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Grenfell—still no reckoning for the real culprits

This article is over 4 years, 6 months old
The Tory politicians and housing bosses responsible for the murder of 72 people in the Grenfell fire avoided the spotlight in the inquiry’s report last week. Gabby Thorpe argues it will take a real fight to make sure that those responsible are held to account
Issue 2679
Thousands joined night time protests for Grenfell to demand that those responsible face justice
Thousands joined night time protests for Grenfell to demand that those responsible face justice (Pic: Guy Smallman)

For over two years Tory ministers, councillors and housing bosses have dodged responsibility for the murder of 72 people in the Grenfell fire. When the public inquiry’s report was published last week, they all breathed a sigh of relief at being kept out of the firing line once again.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s interim report called for “urgent action” to stop a repeat of the atrocity and talked about “systematic failings”.

But it only looks into the immediate causes of the fire and the response of authorities on the night. The decisions by Kensington and Chelsea council, housing chiefs and building subcontractors will only be scrutinised in the second part of the inquiry.

Judy Bolton, a Justice4Grenfell campaigner who lost relatives in the fire, said, “I feel that the inquiry is actually back to front.

“It should have started with challenging what led up to Grenfell. Deregulation and cuts within the fire service, within social housing, all of those things. It should have been able to start there.”

The report was far from a ­whitewash and many survivors and relatives welcomed it, saying they felt “vindicated”.

One survivor, Tiago Alves, was pleased it ruled that the ­refurbishment of the tower had breached ­building regulations. “Because this is illegal,” he said, “the rest of the country shouldn’t have this on their buildings.”

The works in 2014-16 had added highly flammable cladding to the outer walls. On the night, it meant they “did not adequately resist the spread of fire over them” and “on the contrary promoted it”.

But the limited scope of the report means it doesn’t ask why Grenfell was wrapped in flammable cladding.

Lucy Masoud, a firefighter who was sent to Grenfell, said, “Had that building not been social housing, we know that there wouldn’t have been so many failures.

Grenfell campaigners fight on for justice in wake of report
Grenfell campaigners fight on for justice in wake of report
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“Why did Grenfell have flammable cladding and no sprinklers and only one dry riser? Because it was social housing and the decision makers don’t care about the social housing tenants.”

She added, “Every politician, every MP, should be dragged from the House of Commons to look at that building and be made to see and understand that the decisions they made led to what took place.”

The same contempt for working class people saw the council and housing chiefs ignore residents’ ­warnings about fire safety. It also explains why the Tory government ignored recommendations in the wake of the Lakanal House fire in 2009.

When Grenfell Tower was built in 1972-74, it was built to higher safety standards than apply to new buildings.

But more than three decades of deregulation fuelled a race to the bottom, where cost-cutting comes ahead of people’s lives.

Former Tory prime minister David Cameron even boasted of leading the “first government in modern history to leave office with fewer regulations than when it entered”.

He had backed a report calling for a “bonfire of regulations” in 2012.

Leadbitter, the preferred contractor, had estimated it would take £11.3 million to refurbish Grenfell.

This was £1.6 million higher than the estimate from Kensington and Chelsea Tenant ­Management Organisation (TMO), a council ­arms-length body responsible for maintenance of the tower.

Because of this, the contract was put out to tender and awarded to building firm Rydon.

In the aftermath of the fire, the Tory-run council initially claimed it could not afford the extra cost of non-flammable cladding. This was supposedly because it could only fund the refurbishment through money raised from council rents.

But in June a Bureau of Investigative Journalism report found that it had used money from selling ­basement flats in Elm Park Gardens.

Tory council leader Nick Paget-Brown and lead councillor for housing Rock Fielding-Mellon were both forced to resign in the wake of the fire.

But Paget-Brown only apologised for the “perceived failings” of the council—and even suggested residents were to blame for poor fire safety. He claimed, “Many residents wanted us to get on with the installation of new hot water systems and new boilers.

“Retrofitting new sprinkler systems would have delayed the building.”

In reality, the council’s record shows that residents’ concerns were not what drove the refurbishment.

One council planning document shows the decision was partly taken to make a nicer view for plush flats.

The document complained that “due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east”.

“The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area,” it said.

It will be a hard battle to make sure an atrocity like Grenfell does not happen again

What happened on the night and the authorities’ response has to be seen against this bigger backdrop.

A large part of Moore-Bick’s report focuses on the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) response on the night of the fire. Moore-Bick praised the bravery of firefighters at the scene, but said “systematic failings” meant more lives were lost.

He said that “both personnel and systems were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster”.

Junior ranking firefighters were sent to the scene to act as ­commanders with no real knowledge of how to handle high rise buildings.

And emergency call operators were so overwhelmed they were unable to advise residents correctly on how best to act.

Moyra Samuels, spokesperson for the Justice4Grenfell campaign, told Socialist Worker, “Especially in the case of call centre workers, the report recognises a lack of training.

“It also speaks to cuts made to the fire services.”

The report focuses heavily on the “stay put” policy, which saw authorities tell residents to stay in their flats for up to two hours. The advice was eventually withdrawn. But Moore-Bick said more lives could have been saved had that happened earlier.

There are important questions about the stay put policy—but it was severely compromised by the cladding. Matt Wrack, FBU firefighters’ union general secretary, said, “The truth is that the fire spread the way it did because it was wrapped in flammable cladding.

Grenfell—two years without justice
Grenfell—two years without justice
  Read More

“The firefighters turned up after that had happened, after the ­building had already been turned, in reality, into a death trap.

“Firefighters’ actions on the night, which were remarkable in the circumstances, are now being scrutinised.

“Nobody is trying to avoid scrutiny, but we think that the ordering of the inquiry is completely back to front.”

Moyra added, “It comes back to the refurbishment. We know that stay put would have worked before the ­refurbishment, and there was a breakdown of fire safety. The report doesn’t talk about this enough.”

The report’s recommendations include a building safety law. This would require owners of high rise buildings to inform local fire services of the materials used on the exterior of their buildings.

It also called for an immediate inspection of fire doors and lifts in all high rise buildings.

But it did not include recommendations for new legislation on the inclusion of sprinklers and other fire safety equipment.

This removes any accountability from the council, which had long refused to install necessary safety measures into the building.

There was no full interrogation of ­building regulations in the report. And it will take a fight to make the Tories implement its recommendations.

Boris Johnson said that the government would accept all of Moore-Bick’s recommendations “in principle”.

But in reality, the urgent action that he calls for could take years to materialise. In October of last year, the government announced a blanket ban on the use of all combustible materials for buildings over 18 metres high.

It said that all existing unsafe ­cladding should be removed from blocks. So far the government has failed to take any meaningful action to remove cladding. And there are still some 60,000 people living in fear in high rise buildings all over Britain.

The Tories and housing bosses are to blame and should be in the dock—and it will be a hard battle to make sure an atrocity like Grenfell does not happen again.

Judy said, “For us, justice for Grenfell is about leaving a legacy and that means challenging social change.

“Grenfell was a microcosm of ­everything that is wrong with this country today. It’s about social housing, about deregulation, about cuts, about austerity, about simple people wanting to be able to work and live in decent housing.”

Firefighters attend the regular Grenfell silent marches
Firefighters attend the regular Grenfell silent marches (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Government and housing bosses ignored vital fire safety concerns six times

  1. The coroner called for a review of “stay put” after the 2009 Lakanal House fire in south London. Firefighters called for a national review of policy when stay put fails. The government ignored them.
  2. The 2005 fire safety order watered down fire safety. Firefighters warned this would lead to fewer inspections. The government ignored them.
  3. Firefighters warned that brigades were not sufficiently prepared for high-rise fires after the 1999 Garnock Court fire. The government ignored them.
  4. Firefighters warned of the dangers of flammable cladding after the 1999 Garnock Court fire. The government ignored them.
  5. Campaigners from the Grenfell Action Group had warned that exactly this kind of tragedy was waiting to happen. One blog post suggested that “only an incident that results in serious loss of life” would cause the council’s practices to be scrutinised.
  6.  Another shows ten instances when the council was warned about the safety of the building.

A guilty man masquerading as a saviour

Boris Johnson has blood on his hands.

As mayor of London between 2008 and 2016, he slashed fire cover across the capital.

And when questioned over it at a Mayor’s Question Time at the London Assembly, Johnson retorted, “Get stuffed.”

He slashed £100 million from the London Fire Brigade’s budget, axed over 550 jobs, ten fire stations and 27 engines.

One consequence of this was that the nearest fire engine with a ladder tall enough to reach Grenfell was based in Surrey.

And in Kensington and Chelsea itself, fire cover had been halved from eight to four engines.

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