Appearance matters in the Conservative controlled Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea – the richest council in the UK. It’s planning application for refurbishments to Grenfell Tower is littered with references to how cladding would improve the views from neighbouring luxury houses in the Ladbroke and Avondale Conservation Areas – with average home values of £2M.
When leader of the Council, Nick Paget-Brown, visited the newly refurbished Grenfell Tower in May 2016, he commented on how “remarkable” it was to see “first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower”.
The council paid £8.4M for refurbishments and the cladding. Despite having built reserves of £209M to 2016/17 (£42M of which is surplus to requirements), it did not spend £200,000 on fire sprinkler systems. It did not spend £5,000 extra needed for fire resistant cladding.
No, they wrapped Grenfell in plastic and told residents to”stay put” in the event of a fire.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Whole families, children, and the immobile elderly housed on the higher floors, burned to death. Those that survived only did so by ignoring official advice to stay in their rooms and close their front doors until the fire was over. The fire spread rapidly because the cladding had a wrap-around chimney effect all round the building, drawing flames upwards through gaps between the cladding and the building walls.
The Grenfell Tower fire reeks of the stench of injustice and a whitewash in the making. Of course the gutter press did its usual, smearing the guy whose fridge went on fire, instead of asking how a small fire can spread within minutes to consume an entire building. However, the monopoly of press barons and TV networks is ending, and people, especially the marginalised, dispossessed and negatively-stereotyped, are seeking their own information instead of being led along by an establishment narrative.
Terrifying, upsetting footage has emerged from inside the Tower. It shows what the families on the top floors had to contend with as black billowing smoke encroached and the concrete ground was too hot to walk on. The 6 minutes and 34 seconds of footage is harrowing to watch.
Rania Ibrahim, 30, and her two little girls children, are stranded on the 23rd floor, she appears to be pacing between the window and her front door, their only protection against the smoke and heat, she hears cries outside, her friend warns her to not to open the door and to think of her children.
Rania hesitates, she recites Islamic prayers from the Quran. Her children can be heard, she opens the door a little, hellish noise, people crying out and howling, thick, black, blinding smoke. Her friend tells her she is letting the smoke in.
She closes the door. She goes to the window, fire engines screaming, police on tannoys, the dizzying impossible heights. She opens the door again, calls out to ask is anyone there, come here. Two terrified men run in and tell her to close the door. She says okay, but she goes out of the door and closes it behind her, she calls out again. Another mans voice is heard, it’s okay we are in our apartment. Okay.
She comes back in, recites more prayers, she is telling her family there was a fire and too much smoke. She couldn’t breathe, the smoke, her little girl asks her what is happening, she tells her to sit down low on the ground, she shouts down from her window, we are on the 23rd floor, the police are shouting for everyone to get out, though earlier she told her friends on snapchat the police had said don’t come out, stay indoors until the fire engines come, and she did so, and they all did. The police are saying get out, but how are we meant to get out? The film stops, her battery has died.
The police have said there was no chance of saving those stranded on the upper floors. Rania Ibrahim ought to be given a posthumous bravery award for her humanity and courage in the midst of a situation of corporate negligence.
As for the cowards that let this happen?
On Tuesday night, in an extraordinary interview on Newsnight, the local council leader Nick Paget-Brown, sounded like a spokesman for slum landlords. He’s asking us not to focus on the negligible fire safety measures. Instead we are to blame the poor, the refugees, the victims. People who never had a voice in the first place. His callous denial of responsibility, while human beings were still trapped and burning in his building, is worth noting:
“There wasn’t a collective view that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers because that would have delayed and made the refurbishment of the block more disruptive … many residents felt that we needed to get on with the installation of new hot water systems, new boilers and that trying to retrofit more would delay the building and that sprinklers aren’t the answer.”
Paget-Brown didn’t mention that he received legal warnings about fire safety in two other tower blocks. His denial is in direct contradiction to the words of residents.
The Grenfell Action Group’s blog warned about a number of fire safety risks including high power surges and problems with emergency access. Their warnings sound vehement, accusatory and prophetic.
“We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are warning of … unfortunately only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO [Kensington and Chelsea Tenancy Management Organisation] residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation … a serious fire in a tower block is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice.
“The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.”
One wealthy resident wrote to the Guardian after the fire and called his council tax rebate “blood money” in return for regeneration. He returned it to his local church out of guilt alone and called on other resident to do the same. He called the Grenfell Tower fire the “acrid truth” for a Borough intent on regeneration.
There is no getting away from the stark truth that Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council spent millions of pounds on a facade that kills, but skimped on rudimentary fire safety measures.
The council ignored advice from residents and world class fire safety experts alike.
The US, Germany and Australia had all banned its use on tall buildings.
As far back as 2000, Gordon Cooke – a leading fire safety consultant – warned that using the type of cladding used on Grenfell “is difficult to justify when considering life safety” and “can contribute to the severity and speed of fire development” . He went on to state that this has led to “massive fire losses” in the past.
Or as one architect put it “I never use that type of cladding. Your gut tells you it’s wrong to wrap a building in plastic.”
The UK Government is now mired in accusations of neglect on fire safety. For four years, the Government sat on a damning report about fire safety about 4,000 older tower blocks being at risk of fire because of cladding and not having fire sprinklers fitted.
James Wharton, Housing Minister, said he was looking at the report in 2015 and would make a statement. He didnt. Why not?
Two years on, Gavin Barwell the Housing Minister said he would discuss it and meet the all party group – and then the General Election was called.
Under David Cameron’s government, ministers congratulated themselves on the “cutting of red tape” which included cutting the time spent on fire safety inspections from 6 hours to 45 minutes.
In 2016 an overwhelming number of Conservative members (72 of which were landlords themselves) voted against legislation that would have required private landlords to make their homes “fit for human habitation”.
Theresa May has ordered a “public inquiry”. But who can trust a woman who would not even meet the grieving families at the scene?
Sophie Khan, the solicitor who acted for people affected in the 2009 Lakanal House fire said she believed the sudden decision to call a public inquiry was a deliberate attempt to avoid close scrutiny of the various public bodies involved in the running and maintenance of Grenfell Tower. She said:
“I’m very concerned as to why Ms May came out so quickly to say, ‘public inquiry’. What is there, that she knows, that needs to be hidden?”
Shortly after the Grenfell fire, the Scottish Government wrote to every social housing provider asking them to check their stock for fire risks. Every social housing provider in the country ought to be concerned.
There needs to be a fully independent inquiry and an inquest to unearth the true causes of the fire for the public interest. Nothing less will do for the residents of the UK’s 4,000 other tower blocks so that it can never happen again. The failings at Grenfell demand a corporate manslaughter investigation and charges brought against those who are culpable – the ones who had a responsibility to prevent this happening and do something about it, who were warned repeatedly, reminded by previous catastrophes, but took no heed.
We still don’t know the actual number of dead. Anyone would expect an up to date list of every tenant living in Grenfell Tower to be available to check who has survived & who has not. That’s all that’s needed.
How many survivors are there? Will those that are accommodated outside the borough be guaranteed that they will not lose their “local connection” with schools, and GPs? Will the Council rebuild social housing on the Grenfell land? Or will this be the excuse for more social cleansing and gentrification?
People have a right to truthful answers.
June 17, 2017
The Grenfell petition can be found here.
Room for Refugees refugee hosting programme has 750 hosts in London. We are ready to assist with shelter needs of families affected by the Grenfell Tower fire through our London caseworkers. For more information please go to www.roomforrefugees.com and email firstname.lastname@example.org.