This week marked eleven months since the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower, in north Kensington, killing over 70 people in an inferno that should never have taken place. Flats in tower blocks are designed to resist the onslaught of even a serious fire until the emergency services can arrive, but the cladding which had been applied to the tower, to make it look more attractive, was flammable, and in the process of installing it the structural integrity of the tower had been fatally compromised.
We know this from the warnings published by tenants, the Grenfell Action Group, on their website, but shamefully ignored by Kensington and Chelsea Council, and by the management company responsible for their homes, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, as I made clear immediately after the fire, in an article entitled, Deaths Foretold at Grenfell Tower: Let This Be The Moment We The People Say “No More” to the Greed That Killed Residents.
We have also had it confirmed, just last week, in a leaked report prepared as part of the Metropolitan Police investigation into the fire, by fire investigation experts BRE Global Ltd., which concluded that “the original concrete building was transformed from a safe structure into a tinderbox by the refurbishment between 2014 and 2016.”
Despite this, the official response to the Grenfell Tower fire is that there is no official response until an inquiry has taken place. The inquiry was first announced 15 days after the fire, on June 29, 2017, when Theresa May also announced that it would be chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, but the inquiry is not yet underway, and is only starting next week.
However, the choice of judge, the make-up of the inquiry panel, and the terms of reference of the inquiry were all subjected to serious criticism after the inquiry was announced. Matt Wrack, the head of the Fire Brigades Union, said, “Central government has created the housing and fire safety regime and central government must be held to account for any failings in it. Yet the terms of reference signed off by Theresa May appear designed to avoid this.” As the Guardian described it, he “said the inquiry should not focus simply on the actions of a local authority or contractor”, and stated, “It is about the overarching regime, the political climate under which they operate. People across the world are asking how, in the UK, it is possible to apply flammable systems of cladding to residential tower blocks. The risk in Moore-Bick’s terms of reference is that the inquiry is able to avoid probing deeper to examine the regime which allowed these deaths to happen, conveniently taking the spotlight off government ministers and any policies that were or weren’t in place that may have had an impact.”
Concerns about a whitewash of central government’s role in allowing the fire to happen were voiced by local MP Emma Dent Coad, of the Labour Party. She called the terms of reference for the inquiry a “complete betrayal” and said that the community would not have faith in it, because, by not considering social housing, it would “not get to the heart of the problem.” She also said, “We were told ‘no stone would be [left] unturned’ but instead are being presented with a technical assessment which will not get to the heart of the problem: what effects, if any, the lack of investment into social housing had on the refurbishment project.”
For the survivors, a particular bone of contention was the make-up of the inquiry panel, which was regarded as having a lack of diversity, and not representing the community. The led to a petition to the government being launched in November, asking for additional panel members, trusted by the community, to be appointed to the inquiry. The petition gained the 100,000 signatures needed to be eligible for a Parliamentary debate in February, after grime star Stormzy promoted it to his millions of supporters.
Parliament scheduled a debate on the petition to take place on May 14, prior to the start of the official inquiry next week, but perhaps without realising that it marked exactly eleven months since the fire, and so, yesterday, survivors, members of the local community and supporters from across London converged on Parliament to make their feelings known, holding a rally in Parliament Square before the debate began in Westminster Hall, before returning to north Kensington for a Silent Walk from the Methodist church at the foot of Grenfell Tower to Ladbroke Grove station and back. The Silent Walks take place on the 14th of every month, and are a profoundly moving experience, as I appreciated first-hand when I took part in the Silent Walk in December.
Just days before the debate, Theresa May attempted to defuse campaigners’ disappointment with the government’s ongoing failures to treat the Grenfell community and the survivors of the fire with the respect they deserve by announcing that two additional members would be appointed to the inquiry panel. However, as speakers at yesterday’s rally pointed out, it is by no means certain that this concession will satisfy the community’s demands, because the government has not made clear who these two additional members will be, and how they will be chosen.
At yesterday’s rally, the speakers also made a point of explaining how, eleven months on from the disaster, they have little reason for believing that the government intends to deliver anything resembling justice to survivors and the local community, primarily because many of the survivors are still living in temporary accommodation. They also made it clear that their concerns are for all the inhabitants of refurbished tower blocks around the country, who are living in fear, because their buildings also have dangerous cladding, just like Grenfell had, and yet no one is in any hurry to spend the money to make their homes safe.
I arrived at Parliament Square in time to hear from a 19-year old from the Grenfell community speaking about how the disaster politicised him, as is the case with so many others in the vicinity of the tower, and as I stated yesterday, when posting a photo of the rally on Facebook, “Perhaps this politicisation is the only way that those who lost their lives last June will not have died in vain, as the intensity of feeling in the Grenfell community, the solidarity it has created, and the ripples from that anger and solidarity that have emanated from Grenfell across London and around the country continue to create an environment in which those living in social housing, and those marginalised by the establishment, generally on the basis of race, refuse to be treated with contempt by those in positions of power and authority.”
Certainly, the speakers I heard yesterday all echoed this mistrust of the authorities when it comes to delivering justice, and the importance of solidarity amongst those affected — not just in north Kensington, but across the capital and across the UK as a whole. Community organiser Niles Hailstones spoke eloquently about this, as did Moyra Samuels from the Justice4Grenfell campaign, and Natasha Alcock of the survivors’ group Grenfell United, who lived on the 11th floor of Grenfell Tower, and was rescued by firefighters at 4.30am on the day of the fire.
Alcock told the rally, “We don’t want the people who died a year ago to have died in vain. There are also people still living in blocks with this cladding. We want to ensure that people in social housing don’t get treated like we did.” The Guardian explained how Karim Mussilhy, whose uncle died in the fire, also made a similar call. “They should ban the cladding full stop,” Mussilhy said, adding, “We still have death traps out there in London. Let’s make those changes now and give people the assurance they are safe in their homes. Sprinklers need to be added and the cladding removed.”
As the Guardian also explained:
There are 306 residential blocks more than 18 metres in height that are clad in aluminium composite panels similar to those at Grenfell and that have failed government fire tests. The cladding remains in place on 54 social housing blocks and dozens more private apartment towers across England. The cost of replacement has been put as high as £1bn.
The government has said it is the responsibility of landlords to replace failed cladding, but it is keeping this position under review. Many blocks remain untouched because of legal disputes between freeholders and leaseholders over who should pay. The government has ordered a review of building regulations from Dame Judith Hackitt, who is expected to report back this week.
There is widespread concern at Westminster and among survivors that Hackitt will not recommend a ban on the use of combustible cladding and will say materials of “limited combustibility” should still be allowed to be used.
The Guardian also stated that the rally “showcased continued distrust of the authorities among some in the Grenfell community. Speakers described officials as ‘aliens’ and ‘androids’, and the crowd chanted: ‘No justice! No peace!’”
Another speaker I saw, a young Muslim woman called Naima, also pointed out that the majority of the victims in Grenfell Tower were Muslim — an inconvenient truth in a country where sympathy for Muslims has been so damaged by rampant Islamophobia.
I also heard the Labour MP Diane Abbott speak at the rally. As the Huffington Post described it, she “congratulated campaigners on their success in convincing [Theresa] May to include additional panel members, but said it was ‘not enough.’”
“We need to know who they are going to be,” she said, adding, “What made the difference in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry was the actual people who served on the panel. If they just had puppets on the panel that is not going to help anybody.”
She also brought up the class and race issue that the government is doing so much to avoid, saying, “You can talk about the cladding, you can talk about the regulations. But there’s also an attitude to communities that needs to be exposed and needs to be eliminated and I think it’s about those underlying issues about who has power and how they use it that are so important.”
Other MPs also spoke at the rally, and then at the Parliamentary debate. A video of the three-hour debate is here, and a full transcript is here. In addition, Emma Dent Coad has made her speech available here.
The Guardian explained how “MPs debated proposed measures to increase community confidence in the public inquiry. Many voiced concern that parliament and government had already lost the confidence of the Grenfell residents.”
The Guardian added, “David Lammy, who lost two friends in the fire, said 72 households from Grenfell were still living in hotel rooms and 64 remained in temporary accommodation. Referring to the survivors’ campaign for an inquiry panel, he said: ‘I regret that people who are in grief and in so much pain have had to organise and campaign to ensure their voices have been heard. Theresa May talks about burning injustices, but this injustice burned.” He added, “I remind the government of the words of Neville Lawrence [the father of Stephen Lawrence] in 2012: ‘The loss itself combined with the lack of justice means I have not been able to rest all this time.’”
For anyone wanting to know more, I also wholeheartedly recommend the Guardian’s front page feature yesterday, profiling the 71 people who died in the fire.
As I explained when I posted a link to the article on Facebook:
Here are the people who died, the individuals whose lives should not have been lost, vividly, beautifully remembered by their loved ones and friends.
Just a few of the introductions to the profiles are here:
Rania Ibrahim: “Rania did everything fast, as if she knew she was leaving life early”
Fathia Ali Ahmed Alsanousi”: “Her flat was beautiful, always full of people”
Mohamednur ‘Mo’ Tuccu: “He had a way of making you feel like an old friend – welcome and at ease”
Incidentally, the victims were also a cross-section of a modern, international Britain that should be celebrated and not denigrated by the racists trying to dictate our future, although, as the Guardian noted in an article introducing these profiles, while “[t]he makeup of the 71 people who died shows how diverse, open and tolerant Britain has become in the past 30 years (more than half the adult victims had arrived in the country since 1990)”, it is also crucial to remember that “Grenfell was not a microcosm of Britain or London. There were few white-collar workers among the victims and only seven white Britons, indicative of how the disaster disproportionately affected minority ethnic communities.”