Grenfell: Never again? Not so sure

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it

Some images stay with you forever. Sometimes they are the good ones – the first sight of your child, delivered by a beaming midwife into your arms, the policeman dancing with children at the Manchester Arena Concert, Johnny Wilkinson’s drop-goal in 2003, Springsteen at Wembley Stadium in 1985.

Sometimes they are not: the planes heading into the World Trade Center, the person leaping to their certain death to escape the collapsing building, the woman in the mask on July 7th 2007, and the burning Grenfell Tower block on June 14th 2017.

Five years ago today, 72 people lost their lives and nearly 600 were made homeless when the tower block, they lived in, which had no sprinklers, turned into the towering inferno. Five years during which very little has changed.

There are still thousands of people living in blocks of flats which they cannot sell because the cladding on the outside of the building is deemed unsafe. Thousands of people who were given bills that they could not pay in order to remove said cladding and replace it with a non-combustible alternative. The argument about who should pay for this remedial work has been going on for most of those five years. At various points, it’s been the responsibility of the government, the building owners, the developers and the manufacturers of the materials.

The Grenfell Enquiry, nearing its close, aims to find out what went wrong, how it was allowed to go so wrong and, hopefully to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again.

The fault lies with a number of individuals and organisations, all of whom need to bear some of the blame. Some of them more than others: the fire service, the government, the construction industry, the housing sector, the inspection and testing sector, and the manufacturers of the products that combusted so quickly and with such devastating consequences.

There have been thousands of words committed to this subject by journalists far closer to the action than I and who understand far better than I all the ramifications: I urge you to keep an eye on what Pete Apps at Inside Housing does, particularly on Twitter. He’s been covering the Enquiry and his Twitter feed is insightful, extensive, sobering and damning.

This week, he published a long Twitter thread, (you can see it here) which left readers in no doubt that the victims of Grenfell were failed by pretty much everyone around them, from the local authority who slashed the refurbishment budget, the management company that had no evacuation plan and hadn’t given any thought to whether or not there were any disabled residents, nor how they might get out of the building in an emergency, the government that refused to implement new regulations or act on advice following the similar Lakanal House block fire six years earlier, to the contactors trying to shave as much cost as they could, and the manufacturers of some of the various elements, for whom profit was the only thing that mattered.

The enquiry made clear that there were people working for Kingspan and Celotex who knew that the products had failed the relevant fire tests, and that they were not suitable for use in high-rise buildings. Yet they kept on selling it. They kept on twisting and turning the data to their advantage so that they could keep selling it where it had no right to be sold. Not only did it combust rapidly, so, so rapidly but, in the case of the RS5000, it gave off deadly cyanide gas. Poisonous gas.

Those responsible for specifying the product would no doubt claim that, had they known the real results of the fudged fire tests, they would never have signed off on the work, that they only did so because they had misleading information upon which to base their specifications. Which is why, in the intervening years we have had the construction industry develop the Code for Construction Product Information, which aims to ensure that product information passes five key tests: Clear, Accurate, Up-to-date, Accessible, and Unambiguous, in order to ensure that this can never happen again. Except, we all know it could. It happened again after Lakanal House, it can happen again after Grenfell, despite everything.

As Apps puts it: “Overall – we approach the fifth anniversary of Grenfell unable to say that the tragedy could not happen again. And that is something no one would have accepted when they saw the images of flames ripping through the tower half a decade ago”

A question for those who put the sale of their products above everything else: Was that sales bonus worth it? Look at this picture and ask yourselves the question again, was it worth it?

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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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