At the corner of Lancaster Road and St Marks Road on Thurday, a day after the fire, a bevvy of shuffling journalists and beefy roadies lugging cables and camera gear jostled for position a few hundred metres from Grenfell Tower this morning. I arrived at 5.50am for a media hit with Sky News and was immediately struck by two paradoxes. Firstly the acrid stench in the air – as if burnt plastic had replaced blossom – masked what should have been a beautiful summer morning. Secondly, against the serenity of million pound houses palisading the streets of W11 was the ghastly vacuum of inequality and desolation still charring in the near distance.
While it would be wrong to pre-empt the investigation into this tragic event, it’s fair to suggest that a lack of sprinkler systems, alarms and clear communication for tenants were all contributing factors of varying degrees here.
The social housing block, managed by an arms-length managing organisation, would have been seeking to minimise costs against a backdrop of cuts right across the board in public housing. It’s not clear whose ultimate responsibility it was; self-run management bodies rely, after all, on consultants and experts to tick the boxes and make things safe.
Where are the safeguards? And would this have ever happened in a private block full of rich folk? It’s very, very unlikely. While this terrible disaster shouldn’t be turned into a class debate, it further highlights issues of housing as a class divide in London – underlining the critical need for proper social housing funding, radical steps to better address standards and an end to the sap where government’s only route to housing those in need is to tap private developers while taking little long-term interest themselves.
My proof for that is the refusal of successive governments to undertake widespread development, or to maintain social housing budgets which saw millions of pounds wiped off them two years ago following the 1 percent cut to social rents demanded by David Cameron in a bid to trim down benefits. If housing is so important, why do we not have a cabinet minister following through the many empty promises we hear time and again? This was one of the things I called for in media commentary we gave on this terrible and preventable event.
Much of the media coverage on Thursday morning was predictably judgmental, attacking the wife and naming the children of construction bosses involved with refurbishing the stricken tower last year. Trawling innocent people’s Facebook pages for holiday snaps achieves nothing other than spreading misery.
I spoke to someone close to the cladding firm Wednesday night who said they were “devastated”. They contested media reports that fire breakers between floors had not been replaced after the building’s 2016 refurbishment.
The investigation will prove things one way or the other.
Much scrutiny has also focused on the cladding itself: did it make things worse?
According to sources, Reneybond was the ultimate manufacturer of the aluminum composite material (ACM) used at Grenfell which is claimed to be fire-resistant and compliant with modern building regualtions. Indeed, a building inspector’s report would have to have been produced at the time of the refurbishment.
A definition taken from the website of a building supplies company with no connection to these tragic events contains a pretty detailed explanation of aluminium composite or ACM material, which they say is “a type of cladding made from two faces of aluminium bonded to a central dark neoprene core. It is becoming the ideal choice for buildings with a contemporary design concept where budget is of utmost importance.”
So it has plastic in the middle and is relatively cheap. But this doesn’t mean it was at fault, although many experts believe it could have been. If it was, then this has serious consequences for the thousands of buildings probably using the stuff.
In modern buildings, every compartment needs to be fire insulated to stop fire breakout. In plain English, if fire breaks out through windows, this stops it going up or down the building. The images of flames shown on TV this week show the cladding acting as a chimney – sucking in air which rushes up, feeding and spreading the fire.
These sorts of fire breakers were introduced about 20 years ago, while around five years ago, horizontal and vertical fire separations between compartments were brought in. This means that in modern buildings, fire can blow out the window but can’t go up, down, left or right.
We must avoid any knee-jerk responses deeming all new tall buildings unsafe. What we should do however, is properly check older buildings but ensure they have the operational procedures in place to cope with a major crisis. The best performing buildings can be undermined by poor management – and this is where investment and training are often most needed.
When people look back on this terrible incident, we need to have learned from it. Insisting on an independent judge-led public inquiry makes sense and those who are responsible must be held to account. But this shouldn’t be solely about blame, however much the media lens loves it: it should be about effecting positive change.