In the early hours of Wednesday 14 June 2017, more than 200 firefighters and 40 fire engines were dispatched to a fire blazing at a 24-storey block of flats in North Kensington, London. 72 people perished in Grenfell Tower. Now two years on, 1 in 10 of those from the tower and 1 in 3 of those affected in the wider estates have still not been given permanent homes. More than 300 high-rise buildings in the UK continue to be wrapped in the now banned combustible cladding and no arrests have been made for the 72 innocent lives stolen. Grassroots organizations and committed, passionate locals and activists continue to raise awareness and promote change, but their passion does not seem to be met by government officials who have the power to implement policy, but have yet to make any real progress.
The fire was not started deliberately; the speed in which it spread was due to the installation of flammable cladding throughout the Tower. This insulation failed all preliminary tests by the police, and documents obtained by the BBC reported that the original cladding had at some point been changed for a cheaper version. It was largely due to this injudicious scrimping of costs that the fire was as deadly and damaging as it was; nearly £300,000 was saved when the cladding was replaced with aluminium, which is less fire resistant. According to the BBC, this was due to the council and the local tenant management organization wanting to reduce spending and cut the costs of refurbishments. These failures displayed by our very own government and council leaders led to 72 deaths. This year marked the second anniversary of the tragedy and unfortunately little change is being seen, with a worrying lack of urgency from the government in addressing faulty fire regulations. Mark Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said: “the second anniversary of Grenfell must be a moment of both heartfelt reflection and determined action. […] After two years, the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is no closer in tackling any of the underlying causes of the tragedy. […] We demand urgent action from the government to ensure that the events of Grenfell Tower can never happen again”.
On 24 May 2019, Theresa May announced her resignation as the leader of the Conservative Party. In her speech, she expressed deep regret that she did not deliver on Brexit but spoke of her pride in the progress that she has made with Grenfell in setting up the independent inquiry to “search for the truth […] so the people who lost their lives that night are not forgotten”. However, the current Conservative government has made little progress in righting the wrongs of that night and ensuring that we do not risk – as Matt Wrack suggests – “sleepwalking into another catastrophic loss of life”. 24 months on, despite initial promises that everyone made destitute would be re-homed three weeks after the fire, there are still families living in emergency and temporary accommodation. The inquiry that May proudly spoke of has delayed a report on the night of the tragedy until October this year, with community-led organization Justice4Grenfell criticizing the delay and claiming that its lack of transparency and a “culture of secrecy and exclusion” has damaged people’s confidence. They added that “it is unacceptable that nearly two years on, not one single recommendation has been made”.
One change that was implemented by the Government happened in November of last year, with the banning of combustible cladding on new buildings over 18 metres tall. Although this looks like positive progression, the ban barely addresses all immediate risks, because it will not be enforced retrospectively and will only apply to new buildings or refurbishments and not to any buildings still enclosed in flammable, dangerous material. According to the FBU, there are still 328 residential and public buildings using the same cladding as that on Grenfell Tower. This drew the attention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who said that the continued existence of buildings wrapped in the banned combustible cladding displays a failure to protect lives and is therefore a violation of Article 2 of the Human Rights Act: the right to life. In a report, they also stated that when residents living in Grenfell Tower reported unsafe cladding to the authorities, no immediate action was taken, therefore additionally breaching the residents’ right to life. Furthermore, the safety notices given to residents were all in English, a language not spoken by many Grenfell occupants. The Commission therefore stated that “this was a fundamental failure by the authorities to meet victims’ needs and protect their right to life”. The failures witnessed two years ago were detrimental and should have set a precedent for today, to ensure no more loss of life. On 10th June of this year, a six-storey flat in De Pass Gardens – wrapped in banned cladding – was destroyed by a fire. Fortunately, no lives were lost. This does however bear witness to the widespread apathy of our government and the passivity shown by local councils in changing housing policies to protect human life.
Grenfell tower was a public building owned by Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council, who house some of Britain’s lowest income citizens. These families do not have the available means to be fastidious with where they live and so they rely on their local councils to protect and provide shelter that is safe and comfortable; a fundamental right deserved by all. The most vulnerable citizens should be safeguarded and supported; it is the rights of these families that construction companies and the local council revoked when they knowingly chose cheaper, highly flammable cladding for Grenfell Tower, ending the lives of 72 people and disrupting the lives of many others. Our government is allowing other families to live and sleep in dangerous buildings wrapped in material that has been proven to destroy lives. This is shamefully inadequate.
We are witnessing a shift in our Government as we are awaiting a newly, un-elected Prime Minister to be chosen via the Conservative Party. Former London Mayor and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the favourite to win. Whilst Mayor, Johnson presided over the closure of 10 fire stations and the removal of 27 fire engines, as reported by Business Insider. This is not to say that he is solely responsible for Grenfell, but current and future leaders of our country must be questioned and challenged on what they have or will do to change failures in this country that are ultimately leading to the loss of life. Saving money – specifically £300,000 – was one of the main reasons for the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower, but surely the cost of human life is invaluable. The most disadvantaged citizens in society do not deserved to be cast aside and left to rely on luck when sleeping at night in buildings wrapped in unsafe cladding. Members of Parliament, many of whom no doubt rest easy at night, must be held responsible for their carelessness and the lack of urgency shown to the victims of Grenfell Tower and the thousands more people living in buildings possibly moments away from replicating the fire on 14th June 2017.
We must remain outspoken about Grenfell and continue to put pressure on our government and local councils. The night before the second anniversary, tower blocks across London, Greater Manchester and Newcastle were lit up in a series of guerrilla projections. The Guardian reported that messages such as, “2 years after Grenfell and this building is still covered in dangerous cladding #DemandChange” were illuminated on a building in Salford. Justice4Grenfell now hold a silent walk on the fourteenth of each month to show solidarity for the victims of Grenfell and the thousands more people still living in unsafe buildings. The courageous work being carried out by members of the public needs to be matched by Members of Parliament, to ensure that they are governing change and using their platform and power to give back and protect the communities who need it the most. We must not sit back and watch thousands of people put at risk each day by our government. Join the marches and write to your local councils demanding change, but do not become silent. Speak up and use your most valuable defence: your voice.