The opening of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is good news. It will now become harder for politicians and campaigners to do as they did in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and exploit it for their own ends.
The 72 who died were not victims of an uncaring government bureaucracy, as some on the right have said. Nor was this about austerity and ‘Tory cuts’. The costs of the renovation which had been completed shortly before the fire worked out at more than £70,000 per flat: money had been spent, and an expensive deathtrap unwittingly created. The company which managed the block, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) was no heartless international corporation but a not-for-profit company set up with the express purpose of bringing management of social housing closer to the people who live in it.
Those who managed the block cannot be called uncaring. They were council tenants and local councillors — including, in the past, Emma Dent Coad, the Labour MP for Kensington. It was, or was supposed to be, exactly the sort of organisation involving local people and unsullied by shareholder’s demands which Jeremy Corbyn often advocates.
But no one is in any doubt that Grenfell was a catastrophic failure, and one of the most shameful episodes of modern British history. Those who died were in the care of the state — that is to say, in our collective care. The evidence heard so far reflects badly on many of the agencies and individuals involved, including councillors, contractors and fire service chiefs. What we have learned echoes many other disasters which have involved the heavy loss of life. The event, and in particular the scale of the casualties, was not the product of one failing but the result of an interaction of many and complex failings.
Take the issue of building regulations. Look what happens when you strip away red tape, went the argument — rules keep people safe, the lack of them kills. Yet people did not die at Grenfell for lack of building regulations, of which reams exist, growing by the year. The problem was more one of regulatory overload — in the mass of rules, simple things were overlooked. Basic points became hard to see. It seems astonishing now that anyone would even think of cladding a high-rise tower block with flammable material. When it was built in the relatively lightly regulated 1970s, the block purposely had a concrete exterior so that flames could not spread up the outside of the building. Yet when the block came to be refurbished, the demands of sound and noise insulation — perfectly legitimate in themselves — somehow came to obscure and trump concerns over fire.
Even so, it is extraordinary that no one, from architect to contractor, raised the issue of flammable cladding. The sheer number of architects, engineers, contractors, sub-contractors and inspectors who were involved is astonishing. Somehow, no single person had outright responsibility for how the building was refurbished.
Over the coming weeks the inquiry will turn over and over the decision of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns Grenfell Tower, to refurbish the block. One issue that needs to be addressed is why money was spent on cosmetics, rather than safety. There seems to be a fundamental issue with a 24-storey block which has only one staircase. There was surely a strong case for spending very little money on the outside of the building until such time as it could be replaced with more satisfactory housing.
Then there is the role of the London Fire Brigade. Quite rightly, admiration is due to emergency workers who are prepared to rush towards danger when others are rushing away. Yet as Andrew O’Hagan argues in his lengthy piece in the London Review of Books, such admiration should not be allowed to cloud the failures of those supervising the rescue. In particular the advice to residents to stay put in their flats rather than attempt to escape. Such advice may have been apt in the case of previous, smaller, fires which can quickly be contained but as we have learned from the evidence presented to the inquiry, that advice was being issued long after the nature of the fire rendered it invalid.
Public inquiries have not had a good press in recent years. Too often they have been set up to serve a political purpose and have then dragged on for years without proper focus or an idea of what they are supposed to achieve. The Grenfell Inquiry presents an opportunity to salvage their reputation. Here, there is a very clear purpose: to establish exactly what happened on the night of 14 June last year, minute by minute, and to inform regulatory changes to ensure that the disaster is not repeated.
Each year, tens of millions travel by air: this is so safe because from the early years of aviation, every disaster has been followed by an investigation which painstakingly reconstructed the events and pointed towards what needed to be changed. It is time for the political fury around Grenfell to dissipate and for the full facts to be teased out. Understandable though the emotional response of the survivors, the victims’ families and the wider public is, it is only forensic analysis that is going to stop a repeat of this calamity.
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