Phase One of Grenfell Tower Inquiry Released, Towers Not Up to Code, Suggestions for Firefighters

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

We’ve been following the Grenfell Tower story from the beginning (photo essay; one-month anniversary). From June of this year:

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.

The day after the fire, then-Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a public inquiry, “chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, with the immediate priority ‘to establish the facts of what happened at Grenfell Tower in order to take the necessary action to prevent a similar tragedy from happening again.'” The first hearing was held in September 2017, and the “Phase 1” report of the inquiry was issued today. The site for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry explains the phases:

The Inquiry is investigating a List of Issues that has been separated into two phases. Phase 1 focuses on the factual narrative of the events on the night of 14 June 2017. Hearings for Phase 1 began on 21 May 2018, and concluded on 12 December 2018…. Phase 2 of the Inquiry is focusing on the remainder of the list of issues and hearings are expected to begin in early 2020, following which the final report will be written and subsequently published.

The aspect of the “factual narrative” that the press seized on was, unsurprisingly, the London Fire Brigage: “London Fire Brigade failings worsened Grenfell Tower death toll: report.” This has ticked a lot of people off:

(Unsurprisingly, the Torygraph blames workers, and by implication big gummint.) A Labour candidate reacts:

Understandable, but not exactly a systemic approach. Labor leader Corbyn is better (but not, as we shall see, good enough):

And from the Labour press release:

“Given the huge strain on our fire service after years of Tory cuts, the next Labour Government will increase resources going to the fire service and recruit additional firefighters.”

However, if Corbyn doesn’t learn to shove in the shiv, Labour is going to lose an extremely consequential election in December. There are two words missing from Labour’s press release (and if Malcolm Tucker [NSFW] is working for Labour, he will be extremely unhappy, and anxious to share his unhappiness with others). One word “BoJo.” The other is “austerity.” The Artist Taxi Driver does better:

Because there’s entertaining footage like this floating about:

(Craig Murry has this excellent post on London Fire Brigade staffing figures and and austerity generally.)

With this review of hot takes out of the way, let’s take a brief look at the report. There are four volumes and an executive summary totaling 88 pages, and so my reading is very hasty.

First, blame or no, the narrative of the fire is really good, and the recommendation for changes to London Fire Brigade seem reasonable. From the Executive Summary:

33.19 LFB policies recognise that regular communication between the control room and the incident commander and between the incident commander and the bridgehead are essential to successful firefighting and rescue operations, particularly when dealing with large-scale incidents. However, at Grenfell Tower there was no regular communication between the control room and the incident commander or between the incident commander and the bridgehead. I therefore recommend that the LFB develop a communication system to enable direct communication between the control room and the incident commander and improve the means of communication between the incident commander and the bridgehead.

33.20 The methods used for transmitting from the control room to the bridgehead information about people needing rescue were disorganised and the line of communication was too extended. The arrangements for receiving and recording that information at the bridgehead were prone to failure and there was little, if any, means of capturing and transmitting to the control room information about the results of deployments to specific flats. I therefore recommend that the LFB investigate the use of modern communication techniques to provide a direct line of communication between the control room and the bridgehead, allowing information to be transmitted directly between the control room and the bridgehead and providing an integrated system of recording FSG information and the results of deployments.

I’m not a maven on firefighting technology, so I can’t speak to the technical issues. But the ideas seem entirely unexceptional. Given, of course, an end to austerity.

Second, Grenfell Towers was not up to code (via). From Volume I:

26.4 Although it was not originally my intention to reach conclusions in Phase 1 about the tower’s compliance with the Building Regulations, I can see no good reason why that question should not be determined now so far as it relates to the external facade. I accept that the construction of the Building Regulations is ultimately a question of law and there is compelling evidence that requirement B4(1) was not met in this case. It would be an affront to common sense to hold otherwise. Although in another context there might be room for argument about the precise scope of the word “adequately”, it inevitably contemplates that the exterior must resist the spread of fire to some significant degree appropriate to the height, use and position of the building. In this case, whether one considers the rainscreen panels alone or the cladding system as a whole, or even the complete external envelope, including the original concrete structure, it is clear that the walls did not resist the spread of fire. On the contrary, they promoted it, as can be seen in the video recordings of the rapidly developing fire which engulfed the building in just over 2.5 hours.

Third, the “List of Issues” to be covered in Phase II is ample in scope. For example, from “5) The fire and safety measures within the building at the time of the fire”:

(d) If the fire safety measures were not compliant [they were not[, what elements or aspects of the fire safety measures in place in the building at the time of the fire failed to comply with what elements or aspects of what regulations, legislation, British Standards, guidance, industry practice, and in each case to what extent?

(e) Why did each such failure occur?

(f) Who was responsible for such failures?

(g) What fire risk assessments had been made in relation to Grenfell Tower in the period January 2012-June 2017, including specifically at all times during the most recent modifications?

(h) What reports or conclusions are available concerning the same and what do they say?

(i) In what ways was the building intended to be resistant to the spread of fire?

(j) What was assumed (if anything) about the resistance of the building to the spread of fire?

(k) Were any checks or assessments or inspections made as to whether the actual condition of the building matched any assumptions made?

(l) What was the nature of such checks or assessments or inspections and who carried them out?

(m) What decisions about fire safety measures were made, by whom and when?

(n) What was the chain of decision-making, communication and responsibility about those matters?

On the one-month anniversary of the fire, we wrote:

So it’s entirely rational for tenants to think they’ll be displaced by “regeneration,” [our word is gentrification] and that their “own” local governments are siding with property developers against them:

Along the way, social housing has increasingly become the refuge of society’s poorest and most vulnerable. That tends to make such properties even more of a burden to manage, giving local councils greater incentive to let them run down and then sell them to developers.

The temptation is particularly great in Kensington and Chelsea, where an influx of foreign buyers has helped make property among the most expensive on the planet.

And that brings me back to the image I placed at the beginning of this post: “Where is the money going?” The image comes from a “question wall” posted under the Westway, presumably by an activist, and the Guardian FAQ answers many of those questions. But the Guardian doesn’t answer “Where is the money going?”. That strikes me as odd, especially given that “regen,” including regeneration at Grenfell Tower, is an asset class. One would think that relationships between KCTMO, the Council, and any potential future investors in Grenfell Tower would be a topic for investigation. I can’t find any material on it. UK readers?

Where is the money going? Do the many Councillors who resigned have any ideas?

It’s not clear so me that such relationships, being systemic in character as they are, will figure largely in Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s Phase 2 report. They should, and since we already know that Grenfell Tower was not up to code, the road lies wide open for an inquiry into why its stewards did such a bad job — if indeed, from their perspective, they did. Will Sir Martin follow the money?

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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.


  1. Colonel Smithers

    Thank you, Lambert.

    With regard to the money trail, explains it better than me. RA Fairhead, as she was known rather than as Rona at HSBC, was a minister under Theresa May. Her CEO and chairman at HSBC, the “Reverend” Stephen Green, became a minister under Cameron. At the BBC, Fairhead oversaw the recruitment of many Tories and Blairites, giving her and her husband and his private equity firm, which has an infrastructure arm profiteering from the state, protection from scrutiny.

    Yesterday’s leak to the Telegraph was a masterclass in how the British establishment works. One wonders if the left was paying attention and will learn how to replicate such dirty tricks. I am not hopeful.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Yesterday’s leak to the Telegraph was a masterclass in how the British establishment works. One wonders if the left was paying attention and will learn how to replicate such dirty tricks. I am not hopeful.

      Thanks for this perspective. What annoyed me so much was that Labour stupidly fell for it. “Pay no attention to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation! Look, over here! Firefighters!” And it didn’t help that the suggestions for improving the LRB seemed quite sane, and not an exercise in blame-fixing at all. I mean, 72 people died. Are we really not to examine every aspect of that?

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you, Lambert.

        I despair of Labour and often wonder if Corbyn and his so called leadership are really interested in winning power and doing something with it or are they just taking the public, volunteers and donors for a ride.

  2. Biologist

    Thank you Lambert, for following this.

    I didn’t want to bring up the B word again (the one that rhymes with sh*t), but since you mentioned…

    However, if Corbyn doesn’t learn to shove in the shiv, Labour is going to lose an extremely consequential election in December.

    … I couldn’t help wondering what a deregulated, post-EU Tory Britain will mean for building fire safety regulations. Apparently, fire safety regulations aren’t an EU competence, so presumably a post-EU Singapore-on-Thames that slashes environmental and worker rights will not, in theory, immediately reduce fire safety regulations (as it was always a Member State competence).

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > couldn’t help wondering what a deregulated, post-EU Tory Britain will mean for building fire safety regulations

      Airstrip One needs runway space, so if a few nests of proles get cleaned out, that’s good, actually.

      1. Synoia

        The working class can kiss my arse
        I’ve got the Foreman’s job at last

        It’s the same the whole world over
        Its the rich what gets the pleasure
        Its the poor what gets the blame
        Isn’t it a blooming shame!

        Song: The Red Flag

  3. JBird4049

    I don’t know where the money is going, but I can say that while funding for all levels of the California educational system was cut and fees especially for the colleges increased amazingly, the number of very well paid chancellors, presidents, VPs, and their immediate support staff increases while schmucks like me get barely paid adjuncts with master degrees.

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