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Grenfell Tower tragedy: why?

16th June 2017

Grenfell Tower tragedy: why?

By Mick Brooks

First we must offer our condolences to the friends and relatives of the victims of this terrible event. We don’t know what caused the fire. We don’t know what the final victim count will be.  We do know that this should never have happened and must never happen again.

First we need to spell out the positives. The work emergency services, particularly the firefighters were tireless and heroic. The response from the local community to support those made homeless was brilliant. Volunteers have been working all the hours.

Unfortunately the official reaction from Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Tory government has been at best dilatory and at worst an attitude of stony indifference.

The horrifying pictures of the flames leaping up the tower block show that Grenfell Tower was not properly fireproofed. Yet there had been a refurbishment last year. The visual evidence in the photos is that the cladding actually fed the flames.

The type of cladding used can have a plastic or a fire retardant mineral core. Plastic cladding is banned in the USA, but plastic is cheaper. A fire retardant core in the cladding for the whole of Grenfell Tower would only have cost an extra £5,000, but someone thought saving a little money was more important than saving the lives of working class people.

Likewise the tenants have been complaining that the gas pipes recently installed were not boxed in with fireproof materials. The fire alarm installed during the refurbishment was inaudible. The emergency instruction to stay in your flat in the event of a fire may have led to the death of tenants of the tower.

Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, a former firefighter, has queried why sprinklers were not installed as a safety measure. Former Tory Housing Minister Brandon Lewis admitted automatic sprinklers save lives, but said it was not the government’s responsibility to encourage developers to fit them. Apparently they are expensive, so the decision should be left to the builders.

The ‘Guardian’ has accused, “a government in hock to a grasping building industry running a policy of austerity that has starved local councils of cash”. Cuts kill.

The refurbishment was carried out by a firm called Rydon. As usual these days much of the work was subcontracted out. So we have a chain of subcontractors, none of whom are responsible for the success and safety of the project as a whole. Each can blame the others for any faults. Rydon has responded curtly to questions and deadbatted to the effect that existing building regulations were adhered to. So that’s good enough, then.

In 2009 there was a fire at Lakanal House, South London, in which six people died. The coroner made a number of recommendations in order that no such tragedy should ever happen again. His recommendations were ignored. It was quite clear then that existing building regulations were inadequate for fire prevention. The government has since dithered and dithered. No new regulations have been drawn up.

Grenfell Tower was social housing. Management of the block was handed over by the Council to Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. KCTMO has relentlessly brushed aside complaints from the Grenfell Action Group for years. The tenants seemingly have no way of making their concerns and fears known. The Grenfell Action Group commented in 2016:
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. ..Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.”

KCTMO’s bureaucratic arrogance is part of a wider problem. Kensington and Chelsea is one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world. Yet the area around Grenfell Tower is desperately poor and has been treated by the Council, Tory since the year dot, like part of the third world. Volunteers and donations flooded in after the disaster, yet those people desperate to offer their help complain of a lack of co-ordination that should have been led by the Council.

Boris Johnson as Mayor of London closed three fire stations close to the area. Paul Embury, the Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, predicted at the time that he would have “blood on his hands. It will be only a matter of time before someone dies because a fire engine did not get to them in time. You cannot close 10 fire stations and slash nearly 600 firefighter jobs without compromising public safety.” When questioned about the closure of frontline services in London at the London Assembly, Johnson told his critics to “get stuffed”.

The Grenfell Tower tragedy has unleashed widespread and justified anger. The incident shows that, to the Tory establishment, working class lives just don’t matter. It shows all that is wrong and rotten in Tory Britain. The government is offering an enquiry. The fear is that this will just kick all the problems raised into the long grass.

There is understandable panic among high rise residents all over the country about their own safety. They deserve better than bland assurances from the likes of KCTMO. We need proper answers and we need them now. If plastic cladding is a fire hazard, then it must go, no matter how much it costs. Austerity is all too often penny wise and pound foolish.

In the meantime the plight of those made homeless must be urgently addressed. Residents of Grenfell Tower fled in their pyjamas and lost everything. They have to be urgently rehoused. They must be housed nearby with their families and friends in support, and their children’s access to their local school maintained.

That is why Jeremy Corbyn’s call for empty houses in the Borough to be requisitioned is correct and necessary. There are almost 20,000 empty homes in London, more than a thousand in Kensington and Chelsea alone. Many of these are owned by shady trusts operating out of tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, as what even Boris Johnson described as “gold bullion in the sky”. It is grotesque that, in the face of desperate human need, these houses remain empty. Hopefully the Grenfell Tower tragedy will be a wake-up call, leading to a major reversal of the priorities in Tory Britain where profit is more important than people.

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