First Phase Of Grenfell Inquiry Released

The first phase of the two-part Grenfell Inquiry was released earlier this week, concluding that failings in the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) response, combined with flaws inherent in the building’s construction to cause a disaster unprecedented in British social housing history.  

The report, conducted by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, confirmed that the fire was started by a technical fault in a fridge-freezer unit on the fourth floor of the 24-story block shortly before 1:00am on 14 June 14 2017. Despite Behailu Kebede – the resident of the afflicted flat – doing everything he ought to have done to prevent it spreading, by the time firefighters arrived twenty minutes later, the fire had spread to the outside of the building. The report finds that the presence of aluminum composite rainscreen panels with highly combustible polyethylene cores was a major cause of the fire’s fierceness, as it rapidly engulfed the external cladding that had been installed as part of a recent renovation project.  

The Inquiry’s findings make grim reading for the LFB, which can take scant consolation from the praise rightly conferred upon the brave actions of those on the ground when contrasted with institutional failings on so broad a scale. LFB commissioner Dany Cotton’s bizarre insistence in her evidence that she “wouldn’t change anything we did” sounds all the uglier in the light of revelations that the incident commanders were not trained to recognize or respond to a fire on the external wall of a high-rise building, there was no contingency plan for evacuation, and that advice for residents to stay put ought to have been revoked significantly earlier than it was. In the words of Moore-Bick, the commissioner’s evidence “only serves to demonstrate that the LFB is an institution at risk of not learning the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire.”

Yet, the extent to which firefighters can rightly be held accountable for the tragedy is limited. As Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, has been keen to point out, there was little the LFB could have done by the time they arrived as the building was already a “death trap.” His scrutiny for the order of the Inquiry – the first phase of which establishes the immediate causes of the fire before a second phase will establish the deeper issue of why this was able to happen in the first place – seems apposite, given that it prioritizes criticism of firefighters over “critical issues of public safety that led to the fire.” While to many, the instruction for residents to stay put sounds absurd, it is sound advice in the event that the fire is effectively compartmented – a system that failed in this instance due to flammable cladding and the absence of effective self-closing devices on entrance doors to certain flats. 

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grenfell tragedy for many affected by it, will no doubt be how easily it could have been foreseen and therefore prevented. On 20 November 2016, an eerily prescient blogpost by the Grenfell Action Group entitled ‘Playing with Fire’ was published. Written seven months prior to the fire, the post constitutes a damning indictment of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which managed the borough’s entire social housing stock from 1996, before transferring ownership back to the council in the wake of the disaster. Referring to the KCTMO’s management as a “mini-mafia”, the post predicts prophetically that “a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice.”

Precisely who ought to bear the brunt of the blame for this tragedy is so difficult to determine because it goes directly to the heart of mistakes made in British housing policy for decades. A gradual shift in the attitudes of both major parties after the Second World War towards residualization – whereby council housing is considered a provision of last resort, rather than a national asset for the benefit of the entire social strata – has combined with Margaret Thatcher’s notorious ‘Right to Buy’ scheme to manufacture a prolonged housing crisis. In such circumstances, inter-class animosity is exploited by programs such as ‘Benefits Street’ and cynical politicians who foster the kind of widespread indifference towards the conditions of social housing, which sees pleas such as those of the Grenfell Action Group get missed. Whether or not the lessons learned from this tragic event will lead to a substantial shift in the national attitude towards housing policy remains to be seen. Until the second phase of the report is completed, however, this seems particularly unlikely.