Grenfell Tower: A Tragedy Foretold

We may never know how many people lost their lives in this horrific fire. The images and stories over the past few days have been unbearable; people trapped in blazing rooms, holding their children, waving for help. A mother dropping her baby from the tenth floor to a man below. A woman fleeing her burning flat on the 21st floor with her six kids, but only escaping the building with four of her children.

The stories of the firefighters who risked their lives have also been harrowing. Footage taken inside a fire engine on its way to Grenfell show their shock and horror as they realise the block is full of people. Like the rest of us, they wonder how this could have happened. ‘How the are we going to get in that?’ one of them asks. Many discarded their own safety and put their lives at risk to get people out. [1] The London Fire Brigade have since described the fire as ‘unprecedented.’

But to others, sadly, this fire was no surprise. Grenfell tenants knew their block was unsafe. The ‘Grenfell Action Group’ have been arguing so for years. In their blog the group have catalogued poor fire safety standards, written about conti nuous electrical surges which had been causing fire hazards, written about smoke coming from light fittings, about the fact that shutting down the block’s car park would hinder emergency access in case of a fire (which is exactly what happened). They’ve campaigned steadily over the years, bringing their concerns to Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (TMO) which manages the block. In 2016 they wrote a blog entitled ‘Playing with Fire’ about the inadequate fire escapes. All of their concerns were either ignored, rebutted or sidelined. In 2013, after they published a blog saying that only a ‘catastrophic event’ would expose their landlord’s ‘ineptitude and incompetence’, they were threatened with legal action, (with the TMO’s solicitor accusing the blog’s writer of “defamatory behaviour” and “harassment.”). An ex-worker for the TMO, Seraphima Kennedy, has written in the Guardian about the difficulties facing staff on the ground, how the cuts made from 2010 increasingly made it difficult to protect the tenants on her patch as safety inspections were cut back, something, she said, that gave her nightmares [2].

The truth is, to the authorities, Grenfell Tower tenants didn’t really matter. The tower is in a deprived pocket of one of the richest boroughs in the country. It was refurbished last year at a cost of £8.6 million, but from the start tenants’ safety was ignored and the original contractor was dropped for a cheaper option. Work was carried out in such a shoddy way some tenants refused to let workmen into their homes. At no point did the TMO consider fitting a sprinkler system as part of the refurb. Tenants also complained that the contractors piled rubbish in communal corridors, blocking fire exits. Planning documents for the refurbishment argued that cladding should be used because: “Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east.” It sits in one of the richest areas in London, two miles from a new 21 storey tower where one bedroom flats are at least £1m. So it was important that Grenfell Tower looked right. The document went on: “The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.” [3] The decision was made to clad the tower with cheap material. The TMO found a contractor to supply cladding which was £2 cheaper per square metre than the alternative fireproof material. Just £4750 more would have saved lives. But the material they chose was so flammable that the fire, which started in a flat in the early hours of the morning and which firefighters thought they’d contained, had in fact spread to the cladding which quickly engulfed the whole block, turning it into a raging inferno in less than an hour. It was so ferocious it was still burning well into the afternoon.

In the coming months and years, as inquiries get underway, the cladding will undoubtedly be scrutinised. It is banned in Germany and not used in the USA on high rises. There seems to be some confusion at present as to whether it is banned here or not. And this is very telling, given the repeated cuts to regulation over the years. It’s been the policy of successive governments from Blair on to reduce regulation as a way of encouraging business growth. By the time of the Localism Act of 2011, introduced by Eric Pickles, the state had got rid of independent monitoring of local government, and over 2,400 regulations have been scrapped through the Red Tape Challenge which is estimated to have saved house builders around £100m. [4] In social housing this has meant a lack of monitoring on everything from space standards to fire regs. The latter used to be reviewed every couple of years to keep up with changes in technology and building materials, but they haven’t been reviewed for over a decade.

Ministers and officials don’t know if the cladding was illegal, but they were warned several times that it was unsafe. In the 1990’s, architect Sam Webb carried out a survey of hundreds of residential blocks and found that half of those inspected failed to meet basic fire safety regs. The Home Office received the report and did nothing. In fact in the years following further regulations were whittled away under the guise of cutting red tape and introducing ‘better’ (i.e. fewer) regulations. Even when the disaster Webb’s report predicted happened, at Lakanal House in Southwark in 2009, nothing changed. The Lakanal House fire killed six people, three of them children, when fire spread in their high rise block due to flammable cladding that had been fixed to the exterior of the block. Again, there were no sprinklers, a lack of fire inspections, and people were advised to stay in their flats. The Coroner made a series of urgent recommendations. Most have been ignored. Three successive government ministers had failed to listen to calls to fit sprinklers in social housing. Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s new chief of staff, was housing minister until he lost his seat in the election. He had promised to review the building regulations relating to fire safety but never did so. Instead he repeatedly turned down requests for meetings to discuss reviews.

If it’s true that the tenants at Grenfell were treated with utter contempt before the fire by members of the ruling class, it’s been equally true since. Much has been made of May’s failure to show any compassion to survivors, but the response to the tragedy by both national and local government has been appalling to say the least. It took almost 72 hours for the government to announce any aid package for the survivors, and even then it was contradictory and inadequate. Traumatised survivors have been offered temporary accommodation in high rise blocks, others in run downs B&B’s without showers. They were offered an insulting £10 a day to live on. After five days a shamefaced Government increased it, but only after a delegation of survivors went to Downing St, and only after angry demos across London and elsewhere. People are still sleeping in the Westway Sports Centre with no clear idea where they’ll be rehoused and no guarantee of it being in the area, and many were fearful of having their benefits sanctioned. The TMO, which managed the block has been absent since the fire, except to turn up at one point and hand tenants in the flats opposite letters about anti-social behaviour, threatening them with legal action. Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council have also been silent. Most of those searching for loved ones have had very little official help. As one volunteer put it: ‘We’re in the wealthiest borough in the country. We’re sitting on nearly £300m. We couldn’t spend a little of it to get one or two emergency people in?’ [5]

It’s been left to the survivors themselves and the wider community to organise relief. It was young Muslims observing Ramadan who woke their neighbours when the fire broke out, and undoubtedly saved many lives. Within hours the wider community had sorted emergency clothing, food etc (so much so that volunteers eventually had to ask it to stop) and were joined by the Red Cross, local Mosques and churches. They set up a committee to put forward immediate demands and took these to Downing St. They organised in their hundreds and held mass meetings, electing delegates, organising demonstrations. The community has shown itself to be well organised, efficient, extremely compassionate and truly democratic. Everything the capitalist state isn’t.

Tenants like the ones in Grenfell have borne the brunt of austerity, from the bedroom tax to housing benefit cuts to cut backs in safety. Grenfell Tower may be in one of the richest boroughs in the country but it’s in a pocket of the most deprived 10% of the population. This disaster reflects that terrible fact. It is the result of years of housing neglect for people like the tenants of Grenfell, from the long standing failure to build adequate social housing, or maintain existing accommodation to a decent safe standard, to the closure of local fire stations, to the dismantling of safety regulations, to cuts in funding for the NHS, to cuts in individual benefits and on and on. They are the victims of a system that thrives on inequality, a system where profit is the aim and everyone else collateral damage. In one of the demos a protester held up a sign saying ‘Capitalism kills’ and this terrible fire has shown how tragically true that is.

The tenants of Grenfell will have an uphill struggle to get justice; they’ll suddenly find all that ‘red tape’ that was lacking for them will be put in place to protect those in power. They’ll have to wade through a complex chain of who knew what and which contractor was in charge when, and who they subcontracted to. Trying to find who is accountable amongst the multiple contractors, building teams, privatised services and reduced council monitoring won’t be easy. And they’ll have to do it with the help of volunteer legal experts, unless they can get legal aid, another thing snatched away over the years. And no doubt along the way they’ll have to listen to politicians who are suddenly able to find their humanity for the cameras, even though the system they preside over is clearly inhumane. T he charred remains of the tower stands as a monument to a failed system and its cheerleaders. It should shame them all.

RT

20 June 2017

[1] Quoted in the Mirror, 19 June. See Facebook page 'Save the UK Fire Service

[2] Seraphima Kennedy, Guardian, 16 June

[3] Quoted in Metro, 14 June

[4] Quoted in the Guardian 19 June

[5] Quoted in the Financial Times, 18 June

For updates on Grenfell see the Grenfell Action Group at grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Comments

A thoughtful and humane piece of writing which highlights the brutality of a capitalist system that has little to offer workers. I am reminded of the tragic fire in New York in 1911, the Triangle Sirtwaist Factory fire where 146 workers lost their lives. Like Grenfell Tower the lives of workers came a poor second to the drive for profit. While the Triangle fire led to the capitalists changing building regulations I fear that the fire tragedy of today will not lead to any improvement to fire safety in tower blocks.

a definitive and good article, excellent piece of work

I quite agree with the comments of Dave60 and Silverback. If marxists continue to argue that imperialism produces wars, then we continue to live in not just post-world war 2 days and other wars since then, but in pre-war times today and tonight.. How many tower blocks are there in Europe, Russia and the USA ? How many are there in the world altogether ? The likely outcomes of any wars to come do bear thinking about, as do questions as to who and what will be responsible for them. Does preventing them depend entirely upon persuading enough workers to believe in communism and revolutions to get it, or, at any rate, to overthrow the whole capitalist system ? How much time will that take ? Interim steps seem called for, but what they can be is debatable whilst enough people are alive to consider and act on them. It's a small world and its children must be saved from disasters without delay.

What I am arguing in relation to the tragedy/crime of Grenfell is that in rare exceptions the capitalist class is willing to make reforms as happened following the Triangle fire in the USA and also there are examples of reforms being carried out in the UK. The problem facing workers today is that due to the crisis of the past forty years the political space for such reforms are limited. The capitalist class today is reacting in a confused fashion and in many cases in an inhumane way, there are examples of people involved in the tragedy being threatened with welfare/benefit cuts. The central government of May has no idea of how to effectively respond and this is due to the inability of the capitalist class to carry out any meaningful reform. I suspect that for many people who have been effected by this tragedy the outcome will be a slow deterioation where they will be forgotten in the inertia of a crisis ridden capitalist sytem.

On the question of how long will it take for workers as a class to regain a sense of our own worth the answer is I have no idea. Dialectically the process may be long in coming or it can suddenly appear. However long it takes all I know is that this process needs an organised body that can win workers over to a communist perspective that places self emancipation through workers councils at the centre of a liberatory communist political project.