Grenfell Tower Fire: A (Non-)Progress Report

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Today, June 14, is the second anniversary of the GrenFell Tower fire in London, a public housing block where 72 people died in a conflagration where the proximate cause was inflammable cladding installed on the outside of the building during a remodelling, and the ultimate cause was Thatcherite deregulation and a neoliberal infestation in London’s Housing authority (see NC here). From a photo essay, also at NC, published in the immediate aftermath of the fire, you can see the Brutalist tower sticking out of the London skyline like a rotten tooth and a harbinger of a future Dystopia:

(Pleasingly, the London authorities are considering turning Grenfell Tower into a monument — to what, I am not quite sure[1].) As if on cue, on June 12, we had a second fire, in the London district of Barking, where the proximate cause was also inflammable cladding[1]. Here it is:

(The Barking apartments are billed as “luxury.” Maybe now regulation will get some traction.) On the cladding, from the Barking and Dagenham News, “Cladding on Barking block where flats were destroyed by blaze was not fire retardant, developer reveals.” Oh:

During a meeting at the Thames View Community Centre, developer Bellway Homes’ regional chairman Ian Gorst was asked by one of the residents whether the cladding on Samuel Garside House, in De Pass Gardens, Barking Riverside, was fire retardant.

He said: “The cladding is not fire retardant.”

Mr Gorst clarified: “Every building needs to be built and constructed in accordance with building regulations.

“In terms of non-combustible materials, the requirements comes in above 18 metres and the building itself is 13.75.

“There is no legal requirement to build out of non-combustible materials.”

([puts head in hands].) So, as soon as we dolly back from proximate to ultimate — six inches, maybe — we see a failure of regulation as well. It would seem that little progress has been made, at least as far as the safety of tenants is concerned. In this post, I’ll focus on the cladding issue, the failure of regulators to regulate, and a lawsuit just brought by Grenfell tenants, in Philadelphia, against the cladding manufacturer.

Inflammable Cladding Everywhere

From the Independent, “Government warned of another Grenfell-type disaster as 60,000 people still living in buildings covered in same flammable material“:

Almost 60,000 people are still living in tower blocks covered in the highly flammable material that was used on Grenfell Tower, two years on from the blaze at the west London block, new figures have revealed.

There are 24,800 homes in high-rise blocks that are still covered in Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding that is “unlikely to meet building regulations”, ministers admitted.

And then, besides cladding, there are sprinkler systems to think of. From the Fire Brigades Union:

Coroners’ reports have called for sprinkler systems to be fitted, but so far only 32 out of 837 council tower blocks over 30m tall have sprinklers.

Failure of Regulators to Regulate

From the Guardian, “Grenfell residents’ rights were breached – equalities watchdog.” This is brutal:

After a 15-month investigation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said “the state either knew, or ought to have known, of the real and immediate risk to life posed by the cladding on Grenfell Tower”, and that regulation had failed and that it had also failed to tell residents about the dangers they faced.

“Everyone has the right to life and the right to safe adequate housing, but the residents of Grenfell Tower were tragically let down by the public bodies that had a duty to protect them,” said David Isaac, the chairman of the EHRC.

The EHRC pointed the finger at the central government and at Kensington and Chelsea, which owned the tower. It said the use of combustible cladding raised questions about “whether the UK has met its duty to protect life“. It warned that, with 354 high-rise residential and public buildings with ACM cladding yet to be fixed, “the failure to protect lives and violation of article 2 [of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to life)] continues”.

“Grenfell raises many questions about the suitability of the housing in the tower, for example, placing older, vulnerable and disabled people on upper floors,” it said. “Many of the people killed by the fire were older people who were housed at height.”

Firefighters have told the inquiry they did not know how to tackle the fire in the building’s cladding, and the watchdog said the government would be in breach of its duties under the European convention on human rights if it did not train firefighters to do so. It must also reconsider stay-put policies for buildings with similar cladding. Many Grenfell residents died after following advice to stay in their flats which was based on any fire remaining being contained.

Other issues that could amount to breaches of human rights include a lack of planning for what to do with evacuated residents, poor and sometimes non-existent consultation with residents and that “responsible authorities did not make reasonable adjustments for disabled people living in Grenfell Tower”.

It said: “The state has failed, and continues to fail, to meet its equality and non-discrimination obligations, in particular in relation to disabled people, older people, women and children and, in particular, ethnic minority groups.”

Yes, putting the weak where they are most likely to die in a fire is a nice touch (see Rule #2 of neoliberalism). And of course the human rights violations are on-going for 60,000 people.

Lawsuit on Cladding by Grenfell Tenants

From Insurance Journal, “Lawsuit Filed for ‘Defective’ Products Linked to London’s Grenfell Tower Fire Disaster” (two days before the statute of limitations would have expired):

[T]he exterior cladding, which was manufactured by Aconic Inc.[2], and “highly combustible insulation” manufactured by Celotex Corp., part of Saint-Gobain Corp., said the complaint.

“The highly flammable cladding turned Grenfell Tower into a flaming coffin, entrapping the residents and their guests and sentencing the victims to agonizing and painful deaths by burning and suffocation,” said the lawsuit. (Estate of Gloria Trevisan, et al. vs. Arconic, Inc., et al., Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, June 2019: 005311.)…

The lawsuit demands a jury trial in Philadelphia County and seeks undetermined compensation, including punitive damages, on behalf of 247 plaintiffs, who include 69 of the 72 killed and others who “sustained life-altering injuries.” (Two of the defendants are headquartered in Pennsylvania — Arconic and Saint-Gobain — while Whirlpool[3] is based in Benton Harbor, Mich.)

The Arconic cladding product is marketed under the trade name “Reynobond PE,” which the complaint said cannot be installed in U.S. high-rise buildings higher than 40 feet “due to its highly flammable nature.” The Grenfell Tower was more than 200 feet tall.

As a result, Arconic was “determined to exploit the European market and export the danger abroad that they couldn’t sell at home,” said the complaint.

“Through its behavior, Arconic sent the message that foreign lives are worth less than American lives…,” the complaint continued.

The lawsuit accused Celotex of selling insulation, which it knew “was highly combustible and was not fit or suitable for use in external cladding for buildings….” The complaint further accused Celotex of “fraudulently” manipulating test results to hide the product’s flammable nature.

The bastards are trying to penalize regulatory arbitrage! (Oddly, or not, Aconic tried to sell its cladding business in 2018.) The New York Times, “Survivors of London’s Grenfell Fire Sue in Philadelphia Court,” explains the choice of venue:

For a disaster that enraged Britons and set off sprawling investigations in London, the venue for the lawsuit — the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas — was unorthodox.

But it reflected an increasingly prevalent dilemma for lawyers bringing cases against multinational corporations. Drawn to American courts for plaintiff-friendly liability laws and the opportunity for big payouts, the lawyers and their clients must nevertheless contend with questions about when American rules should apply in disasters abroad….

British courts, on the whole, are much more deferential to businesses. Punitive damages are uncommon in Britain, on the theory that excessively penalizing companies could become a burden to them. The American system, on the other hand, treats punitive damages against companies as an incentive for them to follow the law, and often puts cases in front of juries, which tend to award larger payouts.

Are “foreign lives…worth less than American lives”? An interesting question indeed! Our foreign policy (and immigration policies) would argue that indeed they are.

Conclusion

I don’t really know what to conclude from all this, except “nobody could have predicted,” or, with affirmative cynicism, “everything’s going according to plan. I hate words like “victim” or “survivor,” because I think they put those to whom they are applied in a “one-up” position with regard to ascribed virtue, but a one-down position in terms of actual power. So I’ll say “tenants.” Here is what the tenants are doing; their struggle (as with the lawsuit) is on-going, and must at some point become what life is, rather than an aberration to be followed by a return to normalcy. From the Mirror:

Representatives from Grenfell United said they were still waiting for change and justice.

Ed Daffarn said: “We’ve warned you before Grenfell Two is in the post and you must act.”

Mr Daffarn, who fled the 16th floor of the West London tower, was speaking in Parliament to mark the second anniversary this Friday of the fire that killed 72 people.

He told MPs and ministers that the survivors had been let down at every stage.

“Like a tragedy in three acts our community was failed before, during and after the fire,” he said.

“In the days after the fire the Government promised no stone would be left unturned in addressing the causes of the fire. We were promised justice and we promised change.

“However, two years on the reality is that little has changed and justice seems as far away as ever.

“Unsafe cladding is still on blocks across the country, fire regulations have yet to change, the social housing regulator that so utterly let us down is still in place,” he said.

Mr Daffarn said that “tens of thousands of people” across the country are still living in buildings covered in dangerous cladding.

“We cannot bring back our loved ones but we can make sure justice is served and change is achieved. Please do not fail us,” he added.

There’s a lot of labor in an appearance before Parliament, not just by the speaker but by a team behind them; and the work is on-going in other venues, like the press, the courts, regulators, etc. A friend of mine referred to such uncompensated labor as “the cost of citizenship.” Perhaps a Jobs Guarantee could cover that; citizenship is definitely something we need more of.

NOTES

[1] I must say that a thin layer of surface decoration catching fire, and destroying the structure around which the installers — having intended concealment or a semblance of modernization or improvement — wrapped it, is an excellent metaphor for the methods and results of neoliberal policies generally. We have to set the building on fire so that we can find out what’s in it.

[2] Oddly, or not, Aconic tried to sell its cladding business in 2018.

[3] The Grenfell Fire started with a Whirlpool refrigerator (as the Barking fire is said to have started from a balcony barbecue). I am not treating those as “causes” because even the most fiery of refrigerators shouldn’t be able to burn down a building, and people have a reasonable expectation they can barbecue on their decks, ffs.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

17 comments

  1. Ignacio

    I took a look at UK building regulation and I found it a bit uncomplete except if there is, in addition, a specific regulation on refurbishing. Regarding safety against fire the 2010 code says:

    Fire safety information

    38.—(1) This regulation applies where building work—

    (a)consists of or includes the erection or extension of a relevant building; or

    (b)is carried out in connection with a relevant change of use of a building,

    So it appears that building refurbishing with no significant extension and/or change of use does not have to comply with fire safety rules described in the code. Is this a regulatory vacuum?

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’m not an expert on UK building regs, but I think you are correct to say that there is a known issue when works are considered minor and so don’t need renewed fire certs. Its a well known issue in fire safety that its easy to build a fireproof building, but impossible to prevent it becoming flammable once its in use as people have a habit of constantly changing things. Its 18 years since I lived and worked in the UK, but we’ve a similar system in Ireland and its something in my apartment building we are constantly bumping up against when works have to be carried out.

      The core problem of course with self certified systems (which the UK uses) is that its fine when there is a clear line of responsibility, but in buildings like Grenfell, by accident or design, the lines of responsibly became hopelessly blurred. So nobody was in the end responsible for the building being certified safe.

      It would be interesting to compare the care to refurbishments to the current ongoing refurbishment of the House of Parliament, likely to cost well in excess of £3.5 billion. Its notoriously difficult to fireproof historic buildings, but I’m sure they’ll try. I was recently on a tour of the Irish parliament building, which dates from the mid-18th Century. Every room is being fireproofed to a one hour standard (i.e. it should be able to ‘hold’ a fire from spreading for one hour), without any visual impact on the historic fabric, or requiring sprinklers. I would guess MP’s will ensure similar standards apply to their safety.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        A long time ago in Victoria in Australia the State Parliament struck down a requirement to get rid of asbestos out of the schools in that State. Then shortly after it was found that there was asbestos in the Parliament building so that whole place got shut down real quick as an expensive team was sent in to get rid of every vestige of asbestos in that place. Priorities man, priorities.
        That idea about leaving the building as it is would not be a bad one but without that concrete to hide its ugliness. At the end of the movie “The Towering Inferno” the architect, looking up at the burnt shell of the building, said that maybe they should leave it as it was as a sort of “shrine to all the bull**** in the world”. Grenfell could be a shrine to the costs of neoliberalism.

        Reply
  2. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Lambert.

    Last Sunday afternoon, the BBC interviewed some residents of the Barking complex. When one woman explained that over the past six years, residents have complained to the local authority, central government and building management company, she was immediately cut off by the interviewer.

    Margaret Hodge is MP for Barking. Until the BNP turned up in the mid noughties, she did not bother with constituents. Corbyn helped her see off the BNP threat, a fact she used to acknowledge.

    Last week, Hodge, whose family firm is one of the biggest unquoted firms in the UK and creative and efficient in its approach to tax, called Corbyn’s plans to end austerity, in all its forms, a bribe for votes.

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      So the British Ruling Class can learn:

      Was: Impoverish them, Flog them and Hang them

      Now: Impoverish them, Burn them

      They have learnt about efficiency, and removed one step. Only took a couple of hundred years. That’s progress!! /s

      Reply
    2. shinola

      “Last week, Hodge, whose family firm is one of the biggest unquoted firms in the UK and creative and efficient in its approach to tax, called Corbyn’s plans to end austerity, in all its forms, a bribe for votes.”

      If the payoff is an end to austerity, I would accept that bribe.

      Reply
    3. Synoia

      Hodge … called Corbyn’s plans to end austerity, in all its forms, a bribe for votes

      O Colonel, you miss the point. Hodge is an expert on bribes. /s

      How should we exchange email addresses?

      Reply
  3. Nancy kramer

    Where I live in Maryland barbequing on a townhouse deck or apartment balcony is against fire codes as it should. Probably that way in most places in the USA. That said I have known several people who do it. No fires resulted but the balconies were cement and the buildings were brick.
    The townhouse community where I live had a bad fire due to someone barbequing on a wood deck which also seriously damaged two adjacent houses.

    Reply
    1. Jim A.

      OTOH a friend had no problem with the wooden deck under his BBQ Grill. The heat tends to rise and the hot parts of the grill are about 2.5′ above the wood. The vinyl siding however got kind of melty, though

      Reply
  4. Clive

    While the flammable cladding was the cause of the huge loss of life, the source of ignition is suspected to be a Whirlpool refrigerator. The crapification continues apace here, because cheap, lightweight compressors and refrigerant piping requires a low pressure refrigerant.

    R600 — which is butane (and of course highly flammable) — is a recently permitted “new” refrigerant allowed, with low refrigerant charge limits admittedly, but then you don’t need much propane to cause a serious fire, to be used in domestic refrigerators. This might, just about, be okay so long as the refrigerator casing is nonflammable. But oh no. Cheap plastic cases are a proven fire hazard.

    Of course, there are far, far safer alternatives. Carbon dioxide (R744) makes an excellent refrigerant for medium and low temperature applications. It is not only non flammable, it is actually a fire suppressant. But it costs a lot more to manufacture the refrigeration side of a refrigerator using carbon dioxide as a refrigerant due to high operating pressures. These need thicker piping and heavier, better made compressors and heat exchangers. A price sensitive market deems this “too expensive”. So, go die in a fire. Literally.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      What? Butane encased in cheap plastic? What mass murderer thought of this and who approved it? And why aren’t they in prison or at least in bankruptcy? Or are some insurance companies selling murder insurance? But of course, like in America, they will be connected members of the Meritocracy, so it’s all good.

      Just when I was cynical and jaded enough not to be shocked. Neoliberalism allows one to fulfill their mass murder fetish and get a bonus for the profitable idea.

      I just cannot wait to see what someone else will do to surpass this, or going old time, something like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire or the Radium Girls.

      Reply
      1. james

        They might be going bust, in the UK after 5 years of prevarication they’ve finally been ordered to recall a few hundred thousand tumble dryers that occasionally self combust.

        Reply
      2. Synoia

        Thank you, My feelings exactly. I might add that butane indoors can form an explosive mixture, which is much deadlier than a fire.

        “Blown away” would be the proper description of the effect.

        Reply
      1. Ruby Furigana

        I agree. This is the first item in Lessons Learned:

        Those charged with inspecting life safety systems of multi-family dwellings must be trained to detect problems in the systems. Familiarity with sprinkler systems should be high on the list. Inspections of Schomburg Plaza after construction and during occupancy did not recognize that the compactor chute sprinkler system in the lower floors of the building had never been connected or tested, and the system on floors 13 through 35 had clogged heads. Also, the valve which controlled water to the sprinkler head over the compactor in the basement was not open.

        Reply

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