FFive years ago on this day, 72 people died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Britain watched in horror as a fire engulfed an apartment building in one of the country’s richest regions, and many knew the disaster was much more than a freak accident.
In the days following the fire, residents spoke about the hazardous conditions they were living in and how the building’s owner, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), and its management agent, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO) treated it.
In the five years since the fire, the ongoing Grenfell Tower investigation has examined in detail in forensics the web of failures of individuals, businesses, and government that led to one of the worst disasters in modern British history. The residents who fear that their safety and well-being will be neglected have been repeatedly stressed. The general public should be aware of the details of the investigation: it not only tells the story of a completely avoidable tragedy in Britain today, but also tells us that it could easily happen again.
The first stage of the investigation, which took place in the second half of 2018, looked into what happened on the night of the fire. The main finding was that the cladding installed on the tower as part of a renovation in 2015-2016 was the main cause of the fire spreading. The investigation also painted a vivid picture of the chaos at the scene on the night of the fire, when the London Fire Brigade (LFB) came under fire for taking so long to scrap a “stay” strategy and begin evacuating residents.
The second phase of the investigation, which began in January 2020, is currently building a decades-old picture of how the tower’s unsafe condition came about in the first place. In doing so, she exposed inefficiencies and wrongdoing within the construction industry, the housing sector, the fire service, and government in this country, both locally and nationally.
We first learned of the appalling lack of knowledge and awareness of safety among the architects, contractors and contractors involved in the 2015-16 tower renovation. This team decided to convert the building’s cladding from zinc to aluminum-plastic-filled composite (ACM) to save costs. Austerity measures meant that the council inspector responsible for approving the redevelopment was working on 130 projects at the same time.
The inquiry then focused on the product manufacturers responsible for manufacturing the cladding and insulation for the tower. We knew that Arconic had conducted tests in 2004 that showed it performed disastrously in a fire, but we have not shared these results with the product’s certification bodies. When asked, the company’s CEO admitted that the omission was a “misleading half-truth”. However, the company’s lawyers later retracted this confession, citing a language barrier between the investigating lawyer and the company’s French CEO.
Meanwhile, a former employee of insulation manufacturer Celotex claimed that the company “falsified” a fire test to achieve better firefighting performance. The request was also shown texts exchanged by employees of insulation giant Kingspan, who mocked the “lies” in their company’s marketing materials. Both companies condemned the actions of individual employees, but claimed that they did not intentionally tamper with the tests.
With the focus of the investigation shifting to the RBKC and the Tenant Management Organization, we learned that both appeared to have failed in their duty to maintain the high-rise building. By 2017, KCTMO had a backlog of hundreds of incomplete maintenance jobs resulting from fire risk assessments. The RBKC rejected a recommendation due to budgetary concerns from the LFB to repair and inspect fire doors in the area. At Grenfell, vital fire safety equipment was not working on the night of the fire, and broken fire doors allowed smoke to spread easily through the building.
Nor did LFB escape further scrutiny in the second phase of the investigation. We have learned how the brigade failed to learn from previous disasters, most notably the 2009 Lacanal House Fire, and not prepare for an event like Greenville, despite being aware of the growing concerns about poorly constructed tall buildings.
RBKC, KCTMO and LFB have all apologized for their role in the Grenfell tragedy. However, witnesses to these organizations often attempted to place their decisions in the context of the budget constraints imposed by the government at the time.
When the officials and ministers responsible for fire safety in the pre-Greenville years finally came under scrutiny in March of this year, we learned how successive governments since the 1990s have failed to deal with Britain’s mounting fire safety crisis. New Labor failed to publish fire tests conducted in the early 2000s that showed the dangers of ACM. The deregulation offensive led by David Cameron has left officials unable to push for important changes to building code.
The second phase of the investigation, now in its 77th week, has just examined the immediate aftermath of the fire and shown how Greenville residents continued to be removed from the state in the weeks following the fire.
Over the past five years, the investigation has uncovered an overwhelming amount of evidence about the institutional, legal and governmental structures that allowed 72 people to die in a completely preventable catastrophe. However, this evidence means nothing if it does not lead to real change.
The survivors, former residents and bereaved families of Grenfell Tower have worked tirelessly to ensure that this tragedy does not happen again. An important milestone was reached last week when the government published the long-awaited Public Housing Act, which will greatly enhance the regulation of social landlords.
However, the pace of change was painfully slow. The government has not yet implemented the majority of recommendations from the first phase of the investigation and recently announced that it would reject a key recommendation that building owners develop personal evacuation plans for disabled residents.
There are now 111 cladding tall buildings across England where rehabilitation work is not yet complete, while thousands of people still live in dwellings with other types of hazardous cladding and safety defects.
Five years later, the Grenfell tragedy still holds an important place in our collective memory. It remains to be seen if it will be a real turning point.