Grenfell: A Very Capitalist Tragedy

From deregulation and corporate profiteering to fire safety cuts, the Grenfell fire three years ago today revealed the contempt modern capitalism has for ordinary people's lives.

Three years ago, on June 14th 2017, the external cladding of Grenfell Tower caught alight after fire spread from a flat on the fourth floor. A building that should have been comprised of fire-resistant compartments saw flames spread rapidly up its exterior. Something had gone horribly wrong – and seventy-two lives were lost as a result.

After the fire, scrutiny of firefighters, who risked their own lives time and again to save others, was prioritised over understanding how the building became a death trap, and it was only two and a half years later, in phase two of the public inquiry, that those involved in Grenfell’s deadly refurbishment took the stand.

But then, weeks of hearings were lost as the businesses that refurbished Grenfell and profited from its flammable cladding went through the process of obtaining legal assurances from the Attorney General that their oral evidence would not be used against them in any case of criminal prosecution.

The inquiry has now lost months to the coronavirus pandemic. But, before Covid-19 shut down much of the world, a grimly familiar picture was beginning to emerge from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.

At every stage, decisions were made that prioritised cost-cutting and profitability over people’s safety. Powerful corporations sold or installed products they knew were dangerous in the pursuit of profit.

The local state and its agents, for whom public safety should have been a crucial consideration, were also driven overwhelmingly by the need to cut costs. Those involved in the design and construction cut corners and made decisions based on appearance and cost, not suitability and safety.

Merry-Go-Round of Buck-Passing

The word “unprecedented” is sometimes used in reference to Grenfell but, make no mistake, the fire was not unforeseeable. From the evidence we have seen so far, it is clear that the risks of the flammable aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding were well-known by those who profited from Grenfell’s refurbishment.

In an email to a fire engineer, one of the architects said, “metal cladding always burns and falls off,” while an employee of cladding contractor Harley Facades said, “as we all know, the ACM will be gone rather quickly in a fire!”

Rydon, the design-and-build contractor, fared the worst of five companies bidding for the Grenfell project in a prequalification process held by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the body responsible for council housing in the area. But it had provided the cheapest quote for the project, some £800,000 less than their closest competitor.

As KCTMO sought further savings, Harley Facades proposed to save £454,000 by using flammable ACM cladding. The project had been designed with more fire-resistant zinc-cladding; one of the “obvious targets for savings”, according to one architect, who suggested it could be swapped out for “something cheaper.”

In the latest phase on the public inquiry, shortly before Covid-19 brought matters to a halt, each of them, in their opening remarks, points the finger at another. They are, they claim, heartbroken by the tragedy, but only followed the rules set by government, or were at the mercy of the other companies involved.

While there is certainly plenty of blame that must be assumed by those involved in the refurbishment, the “merry-go-round of buck-passing,” as described by Richard Millett, QC to the inquiry, points to a widespread and deeply embedded culture in which cost is always paramount and safety barely an afterthought.

But this culture could only exist because of the regulatory regime created over the past three decades; a regime created by political decisions.

Displacement of Harm

On the fourteenth of every month, firefighters join the Grenfell community in their silent walk, to remember those killed in the fire. At the end of each walk, the names of the seventy-two lives lost are read out, followed by a rallying cry of “justice”. A member of the community then gives a speech, reflecting on the developments of the past month. There is one name which is frequently mentioned as bearing culpability for the devastation of this community: Arconic.

Arconic, previously Alcoa, manufactured the ACM cladding that caught alight at Grenfell. Headquartered in Pittsburgh in the United States, more than 3,500 miles away from Grenfell, the company has an annual revenue of around $14 billion. Arconic’s stock has remained largely unaffected by Grenfell and remains priced at a comparable level to 2017. Their executive vice president received nearly $3 million in compensation last year.

In emails from 2011 seen by the Inquiry, an Arconic official told colleagues that the fire rating of their cladding panels had fallen from class B to class E, making them “unsuitable for use on building facades” in Europe. Undeterred, he said that the company “can still work with regulators who are not as restrictive.” As one market began to close down, they shifted their sales strategy towards the UK. The company sold the cladding panels for use on Grenfell Tower, in full knowledge that they would be used on a high-rise residential building.

Celotex, the insulation manufacturers, were also aware that their product was not safe for use in high-rise buildings, with one internal email recognising that it “realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels because, in the event of a fire, it would burn”. Yet the company and its suppliers actively pursued the Grenfell Tower project, with one supplier suggesting “never has the expression ‘smoke and mirrors’ been more appropriate”. Celotex’s parent company made €798 million last year and more than €2 billion in 2017 when the Grenfell tragedy happened.

It’s an all-too-familiar tale. Regulations are tightened to prevent the sale of a harmful product, which is then sold in a country with a weaker regulatory structure – Britain is, after all, one of the greatest places in the world to do business. All too often, public safety reforms do not remove harm, they simply displace it. As one market attempts to restrict a dangerous product, the producer will inevitably seek another market to expand sales. It’s the inevitable logic of the profit system.

The Beating Heart of Government

Since Margaret Thatcher rose to power in 1979, the beating heart of the British government has been a drive towards deregulation, privatisation and austerity. Building regulations, under her government, were cut from 300 pages to just 25. Among the 275 pages lost was a formal requirement for buildings to be “deemed to satisfy” fire safety regulation.

Thatcher was by no means the first to attack fire safety regulations; governments of all stripes, including New Labour, followed suit. But she fired the starting gun in an onslaught of the state that promoted free commerce at almost any cost.

Six weeks before the Grenfell Tower fire, the then Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, who later became Theresa May’s chief of staff, received his seventh consecutive letter from the all parliamentary fire safety and rescue group warning of the dangerous state of building safety and the potential for a “major fire tragedy with loss of life”. It was the last of a series of 21 letters to successive ministers and secretaries of state which had, if replied to at all, been dismissed as not urgent.

After a decade of brutal austerity under the Coalition and Conservative governments, we’ve lost over 11,000 firefighters and a quarter of our fire safety officers. Hundreds of thousands of people live in homes that are at risk of a fire like Grenfell. They rely on a fire and rescue service that has been gutted of resources.

Since the fire, many of us have said that it must never be allowed to happen again. Ultimately that requires fundamental social and political change which goes far beyond what can or will be delivered by a public inquiry which, by design, are often set up to ensure questions are kept within safe limits.

Nevertheless, as the inquiry resumes in the months ahead, we should resolve, over three years on, to shine a light on how, beneath the grey bureaucracy of daily decisions, a system driven by profit can lead to a barbaric loss of life.