Grenfell Tower Burned: The Ramifications

5 months ago Ricardo Hylton 1

The incineration of Grenfell Tower on June 14, the deadliest fire in Britain in more than a century, is now a national tragedy. The London police on Friday blamed flammable materials used in the facade for the spread of the blaze and said the investigation could bring charges of manslaughter. Hundreds of families were evacuated from five high-rises that posed similar risks.

Flames consumed the tower so quickly that arriving fire-fighters wondered if they could even get inside. People trapped on the higher floors screamed for their lives through broken windows. At least 79 people died, a toll that is expected to rise as more bodies are recovered. Survivors have charged that the facade was installed to beautify their housing project for the benefit of wealthy neighbours.

Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.

A formal government inquiry into the fire has just begun. But interviews with tenants, industry executives and fire safety engineers point to a gross failure of government oversight, a refusal to heed warnings from inside Britain and around the world and a drive by successive governments from both major political parties to free businesses from the burden of safety regulations.

Footage has shown the fire spreading up one side of the building externally, before engulfing the entire block.

The cladding – installed on the tower in a recent renovation – has come under scrutiny, with experts saying a more fire resistant type could have been used.

Grenfell Tower, in west London, is part of the Lancaster West Estate, a social housing complex of almost 1,000 homes, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

It is in a neighbourhood ranked among the most deprived 10% in England.

 

Ramifications

The fallout from Grenfell has led to feelings of anger. Indeed, it has contributed to a febrile atmosphere across Britain. It was preceded by two terrorist attacks within a month, and followed five days later by another near the Finsbury Park mosque. An election called to bring stability has ended up sowing discord and division. Senior ministers have put out contradictory statements about what they want from Brexit. It is little wonder that, one week on, protests over the fire have taken on a deeper significance about the state of the entire country.

Some have asked why there was not a faster response from central government, as there surely would have been in a similar-scale terrorist attack. Kensington and Chelsea is among the smallest boroughs in London. Its day-to-day budget was cut by 38% between 2009-10 and 2016-17. As Colin Brown, head of disaster response at the British Red Cross, a charity, notes, “this was one of the biggest domestic incidents we’ve seen in a very long time.”

 

Bumbling Political Response

Theresa May, the prime minister, has provided few answers. Although she visited the site the day after the fire, she failed to meet local residents; her team cited security risks as an excuse. After criticism of her lack of empathy, she visited those in hospital on June 16th and offered £5m for food, clothes and emergency hand-outs to victims, of which there was no shortage. But she dodged questions about her government’s response. In the Queen’s Speech debate on June 21st she apologised for the failure of the state, both local and national, to help people when they needed it most.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, did more to embrace people’s anger, calling for empty properties to be requisitioned to provide houses for those now homeless. David Lammy, a Labour MP, labelled the disaster “corporate manslaughter” and demanded arrests.

The political ramifications of the fire are still developing. Yet worries that the anger could lead to violence appear overblown. Protests organised as part of a “day of rage” on June 21st were calmer and smaller than expected. Calls for the expropriation of property have the support of the majority of the public, according to a YouGov survey, but have even so led nowhere. Instead, the City of London is buying flats for survivors in Kensington.

Much will now depend on a more rigorous analysis of the causes of the fire, which will take time. Early reports that few other buildings have been clad in the flammable material that exacerbated the fire may calm fears. Similarly, although the local council outsourced the running of the building to a separate company, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, it was organised on a not-for-profit basis, undermining arguments that avaricious profit-making was to blame.

The idea that public services are under unprecedented strain will be harder to shake. Corners may have been cut in the refurbishment of the building, the enforcement of regulations, or both. A slim line local council struggled to cope with the disaster. The fire-fighters, doctors and police who worked through the night to save lives were widely praised. Yet, like all public-sector workers, they face the prospect of further pay cuts in real terms thanks to the government’s pay cap. In an early sign of a change of atmosphere, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, signalled a willingness to consider higher wages. That is unlikely to be the last change that the Grenfell disaster brings about.

 

Trying to save a buck.

It now seems possible that the Grenfell fire could become a big contributor to a broader shift in British attitudes, particularly towards public spending. That is partly because of the building’s location. Kensington and Chelsea is among the richest and most unequal areas in the country. Grand town houses and swish coffee shops stand 200 or so metres from the remains of the building. Over the past five decades, towers have sprung up all over London. Yet the worst accidents have been in those used for social housing.

It is now clear that a faulty refrigerator started the fire, and cheap cladding is the reason it spread so fast. But the details could scarcely be worse for the government. For years, a local residents’ group complained, their warnings about fire safety were not taken seriously by the company which ran the building.

A recent refurbishment of Grenfell Tower wrapped it in a cladding which is banned on tall buildings in Germany and the United States. The Times has reported that a fire-resistant version would have added a mere £5,000 ($6,300) to the cost. It is clear that a broader disregard for poor people played a role in this fire. This cannot be denied. The culpability lies with local and central government, but make no mistake about it, it also lies with much of society’s indifference to the crippling poverty within its midst.

Meanwhile, successive housing ministers ignored appeals by experts to update fire-safety regulations. Since 2010 the government has tried to cut red tape in the hope of encouraging private developers to build more housing partly because the capital suffers from a pressing shortage of it; partly as a capitalistic profit-before-people imperative. All this has given succour to critics who argue that the government’s approach to regulation betrays a lack of concern for those living in social housing.

 

Anger Spills

A quicker response might have pacified some of the anger. Instead, Kensington and Chelsea council floundered. The scale of the tragedy was immediately obvious, says Abraham Chowdhury, who co-ordinated volunteers at the Westway Sports Centre, the main help point.

Mr Chowdhury arrived in the early morning, a little after the fire began. Yet until later that day, “there was absolutely no presence from the council at all,” he says. Survivors struggled to discover if friends or family had made it out alive. The local authority was slow to find temporary accommodation. The situation began to improve only when a task force made up of neighbouring councils and charities took charge. On June 22nd the chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council was forced to resign. This, we suspect, will be the first in a number of political casualties.