It’s 5 years since Grenfell. Here’s what we’ve learned from the inquiry so far
Housing journalist Peter Apps tells openDemocracy about the corporate and state failures that led to the fire
On 14 June 2017, a fire engulfed Grenfell tower, a council-owned housing block in west London, killing 72 people. Five years on, the public inquiry into the disaster is drawing to a close.
The inquiry has already provided a string of shocking revelations that raise much larger questions about democracy and power in the UK. Yet it has all but disappeared from the news.
Peter Apps, the deputy editor at Inside Housing, has been reporting on the inquiry throughout. Here, he talks openDemocracy through some of the key points.
A major corporate scandal
The inquiry’s first phase, which examined events on the night of the fire, found that flammable cladding, which was added to the building in a 2014-16 renovation that breached safety regulations, caused the flames to spread in such a devastating manner.
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Perhaps the most shocking claim made in the second phase, which is examining longer-term factors, is that the companies that supplied the deadly cladding had known for years that their material would burn, but concealed the risks.
Lawyers for the bereaved and survivors have described Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan – all major players in the global construction industry – as “little more than crooks and killers”. Internal company emails submitted to the inquiry included staff at Kingspan, an insulation manufacturer, describing its own safety testing as “complete spin” and “a bit of a cheat”.
The companies have denied wrongdoing. But for Apps, the evidence points to “a huge, huge corporate scandal. I think the behaviour of these companies was unbelievable – just the amount of knowledge they had of the risks of their products and their lack of willingness to stop selling them.”
This raises wider questions about safety standards in the construction industry. The Grenfell inquiry, Apps says, “is the only time we’ve looked under the bonnet. [Usually] there’s no transparency around a large company’s internal emails – you don’t ever see them.
“This is the only time we’ve looked and this is what they look like. Maybe for other organisations, this isn’t the case. But all three of these organisations had embarrassing emails, so it suggests a wider problem.”
When you start cutting money out of the public sector, people start cutting corners
Profound state failure
If a corporate scandal wasn’t enough, the evidence also suggests a serious, prolonged failure in state regulation. In spring this year, the inquiry heard that the British government was aware of the risk flammable cladding posed to high-rise buildings as far back as 1991, after a fire at a block of flats in Merseyside.
Other warnings followed over the years – yet despite this, says Apps, successive governments made no effort to tighten regulations.
“The amount of times [in this story] that government is given the opportunity to toughen the standards and doesn’t is extraordinary.”
For Apps, the reason lies in a combination of lobbying by the construction industry and “an ideological aversion to regulation” shared by New Labour and Conservative-led governments. “They wanted to deregulate, they wanted to be setting industry free to innovate.”
“You have to ask the question, who does the political system serve?” Apps adds. “If something is politically difficult because it upsets product manufacturers, that's not how we expect our democracy to function.”
The corrosive effects of austerity
The coalition government’s programme of austerity, which cut billions of pounds from public sector budgets after 2010, is often blamed for its role in the Grenfell disaster. Cuts accompanied a fresh drive by David Cameron to sweep away Britain’s “health and safety culture”.
For Apps, the most damaging cuts were the less obvious ones. The decimation of local government, for instance, meant Grenfell’s home borough of Kensington and Chelsea reduced its team of building inspectors – ultimately responsible for signing off the botched refurbishment – from 12 people to between four and five. The inspector who reviewed Grenfell was working on 130 projects simultaneously.
“When you start cutting money out of the public sector, people, people start cutting corners and reducing the size of teams,” says Apps. “You don't really notice that things are getting worse until something really bad happens.”
Another problem, says Apps, is that public services “don’t have the capacity or the funds to transform”. The first phase of the inquiry found serious failings in planning and communication in the London Fire Brigade’s response on the night of the fire.
One issue was that rescue efforts were hampered by radios that wouldn’t work properly. “That’s a straightforward issue with budget,” Apps explains. “Those [radios] weren’t upgraded.”
Likewise, after an earlier deadly tower block fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009, warnings about the lack of sprinklers were not heeded. “We could have had a mass retrofit programme of sprinklers to high-rise [housing] stock, but that was completely off the table in an era of austerity.
“We’ve missed opportunities to make changes as much as things have been cut.”
We’re still not getting full accountability
Some campaigners have criticised the inquiry for not examining how other social and political factors may have contributed to the disaster. Housing policy is excluded from its scope, as is the twin impact of race and class.
This means that important questions – such as why residents’ warnings about safety were so easily ignored before the fire, or why people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to be housed in high-rise buildings – will go unanswered.
Beyond that, Apps says, the inquiry’s focus on “fact-finding”, while useful, means senior business executives and politicians are escaping scrutiny amid a focus on middle management and frontline staff.
We haven’t heard from any former prime ministers or any former chancellors. [But] they set the tone
While some former ministers have given evidence – notably, the former communities secretary Eric Pickles, who generated headlines in April when he told the inquiry chair not to waste his time, then proceeded to get the Grenfell death toll wrong – the really top politicians have not.
“We haven’t heard from any former prime ministers or any former chancellors,” says Apps. [But] they’re the ones who set the tone. It was David Cameron and George Osborne who decided on austerity and deregulation in 2010. Theresa May had a big impact on the aftermath [of the fire] – some people would argue in a good way, some people not – and she should have been called to explain herself.
“Boris Johnson was mayor of London in the period between Lakanal House and Grenfell and therefore he was the politician most directly responsible for the London Fire Brigade at the time, but he wasn’t called.
“That does leave a gap, because it means you don’t ask the big questions.”
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