A few months ago, I accompanied a friend to a town-centre shop unit he was viewing as part of a business development project.
The ground floor unit had previously been used as a restaurant and included a large eating area, bar and kitchen. It had been vacant for more than a year and was in poor condition.
Immediately above were flats, accessible via a single entrance next to the shopfront. At some point over the months, there had been a major leak from the flat above, leaving a pile of debris on the floor and a gaping hole in the ceiling above.
My friend, experienced in matters of building design and fire regulations, told the young estate agent showing us around that her agency was marketing a death trap.
He talked her through design flaws in the property’s fire prevention systems and suggested, among other things, that the wiring looked very suspect. He believed that merely restoring the power supply posed a significant fire risk.
The inescapable conclusion from this discreet gathering was that the problems with this site reflected a wider malaise around building and fire regulation in the UK.
He claimed the building’s condition was dangerous and that the property’s owner was breaking the law. He feared whether the residents above could easily escape if a fire ever broke out in the shop.
The entire site needed work worth tens of thousands of pounds just to make it compliant with the law. But though the freeholder – who was based in Italy – had been informed, he showed no interest in upgrading the property, even though this was an impediment to letting the shop. He had no real incentive to do so.
Instead, the freeholder expected any restorative works to be funded and completed by the leaseholder. Yet, if a fire ever did break out there – and, especially, if it claimed any lives – it would be him that faced prison.
A lack of political will
This was a quiet and short meeting in a boarded up property obscured from public view. And even if a fire did break out, the consequences would merely provide local headlines to a local tragedy.
But the wider message was clear. Though I cannot remember the exact words, what he said during our viewing can be paraphrased in the following way:
UK building regulations are a complete mess. And this mess is not being helped by an ideological drive to reduce the State. Building standards and regulations were among those that disappeared in the ‘bonfire of red tape’ led by communities secretary Eric Pickles under David Cameron’s Coalition government from 2010.
‘Red tape’, as it is labelled, can be irritating and costly. But there are often good reasons why ‘red tape’ is put in place.
This is relevant when it comes to building control. Property is both an asset and a risk. In today’s inflated property market, the demands of those who can pay those inflated prices have been given priority over those whose home is in publicly-owned housing.
Indeed, the political direction of travel under a Conservative government closely allied to private landlords and the housebuilding industry has been to roll back regulation and let ‘The Market’ do its thing.
As part of this, council tenants have faced a rearguard action against property developers and their town hall friends who have eyed up their homes as new business opportunities. Just look at what happened to the tenants in the West Hendon estate under the Conservative council’s stwardship. The State, under the Conservatives, will not protect you.
Housing is a major political issues. But, while food standards inspectors regularly visit bars, cafes and restaurants, building inspectors rarely appear at all other than to check compliance on new construction projects and refurbishments.
Too often, when they do appear, it’s in the wake of an otherwise preventable incident, such as a fire, that has caused extensive damage or claimed lives.
In one of the direct quotes I do remember from that spring afternoon, my friend said: “Only after a fire has caused death on a major scale will anything be done. And, possibly, not even then.”
A disaster waiting to happen
The fire that gutted the 24-storey Grenfell Tower, in north Kensington, early on Wednesday morning was of a much greater magnitude than any of us have seen before.
Survivors described how the fire, alleged to have been caused by a faulty fridge on the fourth floor, spread with terrifying speed and engulfed the whole block within just half an hour.
Without luck and a hasty exit, many of those above the sixth floor and beyond the fire brigade’s reach were doomed.
News programmes showed deeply distressing scenes of trapped residents faced with the choice of burning to death or jumping to their death. Babies were flung out of window’s in a desperate hope they would be caught and saved.
But bewilderment and grief quickly turned to fury when the history of antagonism between the block’s tenant campaign group, the Grenfell Action Group, Kensington & Chelsea council, their ultimate landlord, and its tenant management organisation, KCTMO, came to light.
Fire safety scandal
Indeed, the ongoing ‘fire safety scandal’ is a recurring theme on the action group’s website, which catalogues concerns about the way the block and surrounding land was being managed.
In writing my own posts, I try to avoid repeating the same point. But repetition serves a purpose here because it reflects the apparent contempt of Kensington & Chelsea council and its TMO “quislings” in the face of repeated statements of the bleedin’ obvious.
And recognising this contempt is important given how council tenants and others in social housing across the UK have been marginalised and ignored by their elected, local council representatives.
Talking to a brick wall
The Grenfell Action Group had repeatedly raised fears about the lack of fire escapes – there was just one for the whole building – and the lack of a block-wide fire alarm or sprinkler system.
It was especially scathing about the lack of any action by the council or TMO, which it believed both systematically and cynically ignored the truth.
In a post just last November, the group blogged: “It is a truly terrifying thought but [we] firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO.
“It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high-density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!
“The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring.
“We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee, who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.
“We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower and we believe that these investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.”
A long campaign
In the wake of the fire, the group highlighted its long campaign by listing the many and various issues that the Conservative-controlled council and its TMO had failed to address:
“Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC.
ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.
Below is a list of links to previous blogs we posted on this site trying to warn the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, who own this property, and the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, who supposedly manage all social housing in RBKC on the council’s behalf:
At the time of writing, 30 people are confirmed dead in the Grenfell Tower inferno and 76 are missing. The police are expecting the death toll to rise above 100 over the coming days as it recovers bodies from the tower’s carcass and gathers evidence for a criminal action.
Meanwhile, the council’s inadequate response to the fire’s survivors has merely stoked the anger felt by those in the Lancaster West community.
The suspicion is that the council either didn’t respond quickly enough to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its streets because of indifference, or it didn’t have the service capability to do so after years of willingly-made cuts.
Meanwhile, building experts quoted in the press and media blame the external cladding used in last year’s £8.6m renovation of Grenfell Tower for transmitting the fire so quickly.
Significantly, Reynobond PE aluminium panels were used in the scheme. There is no evidence that the building contractors did anything wrong or contravened any minimum building standards.
However, these panels are banned in the US on buildings taller than 40ft because, according to a Reynobond salesman requoted in The Sun (of all newspapers), of the “fire and smoke spread”.
In Grenfell Tower, as in many high-rise blocks across Britain, these were fitted in preference to more expensive fire-resistant panels.
The salesman said: “The fire-resistant [variant] is fire-resistant. The polyethylene [PE] is just plastic.”
In the same Sun article, Arnold Tarling of the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, was quoted as saying: “This was an accident waiting to happen.
“They clad the concrete of this building with flammable insulation panels and rain screen cladding with a 30mm gap, which acted like a chimney.
“All the burning material falls down, starting more fires below, and the flames spread up and across searching for oxygen.
“Meanwhile, crews can’t tackle the fire effectively because their water just bounces off the rain covers.
“The cladding looks lovely. It’s cheap, complies with regulations and gives the building a high environmental rating. But it’s a silent killer.
“When this block was built, it complied with the old fire regulations. Had it been left alone it would never have burned like this.”
Weakened by last week’s general election result, prime minister Theresa May has promised a full public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
As well she may, but the issues mean her party’s record will be difficult to defend. The relationship between Grenfell’s tenants and residents and their Conservative representatives on Kensington & Chelsea council is just one troubling element in a much wider story.
It reveals the contempt with which those who live in Britain’s social housing are treated as an unwelcome inconvenience when compared with the dividends from property speculation. And this at a time of spiralling private rents and rising levels of homelessness.
Austerity in the dock
It’s not just the council that is coming in for significant criticism, even though it is the protestors’ initial focus.
As part of the Conservative government’s ongoing austerity drive, fire stations across London have been closed and the number of firefighters reduced. Consequently, firefighters who should have worked no more than four hours at a time at Grenfell Tower were in action for nearer 12.
But the austerity drive has not just affected social housing or the fire brigade. It is also mirrored by a similar squeeze on welfare benefits, social care, the NHS, the postal service, police numbers and on the schools sector.
Until now, ministers have seemed happy to continue their austerity drive, a political choice whose promised rewards have little basis in economics. That naked truth could be avoided while its victims died quietly, often alone at home or in hospital beds.
But Grenfell Tower has driven a coach and horses through that particular intellectually-dishonest economic construct. It looks likely to become a touchstone for the simmering resentments the emphasis on austerity has fuelled.
The fallout could and should be every bit as politically incendiary as the fire itself.
The psychopath state
And at the inquiry’s heart should be questions about what motivates the public services we rely on.
Former KCTMO employee Seraphima Kennedy told today’s BBC Radio 4’s The World at One that the organisation was “massively overstretched”.
She said: “This cuts right to the heart of how the State views the poorest people in society. We have sprinklers in society; we don’t have them in high-rise council blocks. Because they are too expensive? Because it would be disruptive?
“It really does make you ask questions about how the State values lives and which lives it values.”
This is a challenge that the Conservative political class and its friends in the press and media are completely unprepared for. Raw, understandably bitter anger is being directed at a complacent, unresponsive system that appears to put money before ordinary people.
As the stories and the political positions become clear, it’s likely the Conservative elite will instinctively seek to minimise the fallout.
The task of a civilised society is to stop that from happening, if only out of respect for those poor souls who lost everything in this terrible tragedy.