Grenfell Tower residents ignored
By Pat Turnbull
In July 2009 six people died in a fire at the 14-storey Lakanal House tower block in the London borough of Southwark. Rafael Cervi, a hotel porter from Brazil, lost his wife Dayana Francisquini and two children, Thais, six, and Felipe, three. Mr Cervi had rushed home from work when his wife phoned him and was standing helpless outside the flats, speaking to his wife on the phone. The Daily Mail reported at the time: ‘He told how [his wife] said: “I can’t breathe very well. I’m struggling to breathe and Felipe’s really scared.” They were the last words he heard from her. When he tried to ring her again, there was no answer.
‘Mbet Udoaka, 37, also had to watch helplessly as his wife, Helen, and baby died in the fire. Helen called him to say she was trapped in their flat and he raced home from work. He stayed on the phone until she lost consciousness, but was not allowed to enter the burning building.’
Catherine Hickman, the other victim, was repeatedly urged by emergency services to stay in her flat rather than escape.
A ‘Super-Inquest’ was convened to investigate the deaths. The Guardian reported in March 2013: ‘..the inquest [into the fire] heard the Lakanal House blaze moved unusually quickly and in unexpected ways. Within half an hour of the first 999 call it had spread to several other floors, moving downwards as well as up, something so unusual that transcripts show emergency operators initially refused to believe this was happening. The jury heard that a change in the law in 2006 meant Southwark was responsible for fire safety checks at its flats, but by July 2009 the council had carried out no such checks at Lakanal or any other residential blocks…
‘Mbet Udoaka, whose wife and daughter died, read a statement welcoming the verdict. Standing next to Rafael Cervi, Dayana Francisquini’s husband, he said: “Nearly four years later and after a long inquest, no authority, organisation or body has said sorry to us or accepted the blame. We fear very much that lessons have not been learned and that it could happen again.”’
How must he and Rafael Cervi have felt eight years later, on 14 June this year, to see another tower block on fire, to hear the same dreadful stories, but many times multiplied? Grenfell Tower, a 129-flat, 24-storey block in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea – the whole building in flames. There are recordings of the moment the shocked firefighters glimpsed Grenfell Tower for the first time: “How is that even possible?” “Mate, is that .. that’s not a real block with people in it?” “Oh my God, there’s kids in there.” “Right, how are we gonna do that?” “It’s a towering inferno here.”
Because this wasn’t supposed to happen. As Dave Green, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union, says: “1970s buildings like Grenfell Tower were designed so each flat was a box that contained fire within itself, with a non-flammable concrete exterior.” Firefighters say that there have been many fires in tower blocks, but they have been contained in one flat. This fire itself had started in one flat, and firefighters even thought they had put it out – until they realised fire was spreading over the outside of the building. Grenfell Tower’s fire safety had been compromised.
Over 600 firefighters fought the blaze. The fire on the outside of the building hindered rescue – firefighters with breathing apparatus had to force their way through choking black smoke, in darkness, up the single staircase as far as they could up the building, in a desperate attempt to save lives. The people who lived in Grenfell had to brave their way through that same smoke and down that same now crowded staircase. People died trying to escape. Survivors tell of stepping on bodies as they struggled to safety.
The police have declared 80 people dead or missing presumed dead – local residents suspect the figure is much higher. Police say there are survivors from 106 flats in the tower but that 18 people from those flats are also dead or missing presumed dead. There are 23 flats where they have not been able to trace anyone alive. Around 255 survivors escaped Grenfell Tower.
An inquiry into the Grenfell fire has been set up, and the police are considering criminal prosecutions, currently against Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation which the council set up in the 1990s to take charge of all 10,000 of its council properties, and which has little connection with tenants themselves despite its name.
Among the issues residents have asked the inquiry to look at are:
- building regulations
- cladding and insulation
- piped gas in the tower block
- the role of supervision of works
Fire regulations were mentioned in the Lakanal House inquest findings. In 1971 the Fire Precaution Act was created, partly in response to a large night club fire in Bristol. The Act gave fire services the legal right to enter any building and declare it fit for purpose and safe from fire. In the 1990s after some heavy lobbying of MPs by landlords, the Act was scrapped and replaced by a Regulatory Reform Bill, the power to act after a tragedy rather than to prevent one from happening in the first place. So where fire officers once had detailed knowledge of a building, now they rely on the information available to them. Builders can also now deviate from plans and specifications at will.
In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Robert A. Graham put it like this: “As a former assistant chief fire officer of the Greater Manchester Fire Service, it seems to me that the most significant change was to take the responsibility for certifying the fire safety of high risk buildings from the Fire Service, which had trained and experienced officers, and to place this responsibility on the employer or responsible person, who had neither of these qualities… Means of escape in case of fire and related provisions should be the responsibility of the Fire Service. Inspection of high-risk occupancies should be a statutory duty for fire authorities.”
Of course, to implement such a change, the cuts in the fire service would have to be reversed. In the post-Grenfell situation, the fire service has already said they are not in a position to make the checks on other public buildings that they are now being asked to do.
The Independent has reported on the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, which advises Sajid Javid, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, on making building regulations and setting standards for the design and construction of buildings: ‘Fire safety experts have reportedly complained that the committee is “heavily weighted towards the building industry” and has proved “difficult to engage with”. There is concern that regulations have failed to keep pace with changes in construction techniques and development of new types of materials, including the kind of external cladding used in the £8.6m Grenfell refit.’
The weaknesses of the current safety regime are obvious in a fire risk assessment for Grenfell Tower submitted by the fire consultant employed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (an ex-firefighter as many such consultants are) in November 2012. He noted a number of safety failings: a failure to test emergency escape lighting, to inspect escape staircases and to maintain fire extinguishers. But under the heading ‘Legal Statement’ he wrote: ‘You do not have to give a copy of your fire risk assessment to anybody, not even the fire authority, if you do give them a copy this could be used against you at a later date’. Little incentive, then, for the safety failings reported to be rectified.
Grenfell Tower was recently refurbished. At the end of June it was reported that detectives conducting the criminal investigation had identified 60 firms involved in the refurbishment.
Part of the refurbishment was the addition of cladding to the outside of the building. It is claimed this was to improve insulation. Residents suspect that it was for cosmetic reasons. Concrete Grenfell was not considered pretty enough for a rich borough like Kensington and Chelsea, especially if the council want to bring the area upmarket. It didn’t match the look of the new academy built right beside Grenfell, against the wishes of the residents, blocking off one exit from the tower and depriving local people of a little bit of green space.
It is hard to understand how a product can be manufactured and sold to cover buildings which says in its specifications that it is highly flammable – but that is what happened in the case of Grenfell Tower and, we now discover, in hundreds of buildings up and down the country.
Reuters reported on 24 June: ‘Arconic…manufactures three main types of Reynobond panel: one with a polyethylene (PE) core, one with a fire retardant core and another with a non-combustible core, according to its web site. Diagrams in a 2016 Arconic brochure for its Reynobond panels describe how PE panels are suitable up to 10 meters in height. Panels with a fire resistant core – the FR model – can be used up to 30 meters, while above that height, panels with the non-combustible core – the A2 model – should be used, the brochure says. Grenfell Tower is more than 60 meters tall.’
Reynobond PE is £2 cheaper per square metre than Reynobond FR.
The Arconic brochure says: “When conceiving a building, it is crucial to choose the adapted products in order to avoid the fire to spread to the whole building. Especially when it comes to facades and roofs, the fire can spread extremely rapidly. As soon as the building is higher than the fire fighters’ ladders, it has to be conceived with an incombustible material.”
Emails from 2014, seen by Reuters, between Arconic’s UK sales manager and executives at the contractors involved in the bidding process for the refurbishment contract at Grenfell Tower raise questions about why PE cladding was therefore supplied. Reuters continues: ‘When asked about the emails, Arconic said in a statement that it had known the panels would be used at Grenfell Tower but that it was not its role to decide what was or was not compliant with local building regulations.’
Life is cheap when you have a product to sell, and when the buyer will overlook the dangers to save a few pounds.
When burning, these products give off toxic gases, which when inhaled are the cause of most deaths and injuries in fires; yet the UK and most of Europe have no regulations on the toxicity of fire smoke from construction products even though, as Grenfell Tower has shown, escape from a high-rise building may be impossible.
Omar Belkadi, 32, his wife, Farah Hamdan, 31, Malak Belkadi, eight, and Leena Belkadi, six months, who lived on the 20th floor, are just one of the Grenfell Tower families who died of inhaling fire fumes and smoke. Leena was found in her mother’s arms, Westminster coroner’s court was told. Six-year-old Tazmin was later found alive in hospital. What must it be like to be Tazmin?
One of the saddest aspects of the Grenfell tragedy is that residents had been drawing attention to problems at Grenfell for years and being ignored. Minutes from an emergency residents’ meeting held on 17 March 2015 show that more than 100 people living in the block produced a long list of issues about the refurbishment. The minutes detail anxieties about the way the firm Rydon was doing the work and mention the “concern that the Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) / Rydon are using cheap materials” and “cutting corners” on workmanship. Other problems included “grave concerns at the standard of works inside a number of residents’ properties”.
A Grenfell Action Group post stated: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”
Concerns about the TMO go back at least to 2007 and 2008 when tenant members of the TMO tried in vain many times to have extraordinary general meetings called to hold the board to account over fears over safety and other issues of finance and governance.
The housing situation of the Grenfell survivors, who lost everything in the fire, is not being resolved. On 17 July the Independent reported: ‘Of the 220 households affected [this figure included displaced families from round the tower] just nine are in temporary accommodation with the rest still in hotels or staying with friends and family’. Jeremy Corbyn suggested early on that empty homes round about should be requisitioned for the homeless families. Another suggestion has been that Kensington and Chelsea should use some of its £274 million reserves to buy homes.
A young father told the council, “Me, my wife and three kids are in a hotel room, one bedroom and a double bed for five of us. I was forgotten about.” The longer the Grenfell families do not have permanent and secure housing, the longer families with young children have to share a room and a bed in a hotel, the longer it will take for them to recover from their nightmare experience. The government has said that every Grenfell survivor will have the right to a permanent home in their borough with the same rent and security of tenure that they previously had; but survivors are understandably suspicious. Will these promises be kept when Grenfell Tower is no longer in the news?
The inability of Kensington and Chelsea Council to respond meaningfully to the crisis is a reflection of the run-down of council services over many years. Since 2011 alone many councils in London have lost 40 per cent of their government funding. This has led them to embrace an agenda which is fully in tune with that of the government – spending less on public services, favouring luxury house building over council house building, and in general replacing their working class residents with wealthier ones, or with absentee owners who regard their purchase in London as an investment or at best as a ‘pied a terre’.
One such luxury housing development near Grenfell Tower, Kensington Row, could become home to some former Tower residents. Not the luxury part – the ‘affordable’ adjunct that is sometimes constructed off to the side. If Grenfell families are rehoused there, they will not have access to the swimming pool, 24 hour concierge, and other add-ons in the luxury section.
The 68 flats have been bought by the City of London Corporation in a deal brokered by the government’s Homes and Communities Agency.
It was reported that developer Berkeley Homes, who are building the development under the St Edward brand, had generously offered to sell the homes at cost price of around £10 million and had speeded up their construction so that they would be available by the end of July. But Berkeley Homes is no benefactor; owner Tony Pidgley took home over £20 million in 2015. The selling price of homes in the luxury part of the development starts at £1.5 million. Penthouses are expected to go for £13 million.
After the Grenfell Tower fire, Sophie Khan, a lawyer representing a relative of the victims in the Lakanal House fire, wrote on 26 June in the Independent: ‘At the time the Lakanal House Fire was the UK’s worst ever tower block fire and a ‘Super-Inquest’ was convened to investigate the deaths … the Coroner recommended a number of actions that needed to be taken by the Government to safeguard the lives of residents living in tower blocks.
‘Sadly, the Government did not act upon the recommendations, apart from commencing a ‘programme of simplification’ of the Approved Document B, in relation to Building Regulations. This meant that 4,000 tower blocks across the country were not retrofitted with sprinkler systems and a lax regulatory framework around fire safety assessments remained in place….This sent a clear message to the local councils that the safety of residents in tower blocks was not a Government priority and the recommendations could be ignored.’
This is the climate in which a Grenfell Tower can happen: a climate where Boris Johnson could claim “health and safety fears are making Britain a safe place for extremely stupid people” – where David Cameron, when prime minister, could write off legal protections as “an albatross around the neck of British business”.
What will be the result of the inquiry and the police investigations into the Grenfell Tower fire? Will we see the first convictions for corporate manslaughter? What will be the recommendations? Will they be implemented?
What is the real value of human life in capitalist Britain today?
" When burning, these products give off toxic gases, which when inhaled are the cause of most deaths and injuries in fires; yet the UK and most of Europe have no regulations on the toxicity of fire smoke from construction products even though, as Grenfell Tower has shown, escape from a high-rise building may be impossible."