Grenfell one year on: what have we learned?

You may have seen Grenfell pop up in the news this month. That’s because the public inquiry has started. It began with commemorative hearings paying tribute to those who had died, and throughout June the inquiry will hear from expert witnesses.

On the 14th June 2017, a flat on the fourth floor of the Grenfell tower block in North Kensington, West London, set on fire. Within two hours most of the upper floors were alight. 72 people died and over 70 were injured.

The day following the fire, Theresa May called for an independent inquiry. This was to establish the facts and to identify actions to be taken to prevent it from happening again.

Many questions were asked by the public and in the press. How could this have happened and who was to blame? Kensington & Chelsea Council, the London Fire Brigade and the government, all came under scrutiny for contributing to the circumstances surrounding the fire. Now, one year on, what have we learned about Grenfell?

We have learned that the building contained flammable material. The council carried out a refurbishment in 2015 and 2016, adding external cladding to the tower. Reports heard by the inquiry confirmed that the polyethene core of the cladding was flammable, and a primary cause of the spread of the fire. Windows replaced in the refurbishment also contained flammable material, another factor allowing the fire to spread.

We know that a series of safety failures were recorded throughout the building. This includes issues with the ventilation system, lifts and fire doors. Safety expert Dr Barbara Lane told the inquiry of a culture of “non-compliance” at Grenfell with basic fire safety measures “inadequate”. It has been revealed that the councils choice of materials for the refurbishment saved them nearly £300,000, suggesting that the council may have prioritised cutting costs before the safety of its constituents.

The London Fire Brigades “stay put” strategy has now been judged as having “effectively failed”. On the night of 14th June, firefighters instructed residents to stay in their homes, rather than evacuate the building. This is standard procedure when a fire is contained within one dwelling. It took only 30 minutes for the Grenfell fire to spread, but it took the fire service over an hour to abandon the “stay put” policy. The Metropolitan Police have launched their own investigation into potential safety offences made by the fire service.

Looking at the political climate surrounding Grenfell, we have learned more about actions made by the government that may have allowed the event to happen. Jeremy Corbyn has linked the deaths to Tory spending cuts since 2010, stating that cutting local authority budgets results in poorer safety measures.

The Prime Minister argued that Grenfell happened due to decades of neglect, taking place under governments and councils of all political persuasion. She pointed out that the cladding of tower blocks had started under Blair, and that the key issue was how flammable materials were put on tower blocks in the first place.

May is trying to deflect, but there is some credibility in looking back further for actions that enabled Grenfell to take place. Anna Minton views Grenfell as a result of decisions made by the government in the 1980’s. She states that it was Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” initiative that put the pressure on social housing. I agree that the wider issues of social housing, that helped create the context in which Grenfell happened, are historical and deeply rooted.

So, what have we learned one year on? We have learnt more about what, how and why Grenfell happened. The fire was the result of multiple failures made by multiple groups.

Yet, the most important lesson we can learn from Grenfell is what it reveals about our attitude to housing support and those who need it. Social housing has become a symbol of neglect and inequality. This had led to stigma and maltreatment of residents, and this is clearly the case with Grenfell.

This is an issue of race and class. Kensington and Chelsea is an affluent borough, with a population that is 71% white. This meant that a disproportionate number of those who were poor, or from an ethnic minority background, lived in the tower. Residents voiced their concerns about the building years before the fire and were ignored. Internal emails show how council staff struggled to connect with residents, describing the community as “gangs”. More than 156,000 people signed a petition calling for a more diverse inquiry panel, to reflect the community and to avoid whitewashing the investigation. The official response after the fire was so lacking, that community groups had to step in as the main provider of support to survivors.

This tells us something about the people our state chooses to value and listen to. Would a fire on this scale have happened in a richer, more white community? I think not.

It is important that questions surrounding Grenfell are answered and that the victims and survivors gain the justice they deserve. It will take the full inquiry, expected to continue at least into next year, for us to know the full picture. For the survivors, their healing will take longer, and many issues remain unresolved.

Grenfell has highlighted the need for changes to fire safety and building regulations. It also shows the need for a conversation around the treatment of people who live in social housing. We must not forget that Grenfell is a “political crime” and is the horrific product of economic inequality in Britain.

Photo credit: Evening Standard