We need to talk about Grenfell, and the corporate manslaughter of the poor.

I wrote this from the top of the church I volunteered in, inside the Police cordon at Grenfell, yesterday afternoon. I served as a Fire Control Operator for Essex Fire and Rescue Service from 2007 to 2011.


Everything about Grenfell looms, large and domineering. The spectre of what was once 600 peoples homes, shudders with ghouls and ashes, embers still burning on the top floors. Fire investigators hang out of windows, their hi-vis jackets indistinguishable from the deep burning red at the heart of the structure. Police cordons stand shoulder to shoulder, three deep. Hundreds of residents and protestors crush the Mayor into a corner as he tries to answer furious questions. Three stories of a local methodist church, basement to tower, packed floor to ceiling with donated shoes, clothes, toiletries, food, water. Six hundred stories, that will largely go untold.

I’ve seen a lot of fucking fires, I remarked as I turned the corner, but never… I trail off, feet grind to a halt, as I am waved through the Police cordon by a stony-faced officer. Breath catches, eyes squeeze shut, throat burning, words gone. Smoke still issues from the hollow, blackened spectre of where a community once stood. Where children once played. Where families grew, babies were born, pictures hung on walls, where love was made. 

My Dad was head of Fire Investigation for eight years at Essex Fire and Rescue Service. A firefighter for thirty. I called him on Wednesday morning, building plans in my hand, to howl about the rapid even spread of fire, to ask about building regulations, to clarify in my rusty memory the firefighting procedures for a high rise building. I called a scientist, an architect, several firefighters, and a lawyer. Between us all we hold decades of service, encyclopaedias of chemical information, forensic knowledge of building structures and escape routes. And the hideous footage of the cladding well alight, the collapse of the windows, and the grim knowledge that the top floors are too structurally insecure to access to search.
Missing posters line the walls around us. We dutifully photograph them to share, and information about beds for the night, showers at leisure centres, how to help, and how to find help. It feels rudimentary, mechanical. There is nobody left, to help. Not here.
I pair two hundred pairs of shoes. There is a methodical, consensual silence among the volunteers. A young girl asks where it will all go. We all falter. There aren’t enough people to make use of all the donations, I think, and the realisation strangles me slowly. Not now. Nobody says it aloud, as a boy of around seven hands home made shortbread to dozens of tired volunteers. We hold our breath, wondering what he’s thinking beneath his blond curls and wide, staring eyes.

There is no life after fire. Not right away. Life becomes compartmentalised, into before, and after. Rebuilding takes more than donated trainers and cups of tea – as brilliant and as heartwarming as the kindness of strangers is. When you lose everything you own in one fell swoop, you can struggle to believe in anything any more. The idea of a future seems null and void. What are you saving for, when nothing is guaranteed? What are you building on, when buildings come down? Simply putting one foot in front of another is a gargantuan effort. Those shattered foundations will take an unthinkable amount of effort to rebuild. The faultlines of post traumatic stress can become earthquakes years later. As well as new homes and new clothes, the survivors will need their families, their friends, mental health support, some will need social workers, but absolutely none of them should be left to navigate the wasteland alone.
Grenfell is not a tragedy. It is an entirely preventable act of mass corporate manslaughter. It is gross negligence. It is wilful neglect. It is political – social housing primarily occupied by the poorest residents, tarted up with dangerous materials to appease the richest borough in London. The politics run deep, and difficult, uncomfortable questions need to be asked. 
Was the cladding fire-tested? Are there loopholes in building regulations that allowed this to happen? Why did Harley Facades remove the building plans from their website within a matter of hours of the fire? Why did Kensington and Chelsea threaten legal action against the residents group who had raised these very concerns seven months ago? Why were the fire alarms so muted? 
In 1971 the Fire Precaution Act was created, partly in response to a large nightclub fire in Bristol. The Act gave fire services the legal right to enter any building and declare it fit for purpose and safe from fire. Fastforward to the 1990s, and some very heavy lobbying of MPs by landlords, the Act was scrapped, and replaced with a Regulatory Reform Bill, basically, the power to write a stern letter after a tragedy, rather than to prevent one from happening in the first place.
So where fire officers once had a forensic knowledge of the construction of a building, now they rely on the information that is available to them. As we’ve seen with Grenfell, that info can disappear from the public domain pretty fast. Builders can deviate from plans and specifications at will, so the info about materials may not be relevant even if available.
We need to ask why each flat was not built as a fire retardant cell, as flats in tower blocks are designed to be? How many more blocks are at risk? What is going to be done about them? And we need to hand building regulations back to the experts, the Fire Service. Not self-interested, corner-cutting, shoddy and unscrupulous building companies whose response to this inferno was to bury the evidence of their involvement at all.
To claim it is not political is an insult to those who have lost their lives, their families, their friends, their livelihoods. One survivor bitterly refers to the devastation as ‘social cleansing’. “They wanted us out of here,” he raged, “and they’ve got what they wanted now.”
Jack Monroe.

Me, Flashover Training at Wethersfield Training Centre, 2011.

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Categories: Blog

26 Comments »

  1. The MPs that scrapped that act should have to come and explain their action to the survivors. Along with all those responsible for this appalling, and preventable tragedy. All those who moan about health and safety gone mad should go to help the clearing up.

    Thanks Jack. A brilliant article. We must all agitate for all those accountable to be brought to justice.

    • Thank you so very much for this heartfelt, heartstopping, heartwarming post. So many of us have a strong relationship to this horrific fire, for so many reasons. I’m too tired to voice what’s in my heart and you’ve done it for me. Go well, thank you for all you do. Much love x

  2. Thank you for writing this Jack. The more I read about Grenfell the more desperate I feel.
    Budget cuts effect those of us with the least in the first place.
    Poor people should not be treated as ‘collateral damage’. They are so badly served by successive governments.

  3. Whenever there are these tragedies people rush to help but I am asking if there should be a body that coordinates efforts at these times. Yesterday someone told me a children’s centre was going to take donations to London and there was a list of items required. I drove 20 miles round journey and gave in items from the list mainly baby food,formula milk etc. Today on Facebook I read that they have so much it could end up in landfill! I am asking my self if it was just an empty gesture on my part. I could have just stuck it in the food bank collection at the local supermarket, I am sure there are plenty of people that could use the items. In the case of London surely the Mayors office could perform this coordinating role. My daughter had already warned me that there were scam collecting sites and sure I could have given some cash to the salvation army or other recognised charity but buying actual things seemed better, . Like food banks I thought my donation would be used in full and not frittered away in admin costs.

  4. Brilliantly written, Jack.

    Scrapping the act was bad enough. The landlords voting down last year’s amendment which would have compelled landlords make their premises “fit for human habitation” was something else.

  5. I went to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, around the time the Berlin Wall came down. Many things horrified me that day.
    Of the many images I’ve tried to erase and can’t, are the piles of shoes, spectacles, luggage, hair, prosthetic limbs, that were taken from prisoners, to service the Nazi war machine.
    Looking at your photos of boxes of shoes and piles of donations, immediately took me back almost thirty years to the site that proves beyond doubt just how barbaric a species we can be. If proof were ever needed.
    Except in that in Grenfell, everything donated was given through an act of generosity, of love for our fellow man. The tragedy contained in your photos as I saw it, wasn’t who the possessions had come from and how, but that the people for whom they were intended are still lying amongst the debris of the tower block.
    In Italy they have a phrase called ‘clean hands’. Often used to describe those public officials and others, untainted by the pervasive culture of bribery. I suspect that very few in the local council, in Westminster and elsewhere, will emerge from the public enquiry with clean hands. I am sceptical about the efficacy of a public enquiry since most often, such a device is used by the government of the day to ‘kick the can down the road’.
    This tragedy might’ve been avoided, if the lessons learned at the last tower block fire in London, had been put into effect.
    It is a very basic and core principle of health and safety science, that if you ignore near miss accidents and smaller incidents, injuries will become more serious and eventually, deaths will occurr. As sure as night follows day.
    There welll be mre Grenfells.

  6. I have read your post Jack with tears running down my cheeks – EVERY life is precious and special and those who believe the inhabitants of Grenfel House were any less than precious must take a long hard look at themselves. What happened was inexcusable unforgivable and culpable and I agree that corporate manslaughter should and will be proven. I hope so -but it won’t bring those lives lost back, and my heart goes out to those who have lost family and friends and to those who have survived, all of whose lives have been irreparably damaged ( and I include all the emergency services who will never forget what they have seen) Jane

  7. The trouble is ;architects ,planners, etc don’t live in the houses they design or allow to be built It must be hell to live in a tower block with non functioning lifts, where you can’t allow your kids out to play in the garden because , well there is no garden , where a person who uses a wheelchair is trapped upstairs and can’t get fresh air, People deserve decent homes , in a good state of repair, with outdoor space , accessible by all I’m sure you get the picture, the working class have been demonised for too long and made to put up with rubbish. i’m not suprised that people are now in Kensington Town Hall protesting , I’m suprised we aren’t all on the streets protesting .

  8. Wanted to read your article but found it difficult to read as your website has small faint print and does not fit on the page of my iPad. You used to have such a good clear website. Can you improve it.?

  9. There is such a thing as corporate manslaughter. Executives can be held liable if negligent. There needs to be a transparent and independent enquiry, urgently!

  10. I can’t imagine that the future figures much in the minds of many tower block residents, or if it does, it’s a future lived elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why there was so little protection for them, despite complaints. Why demand fire extinguishers that will only be stolen or misused, or sprinkler systems that will get set off by hooligans, damaging, even ruining what few possessions people have?

    Hope is what drives people to anticipate better things, a better life, for themselves and others, and hope is what’s been in short supply, in the past few years.

  11. Well written and informative Jack. There are many questions we need answers to and no doubt councils throughout Britain are currently panicking about the state of their own buildings.

  12. Well said Jack.
    Bring back the1971 the Fire Precaution Act and allow the fire service a voice as well as the power to save lives

  13. Brilliant article, we need to know what happened. My instinct is that contractors used the cheapest options available, and that the local government was forced into choosing the lowest tender that was submitted.

  14. I don’t think I could make a better speech Jack, you have said everything. I still can’t get the pictures out of my mind, they were all human beings and are being mourned for by many many people. It’s just sick in this day and age, and cutting corners to make things better, supposedly has caused these poor souls their lives, this is manslaughter on a big scale, and people have to be punished.

  15. From the news tonight it appears that a fridge caught fire on the 4th floor. The fridge was by an open window and the flames spread outside to the cladding, and then upwards. The cladding in my opinion is why the fire spread so quickly. Someone should be made accountable for this.

  16. Dearest Jack, So agonizingly well written, a cry of pain for those people so wronged. Who knows what lies ahead but for sure heads will be held in shame. It must and will happen. Thank you for your writing.
    With love to you, Peggy

  17. Time for people before money becomes the norm, time when people are concerned the profit margins are not the first concern. I’m sick and tired of being called loony leftie and other such pathetic names. There was no need at all for those people to suffer in this….. I can’t find the words that describe it, hellish nightmare just doesn’t cover it. An inquiry is of no use to the relatives and friends of those who have perished, it need an inquest for every death and the courts to come down hard on those who turned the other way and let this happen all for the sake of a rosy spreadsheet. Everyone rich or poor deserves to live in safe homes. There are NO excuses. 😥

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