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Hi, this is Gerry, and this is my News Digest for Friday 22nd June, 2018. Just two big stories for you today. It’s a year since the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London. A public inquiry has now been opened. And then Brexit: time is running out  for Mrs May to find a way to leave the EU that is acceptable  to all sides.
It’s now a year since a tower block  of flats  in Central London called Grenfell Tower caught fire , and 72 people died. It was the worst fire disaster in Britain since the Second World War. A public inquiry  has now opened with a High Court  judge in charge. The inquiry started with statements from victims’  families. This put the human suffering  of the night and its long-term consequences at the heart of the inquiry. The technical questions of how and why the fire started, how it was tackled  and how the survivors were treated will be considered in due course , but it is first and foremost  a story about peoples’ lives that were destroyed that night.
The 72 who died provide a sort of snap shot  of the ordinary people who live in a modern city like London. There were families with small children, young professionals, old-age pensioners. There were people of different colours, different religions and none, speakers of many languages. But Grenfell Tower was not a place where rich people lived. Grenfell Tower was built in the early 1970s in what had been a very poor part of the city. In those days, this sort of housing was called council housing, that’s to say houses and flats built by local councils with public money to provide cheap, rented  accommodation for people who could not afford to buy their own home. After the Second World War there was a boom in council house construction and this went on into the 1960s. Then in the 1980s Mrs Thatcher’s government decided to give council house tenants  the opportunity to buy their houses at a discount . The thinking behind this was that it would give poorer people a chance to own their own homes. It was a very popular policy, and about 1.5 million council houses have now been sold to their tenants. But while these houses were being sold, no new ones were being built. We now have an acute housing shortage  in the UK, and particularly housing for the less well-off . The Grenfell Tower disaster highlighted some of our housing problems. Grenfell Tower stands in one of the richest parts of London, the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. There are accusations that the dangerous state of the building can be blamed  on the local government that had no real interest in caring for the relatively small numbers of poor people living in towers like that. The gap between the richest and poorest in that part of London is extreme – an illustration of the growing inequality that we have in our society today.
There are so many questions that the public inquiry must address. The fire spread through new cladding  that had been put on the outside of the building. Did anybody know that this cladding represented such a fire risk? Was it not tested before it was installed? Who was responsible? At the moment it seems that everybody is passing the buck : everybody is passing the blame onto somebody else. There are big questions for the fire brigade. The people in Grenfell Tower were told to stay in their flats when the fire started in one flat on the 4th floor. This was the standard advice given by the fire service. They thought that such a fire could be easily contained within one flat. Unfortunately this was not the case: the fire spread from the 4th floor up the outside of the building to the very top in under an hour.
As I said at the beginning, this was on the face of it a simple disaster – a terrible fire that killed 72 people – about a third of the residents in the block. The story is, however, far from simple, and the public inquiry will have an extremely hard job in uncovering its direct and indirect causes and in deciding who or what was to blame. If you want to hear one man’s reaction to the fire, look for the poet Ben Okri’s poem about it. He visited the area on the morning after the fire. You can find him reading his poem on YouTube, or you can read it for yourself on the Financial Times website.
The Brexit question seems to be going on for ever. The country is still divided. The Conservative party, in particular, has been split down the middle on whether membership of the EU was on balance  a good thing, or a bad thing for years. Every leader of the Conservative Party since Mrs Thatcher has struggled to hold the party together on this question.
The present situation might be summarised as follows. For better or worse, we had a referendum, and the British people voted to leave the EU. The majority may have been small, but for the Brexiteers, it was decisive. At the same time, most of our MPs, our Members of Parliament, were personally in favour of remaining in the EU. Parliament voted, however, to respect the referendum result. No problem then: the UK is leaving. But then there was the question of leaving how, on what terms. Some people want a clean break . Other people want to maintain a close relationship with the EU – within a customs union, for example. This would keep the border open to free trade with the EU. Important for some of our big companies that are built on supply lines  that criss-cross the European continent. Important too for keeping the border open between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
Time is running out for Mrs May to work out a deal that will not only be acceptable to the EU but also to the British Parliament and the British people. We are now entering a period where there will be some important votes in Parliament. There may be a majority in Parliament to support what is generally known as a “soft” Brexit – something that will maintain as many links as possible with the EU. But will this be seen as a betrayal  by the people who voted to leave? The Brexiteer editor of the most extreme pro-Brexit newspaper in Britain is going to be replaced by a Remainer. Is this a sign of something changing? The latest opinion poll from Scotland suggests that a “hard” Brexit may lead to stronger support for Scottish independence. Trouble in both Ireland and Scotland – Mrs May doesn’t want that. Her position is weak but nobody else wants her job. Can she find a way through this mess? We’ll find out in the end. It has to be decided by March 2019.
And that’s it for today. You can comment on the show via the PodClub website (podclub.ch). On Twitter I’m @Gerrypod. And don’t forget the PodClub app with its extra features. I’ll be back with my next News Digest on July 20th. Till then, take care!