Channel 4’s play Grenfell is a film of a production shown at Tabernacle theatre, local to Grenfell Tower, in London last year. But the full name of the play “Value Engineering—Scenes from the Inquiry” gives more of a sense of what this is all really about.
In construction, “value engineering” focuses on cost cutting. The definition is that it’s all about making savings to design and construction—so it’s engineering for value. That’s code for cheaper costs. And the play unravels this.
It starts with the testimony of an expert, who rather graphically explains the spread of the fire. He describes how the fire started at 12:54 at night, and within ten minutes had escaped to the external cladding. Half an hour later it had already spread up the whole of the building.
The expert talks about how the construction of the building allowed the fire to escape so quickly. The play continues with the testimony of Simon Lawrence, who was the contracts manager for work on the tower for design and build contractor Rydon.
What can I say about him? He had no knowledge—and he says this—of building safety regulations. His job—and Rydon’s—was to save costs. Here’s an example. Harley Facades put up the cladding and negotiated that they would make savings.
Rydon then never declared to Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management organisation, the client, that it pocketed some of these savings. Lawrence is quite open in saying this is about profitability for the company.
All throughout the play, there’s a constant reference to lack of accountability. A lawyer for many of the bereaved and survivors says there seemed to be an epidemic of incompetence. This includes the fact the government ignored recommended changes to building standards in 2015.
This all ties up with the testimony of the lawyer Leslie Thomas, who raises issues of racial discrimination, and the evacuation of people with mobility issues. Some 15 out of 37 people with mobility issues who were living in the tower died.
Thomas says the borough is majority white, yet almost 80 percent of people who died were black—many from a Muslim background. Race is the elephant in the room—race and class. Because the play is so strong on issues of accountability, I felt uncomfortable with its inclusion of testimony from firefighter, David Badillo.
Shortly after David arrived on site, he was asked by a distressed family member of a 12 year old, who was on her own at home, to find her. He went upstairs to get her. But he didn’t knock on the door of the flat next door, where a family died.
David is tortured by this—he admits it’s a mistake he made and weeps when he gives evidence about it. But I wasn’t sure what the play was trying to say. If it’s about value engineering, why bring this story into it?
If it wanted to make a point about the failings of the London Fire Brigade—and there are many in terms of failing equipment—then that should have been included. I was uncomfortable that it singled out a low-ranking firefighter. The play also doesn’t feature testimony from Arconic—who are the villains of the piece. They sold the cladding used on Grenfell and lied about its specification.
Still, this play is all about exposing the corruption in the construction and the manufacturing industry. It’s about the developers and their links to powerful bodies, whether they be local authorities or the government. For people who are not familiar with the merry go round of buck passing, you come away from the play with no doubt that profit was put before people’s safety.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot