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.”