It has been bizarre to hear the London Fire Brigade taking the brunt of the blame for the deaths of 72 people at Grenfell Tower. Its commissioner Dany Cotton certainly deserves condemnation for persisting in telling residents to stay put when it ought to have been clear early on that fire was engulfing the building and it needed to be evacuated. Her suggestion that she ‘wouldn’t change anything we did on the night’ — in spite of the role her advice played in boosting the death toll — compounds her errors. Yet by the time the fire service arrived, tragedy was already assured. To pin the blame on Ms Cotton, or anyone in the fire service, risks missing the moral of Grenfell.
The chief failings lie with those who allowed a 23-storey tower block to be clad in flammable material. We haven’t heard much about that side of the story this week because Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s report is, oddly, divided into two parts. Only the events of the night of the disaster are covered in the report so far published. We will have to wait years for the next instalment, which asks how the building became a death trap. The delay is all the more puzzling given that a lot of evidence on this matter has already been put to the inquiry.
The flames at Grenfell had not even been extinguished before the tragedy was being enlisted as a political weapon — the conceit was that deregulation caused the deaths, along with austerity, capitalism and contempt for the poor. In one especially fatuous contribution, the then Labour MP Chris Williamson declared, ‘It’s time we put neo-liberalism on trial for Grenfell.’
Yet the flammable cladding used at Grenfell had been installed in Labour council-owned blocks and also in private blocks with half-million-pound apartments. Far from being a victim of ‘austerity’, Grenfell had just been refurbished at a cost equating to more than £70,000 per flat, mostly public money. As for the charge of ‘neo-liberalism’, Grenfell Tower was managed not by a profit-driven corporation but by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation — a not-for-profit body set up with the aim of making council tenants more involved in running their homes, and whose board was made up of eight residents, four councillors and three independent members. One former board member was the local Labour MP Emma Dent Coad.
The charge of deregulation has hardly been challenged either — and it needs to be. People died at Grenfell not because of insufficient volume of regulations but because of a toxic surfeit of bad ones. What was important got lost in a fog of petty rules that obscured the view of Kensington and Chelsea’s building control officers on their 16 visits to inspect the refurbishment works.
Building regulations have grown exponentially since the first national standards were introduced in 1965. The two volumes of the fire safety regulations alone run to 384 pages. Altogether, they run to thousands. To read them is to enter a bizarre world of bureaucratic exactness on the one hand and dangerous complacency on the other.
Doorbells, they stipulate, must be placed at a height of between 45cm and 120cm above ground level, while switches for fridges and cookers must be at between 135cm and 145cm. Quite why it doesn’t say. Any place designed for a wheelie bin must be accessible by a sloping path with a clear width of 105cm — apparently so that wheelchair-users can put the rubbish out. And so on, for thousands of pages. Yet the rather more fundamental issue of how you save the inhabitants of a tower-block fire is dismissed with the words: ‘Simultaneous evacuation of all flats is unlikely to be necessary due to compartmentation’ — in other words, fires are not supposed to spread outside individual flats, so there is no need to worry. But what if, as at Grenfell, they do?
When it comes to the use of thermoplastic cladding materials in high-rise buildings — such as the composite window panels implicated in the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell and which firefighters had warned about for years before that — the regulations merely state: ‘No guidance for European fire test performance is currently available, because there is no generally accepted test and classification procedure.’ It makes you want to scream: why on earth didn’t they develop such a test rather than pettifog over the heights of switches? Technicians didn’t seem to have a problem finding a way of testing cladding materials for flammability in the months after Grenfell, when dozens of samples were exposed to flame and found to have little resistance.
Reading through the building regulations, you get a feel of how they have ended up as they are. Huge volumes of rules have been added in response to the highest–profile causes such as disability discrimination and fighting climate change.
The latter, indeed, played a rarely acknowledged role in the Grenfell disaster, in that the fashion for retrofitting tower blocks with cladding has been driven by targets to reduce carbon emissions. Kensington and Chelsea, for example, has a ‘Vision Carbon Zero’, seeking to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2030, partly through retro-fitting homes with better insulation. Fine, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of fire safety. The latter got pushed down the list of government housing priorities as more fashionable issues dominated. It is like the encouragement of diesel cars, where the aim of cutting carbon emissions was allowed to rule over wider concerns of air pollution.
One factor which contributed to the loss of life at Grenfell dates from well before Mrs Thatcher and privatisation. It goes back to the golden age of council housing — the practice of building tower blocks with a single staircase. Design a low-rise building and you must include multiple fire escapes; put up a 23-storey tower block and, perversely, you don’t need a single one. Thousands of people today live in buildings where similarly fatal risks apply.
To say that austerity and deregulation somehow cost 72 lives at Grenfell is to wilfully ignore the tragic truth: that plenty of money was spent, plenty of inspectors were deployed and hundreds of pages of rules were written. It was state management and regulation that failed, not privatisation. It is those lethal failures which need to be addressed.