Residents repeatedly voiced concerns that their management organisation was ‘playing with fire’, and that only a catastrophic event could expose the incompetency
“All our warnings fell on deaf ears,” wrote Grenfell Action Group on their blog this morning. Their fury comes in response to a massive fire that broke out at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington in the early hours of this morning. London Ambulance confirmed at 8:15am that over 50 patients had been taken to hospitals across the city, while the number of fatalities is unconfirmed as victims found themselves trapped on higher floors. Many still remain unaccounted for.
London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton classes the blaze as “unprecedented” and of a scale she has “never ever seen” in her 29 years of firefighting. Onlookers and survivors describe hearing screams for help, seeing stuck residents flashing torches, people jumping to safety and a baby caught after being thrown to safety from a window on the “ninth or tenth floor”. The accounts are harrowing and multiplying by the minute. Catastrophic events of this size raise countless questions – the most obvious being, what could have been done to stop it? Unfortunately, in the case of Grenfell Tower, the answers are disappointingly clear.
Not only are there are pages of incriminating records of the pressure put on the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) from the tower residents about the unfit living conditions, the fact that there appears to be no kind of integrated fire alarm system for the 24-storey block simply makes no sense. The chilling reports that no alarms sounded, while floors and floors of the building caught fire and stairwells filled with smoke, just cannot be ignored.
“Luxury complexes spring up and surround tower blocks, all the while councils remain determined to deny those in social housing even the barest of necessities”
The fire safety policies of the building were further called into question when it was revealed that the building attempted to introduce a misinforming “stay put” policy in the case of a fire – meaning tenants were instructed to stay in their flats until explicitly told otherwise, unless the fire was occurring in or affecting your flat directly. The notices seem to have come about as an ad-hoc, flippant response to pressure from the action group to address the fact that there were previously no fire safety notices of any kind provided by the association. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has since addressed the dangerous redundancy of such a policy in an interview on BBC Radio 4, and raised questions about how exactly such a massive misstep could occur.
In a 2014 newsletter, the organisation attempted to justify their ludicrously poor advice by claiming that “Grenfell was designed according to rigorous fire safety standards” – a statement we now clearly know to be false. Supposedly, the tower had just undergone a large-scale refurbishment last year, that many tenants described to be purely cosmetic. This included £10 million worth of new cladding to improve the façade of the building – the very same cladding that witnesses observed catch fire “like a matchstick”, according to a man who managed to escape with his aunt from the 17th floor.
Every unfolding detail is more disturbing than the last as this story grows. It’s emblematic of a disregard for the needs of tenants by landlords, particularly in social housing, that plagues the capital, as well as cities up and down the country. A bill proposed by Labour to ensure landlords make homes “fit for human habitation”, was rejected by Conservative MPs in a vote this year, in a bid to reform housing law. Many MPs, when challenged on the vote, clamoured to explain that although they agreed with the sentiment, they either believed that it was already the case or that it did not need to be explicitly stated – a naively transparent rationale failing to acknowledge that a fifth of those who voted against the bill were private landlords who themselves would be held to account by the legislation.
But the issues faced by the Grenfell Tower action groups – though shocking and unjust – are sadly not isolated. Council failures to execute the necessary fire and risk assessments have been uncovered in the last few years, and yet promises to review the regulations allowing these lapses to occur were delayed this year by Housing Minister of the time Gavin Barwell – a man who is coincidentally now Theresa May’s new chief of staff after losing his Croydon Central seat. The investigation was sparked by a fatal fire in Lakanal House in South London, a result of old building regulations that roughly 4,000 tower blocks are still under. These buildings remain at the risk of the same events for every day the minister refuses to provide a new date for the review.
“The resident’s association repeatedly made requests for investigations into the fire escape facilities of the building, as well as the organisation failing to manage the building effectively... that were ignored time and time again”
In the case of Grenfell Tower and in blocks across the UK, it was the basic need for adequate fire safety procedures that the managing organisation, council and government failed to provide them with. The resident’s association repeatedly made requests for investigations into the fire escape facilities of the building, as well as the organisation failing to manage the building effectively – signed by 90 per cent of the residents – that were ignored time and time again. The consequences of the negligence and ineptitude at play here are a devastating call for action to be taken. The warnings of the action group were scarily accurate and paint a shameful picture of the organisations in question. The serial dismissal of the voices of social housing tenants is not only a failure to fulfil obligations as a landlord to residents they’re supposed to be supporting, yet again it has cost innocent people their lives.
While so many seem to fight to maintain the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, boroughs like Kensington almost too perfectly symbolise the continuous tug of war for the many in London. Moved from flat to flat, then moved again when the area they’re banished to suddenly falls into the demand of the rich. Luxury complexes spring up and surround tower blocks, all the while councils remain determined to deny those in social housing even the barest of necessities, so long as they continue to take up space.
There are two things we cannot forget here. The first is that blocks like these house some of the most vulnerable people across the country – many of whom require additional assistance and protection – yet are victim to some of the most negligent landlords nationwide. Secondly, that action groups as well-assembled and committed to the cause as the one seen here at Grenfell are not even a common occurrence. And yet even with the extensive and compelling work done by the Grenfell Action Group, the resistance they were met with by authorities, to give any kind of value to the concerns of those living in the building, meant it was still not enough to prevent this disgraceful tragedy. So much more must be done to ensure that this will not and cannot happen again, and it falls to us to make sure that government bodies and landlords stop their procrastination tactics, do their job and keep people safe.