This is an excellent and harrowing account of the events of the night of 14 June 2017 and the relevant policy framework by a leading housing journalist. 72 residents lost their lives in the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower. We know from Part 1 of the now-published Grenfell Tower Inquiry that this tragic event should never have happened. Part 2 of the inquiry is in the process of being written. Once the final report is published, the police will announce what criminal charges if any will be brought.
In successive chapters the author takes the reader through what happened on the night of the fire and the historical reasons for the fire. Below are summarised the key staggering conclusions that the author reaches.
Peter correctly identifies the failure to properly respond to the fire at Lakanal House in South East London with fatal consequences. The inquest exposed major fire safety failures. The coroner wrote to the Government to ask for a review of the official fire safety guidance. She wanted the government to encourage greater use of the fire sprinkler system. The Coalition Government was too concerned with deregulation to take effective action: had they done so this tragedy would not have happened.
The Building Research Establishment were not asked by Government to carry out tests on the paneling at Lakanal House. However, the Metropolitan Police and the Fire Brigade approached the BRE to do so in December 2009. The result of these tests was that the panels used on the walls burnt fiercely and did not meet the relevant safety standard.
Fire Brigade Commanders struggled with managing the fire on 14 June. Communication systems failed which had been at fault in 2009. A paper system was relied upon to communicate between incident commanders and firefighters. The Brigade had no effective plan to deal with a major fire at this 24-storey block.
There was an over-rigid reliance on the “staying put “policy whereby residents were told to remain in their flats until fire fighters could rescue them. The fire and the smoke were too intense and toxic to allow firefighters to get to all floors in this 24-storey tower block. Nor was there an effective Plan B if the staying put policy failed.
Part 1 of the inquiry has recommended the introduction of Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans. 37 of the Tower block residents when the fire broke out were disabled: they could not be evacuated unaided. Fifteen of them died in the fire. Despite Ministers saying that they would implement all Inquiry recommendations, the Government will shortly have to defend its refusal to make such plans mandatory in the High Court.
There were numerous failures by the landlord, Kensington and Chelsea Management Organisation. Warnings from residents were ignored as were various fire safety notices served on the Tenant Management Company by the London Fire Brigade There were major problems with the self-closing mechanisms for the fire safety doors that an independent fire safety consultant failed to spot.
The tower block was fitted with Aluminum Composite Material (ACM) cladding. ACM is effectively two thin sheets of aluminum held together by a plastic core. The plastic bonding the metals together is polyethylene. This is made from petroleum. It is highly flammable. The manufacturers knew from tests carried out in 2004 that this was the case. They concealed these results from their customers and lobbied Government for less regulation.
There was one civil servant, Brian Martin, who was responsible for fire safety policy in residential buildings. He knew all about the dangers of ACM cladding. He had the difficult job of trying to advise Ministers who were committed to deregulation and austerity cuts. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged in a speech in January 2012 to ‘wage war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British business’.
At the inquiry on 30 March 2022, Brain Martin is quoted as saying there were ‘a number of occasions where I could have potentially prevented this [ the fire] from happening.’ ‘What I will say is that the approach the government-successive governments had to regulation had had an impact on the way we worked, the resources we had available, the mindset that we’d adopted as a team, and myself in particular. I think, as a result of that, I ended up being the single point of failure in the department… For that I’m bitterly sorry.’
But for covid, fire safety would have been the major political issue of the day. The Government has partly improved the fire safety regime via the 2022 Building Safety Act. Remarkably the United Kingdom still appears to be only one of two countries in the world that still allows planning permission to be granted for blocks with only one stairwell.
All Labour activists should read this book. It shows up the failure of Government policy to have effective fire safety policies due to an ideological commitment to deregulation. It will make you angry.
Dermot Mckibbin is a member of the National Leasehold Campaign, a supporter of the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, and writes a blog on www.getcommonholddone.co.uk. He is also a member of LHG Executive Committee.