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.
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:
As a Firefighter who attended Grenfell, I am truly disgusted by what this country has become. This picture sums it up perfectly. Man who closed 10 Fire Stations, cut 30 Fire Engines and 500 Firefighters, not to blame, but Fire Brigade cut to ribbons, fully to blame. #Grenfell pic.twitter.com/yniOb7RwqB
— Gav Lynch (@GavLynch2) October 29, 2019
(Unsurprisingly, the Torygraph blames workers, and by implication big gummint.) A Labour candidate reacts:
They tried to blame the football fans for Hillsborough.
They tried to blame the miners for Orgreave.
I will not stand by and let them blame our brave firefighters for Grenfell. #JusticeforGrenfell #Grenfell pic.twitter.com/HuZk2Bv50F
— Jane Aitchison (@JaneAitchison) October 29, 2019
Understandable, but not exactly a systemic approach. Labor leader Corbyn is better (but not, as we shall see, good enough):
— Labour Press Team (@labourpress) October 29, 2019
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:
Boris Johnson shut 10 Fire Stations, cut 30 Fire Engines and 500 Firefighters..
When he was challenged about what the consequences were he said “OH!! Get stuffed” Tory Austerity cuts, cheap cladding Who’s to blame for Grenfell..Ask the Prime Minister..
— ARTIST TAXI DRIVER (@chunkymark) October 30, 2019
Because there’s entertaining footage like this floating about:
This is astonishing footage of Boris Johnson being asked about cuts he made to London Fire Brigade when Mayor.
His reply? “Get stuffed.” #Grenfell wasn’t long after.
— Rachael Swindon (@Rachael_Swindon) October 30, 2019
(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 , 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. , 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?