accountable for their decisions: “people deserve the truth,” he says.

But most important to him is to ensure that people no longer die because a “building wrapped in petrol” catches fire “because of negligence and indifference”.

After a year of many deep personal losses – his partner Pily, his mother, his much loved pet Beagle Louis Hamilton II who died in the fire, his home, his possessions – Nicholas felt he had to get away from the traumas he had lived through.

He decided to combine travel round the world with spreading the message about fire safety and remembrance post Grenfell, arriving, unannounced, at more than 50 fire stations across 23 countries. From Ho Chi Minh City – where firef­ghters were training to evacuate tower blocks – to Ground Zero in New York, from New Delhi to Melbourne, Nicholas found a warm welcome.

Firefighters from around the world were keen to be photographed alongside the flag Nicholas unfurled before each shot, with its message: Grenfell United – Forever In Our Hearts

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