Friday, 30 June 2017

Grenfell Tower: still burning with anger

It is now more than two weeks since the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, and I am still very, very angry.

The people who died that night should not have died. They need not have died. They died because over several decades, successive governments presided over a progressive weakening of regulation and inspection systems that they knew would one day lead to tragedy.

How did they know? Because they had been warned -- not once, not twice, but again and again, by fire officers, buildings inspectors, MPs, insurers, everyone who knew anything at all about fire safety.

In Scotland, after a man died in a tower block fire in 1999, the rules on permissible building materials were changed and the inspection regime tightened. Was the same done in England? It was not.

In 2013, after six people died in a tower block fire in London, a coroner recommended a review of fire safety regulations 'with particular regard to the spread of fire over the external envelope of a building'. Was a review carried out? It was not.

I  hope no one will dare ever again to mock health and safety rules. They save lives. And although tearing up 'red tape' is always good for an easy headline, it can lead directly to the appalling sight of the charred remains of Grenfell Tower.

But here's what angers me most -- and bear with me, because it gets a bit technical. The cladding panels which were bolted to the outside of Grenfell Tower last year to improve the insulation of the building (and thereby reduce tenants' heating bills and energy consumption) were a 'multicomponent rainscreen cladding system' made up of an insulating core, marketed as Celotex RS5000, and exterior decorative cladding, made of aluminium sheets, sold as Reynobond PE. 

But the company that makes the panels says in its marketing material that the version used on Grenfell Tower is suitable only for buildings no more than 10 metres high. (Grenfell Tower is 67 metres high.) It makes two other versions -- one that is fire-resistant, and one that is non-combustible -- for higher buildings. So someone, somewhere, ordered the wrong version.

Knowingly, or unknowingly? To save money, or because they didn't know the difference? Questions for the public inquiry. (The Times reports that internal emails suggest the cheaper version was chosen deliberately to keep costs down, saving £293,368 on an £8.6 million refurbishment programme.)

What's more, someone else checked the panels' specifications, and said: 'Yeah, fine. No problem. Go ahead.'

Knowingly, or unknowingly? Another question for the public inquiry.

The prime minister said in the House of Commons on Wednesday that the Grenfell Tower cladding was 'non-compliant' with current building regulations. (So, it seems, is the cladding on every other tower block in England.) But two of the key issues for the inquiry will be to ascertain whether the testing processes used to certify building materials are adequate, and how well qualified are the inspectors who approve them. There are also suggestions that the relevant regulations are now so opaque that no one can be exactly sure what is, and is not, permissible.

I have spent a lot of time in hotels during my time as a journalist -- and the vast majority of them were equipped, thank goodness, with fire doors, smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. The same goes for office blocks, of course -- so why are the rules different for tower blocks? I think we know the answer ...

All tower blocks built after 2007 have to be fitted with sprinkler systems. But older blocks don't have to be retro-fitted. There can be only one explanation: to save money. And there can be only one conclusion: saving money matters more than saving lives. Tens of thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- of people go to sleep every night in over-crowded, sub-standard homes that are just one faulty fridge away from being death traps. (Interesting fact: the Conservative-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owns Grenfell Tower, currently has a £274 million surplus sitting in the bank.)

The Grenfell Tower disaster was not an unavoidable accident. It was avoidable. And it wasn't an accident. It was the result of culpable, criminal negligence.

I just hope that the survivors and the relatives and friends of all those who died -- and we will probably never know for sure exactly how many perished -- will not have to wait 28 years for justice to be done, as have the families affected by the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989.

And I hope that Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the retired judge who will be chairing the public inquiry, is up to the task he has been given. He will need to be utterly fearless and ruthlessly determined. And he must be prepared to apportion blame.


Unknown said...

Thank you Robin.
More informed articles, such as yours, should be publicised over & over again.
And as you say, not left to drag on for years.
ALL those responsible for the catastrophic, heartbreaking and avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower should have the guts to stand up and face their consciences.
I doubt they will.

Anonymous said...

Here in Portsmouth (Hampshire) there was to be a 33 storey tower block built By the university on the former Victoria Baths, Anglesea Road swimming pool site but after the fire brigade insisted that there must be a sprinkler system the project was cancelled and the site has remained a vacant plot since 2012.


It's interesting that the Blade got planning permission without sprinklers and it was only after the cost of including them in the building was realised that the contractor pulled out (see last URL, above).

- Mike

A View from Chorley said...

The Piper Alpha disaster - 165 people killed - of 8 July 1988 reported by Lord Cullen changed culture and practices in the Offshore Oil & Gas industry. This Grenfell Tower disaster must result in the bringing in of all encompassing safety for all buildings especially high-rise.

Anonymous said...

An article in the New York Times, on June 24th, was interesting. It stated that the makers of Reynobond PE, Arconic, has "marketed the flammable facades in Britain for years, even as it has adjusted its pitch elsewhere. In other European countries, Arconic’s sales materials explicitly instructed that “as soon as the building is higher than the firefighters’ ladders, it has to be conceived with an incombustible material.” An Arconic website for British customers said only that such use “depends on local building codes.”

The article was headed "Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety". We won't disagree with that.

Robin said...

My anger is over why Arconic (the French manufacturer of Reynobond) made a flammable cladding. I cannot think of any building or structure that you would want to clad in a flammable material. I have yet to see any news organisation look into this properly.