Five Years of Failing Grenfell

On this day in 2017, 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Half a decade on, families are still waiting for justice – and those with the power to prevent a repeat still aren’t willing to use it.

The 24-storey Grenfell Tower in North Kensington caught fire on 14 June 2017. (Narain Jashanmal / Unsplash)

North Kensington has been bracing itself for the arrival of the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Fire today. The inquiry rolls on with its constant revelations about the rot at the heart of our corporate and political cultures, and the Grenfell families and survivors are left waiting for a semblance of justice. As we look back, we also look, with trepidation and distrust, towards any possibility of a better and more holistic approach to problems of building and fire safety.

With my background in twentieth-century architectural history and social housing, I look to the architecture, construction, and building products industries to step up and work together. This is one crucial part of what must be a whole-systems approach to change—an approach whose urgency has only grown in the last five years.

Whenever I’m speaking at architecture-related events (not as often as I used to) I often demand at some point, ‘When will some of you lot enter Parliament?’ Currently we have no architects in Parliament, and precious few MPs with an understanding of building design or construction, let alone life in high-rise social housing blocks. In my thirty months in Westminster, there were five with experience in construction or fire safety, cross-party: two former firefighters, two former planners, and me.

In Spain there are numerous architect MPs. Maybe they have a better understanding of how major infrastructural projects should link up with local environmental improvements, good housing, employment, and social infrastructure. Maybe they care a bit more. While they’ve certainly had their share of corruption and scandal in Spanish politics, regional and national, the strategic vision that comes alongside training in architecture is something we are seriously lacking, particularly in England today. Former bankers will never have this overview.

And while of course there are plenty of MPs who have taken the time and made the effort to learn and understand enough to discuss, demand, and lobby for change in the building sector, we still need elected representatives with some degree of expertise or experience—for example, with an understanding of the insurance industry and how it is affected by the various building crises; with an understanding of building and fire safety and how to question evacuation failures; with an understanding of human rights and anti-discrimination work, particularly in relation to social housing and who gets it where.

We need an understanding of materials and supply—the huge problems caused by construction sites stalling due to Brexit-related materials delivery delays was entirely predictable. We need engineers with sufficient understanding of fire prevention methods to be able to question the latest, buzzy, high-cost, high-tech solutions. We need access to building surveyors with experience in the problems of assessing failures in façade safety and compartmentation who can explain complexities to the uninitiated. We are lacking in all these areas. Failing expertise, we need representatives who will seek out and listen to experts, and, crucially, act accordingly. If not, we will repeat the mistakes of the past.

When I first heard that some lithium-ore batteries in mobile phones and laptops could spontaneously combust, and that this was a particular problem as people often use them in bed—even keeping their phone charging under their pillow—my imagination ran wild. When I realised that e-scooters suffer the same fate on occasion, and that that’s why they’re not allowed on public transport, my mind raced. Keeping your e-scooter in the hallway, which many do, suddenly becomes a serious fire risk. They burn ferociously and could prevent escape. It’s the same with electric cars—so why are they allowed to park and recharge under residential blocks?

Throughout the year I speak to specialists in their fields, as well as to numerous tenants and leaseholders who are suffering the effects of a generation of often poorly built, low-spec new buildings with countless fire safety issues, and people living in older blocks who wonder how on god’s earth their home will ever be insulated sufficiently to stave off rising fuel bills when most of the materials on the market are very expensive and still in the ‘grey zone’ of non-combustibility. In one block with which I’m familiar, residents are about to get their fourth fire door replacement in three years. Previous ones were either deemed non-fire-safe or had been fitted so badly that there were gaps underneath them. Who specifies this, and why aren’t they held accountable for the abominable procurement process that continues to buy unsafe products and contract firms with poor installation standards to fit doors badly?

Having spoken to the Association of British Insurers, they explain that rocketing building insurance costs are due to the realisation that where the compartmentation of housing units is under review, they must consider that an entire residential block could be at risk of total destruction, rather than a single home. The Building Safety Act, the government’s response to this growing crisis, simply does not go far enough to help those affected. Too much detail has been left to the vagaries and erosion of secondary legislation. The Association are right to be asking for a digital database of every building, listing all materials used, and it should be accessible to the public.

Meanwhile, the Fire Brigades Union have serious concerns about the government’s refusal to implement the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 recommendations in relation to Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs), which could put firefighters in an impossible position, while the European Human Rights Commission have declared this could be discriminatory as ‘the authorities failed … to take appropriate protective measures that adequately correspond to the needs of particular vulnerable groups’. Stephen Greenhalgh, a minister of state for building safety and fire, has all but stated that people with disabilities are a nuisance when evacuating a building, saying the procedure of evacuation should ‘not hinder others in evacuating or the fire service in fighting the fire’.

There has been wide-ranging discussion and debate among fire safety experts and the industry relating to high-tech solutions to detecting and controlling fire. A recent study showed that during inspections of smoke control systems, between sixty and eighty percent failed, as they did at Grenfell and at New Providence Wharf. High-tech products often need specialist installation, regular specialist maintenance, and a reliable supply of materials—many of which come from around the world and are subject to supply line failure.

But sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back from the high-tech, industry-led pursuit of innovation as a way to detect and control fire. Jane Duncan—past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, head of an independent Expert Panel on Fire Safety, and one person I would like to see with a meaty role in Parliament—prefers a low-tech approach, where installation, operation, and maintenance does not require highly specialised skills, where choice of materials takes their availability and supply lines into consideration, and where sustainability is built in, from the earliest concept of any new building. Previously competing imperatives at the intersection of fire safety and sustainability should be considered together; neither are expendable. As she says: ‘Perhaps we could concentrate less on our growing reliance on tech and more on orientation and simplicity of design and layout, passive protections, natural ventilation, and better education and involvement of local authorities, designers, builders, suppliers, and firefighters?’

While we suffer under a government with zero strategic vision, or indeed any vision whatsoever aside from its own survival, we must work toward a future where specialisms, professional organisations, and industry do not compete but work together positively. Only by listening to each other, between these categories and beyond them, to all those affected by failures of fire safety, and the ongoing neglect of people with disabilities and social housing residents, will we be able to change what has proven to be system decaying from the inside out. Without that, there will be more chaos, more confusion, and more Grenfells.

About the Author

Emma Dent Coad is Leader of the Labour Group at Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. She is the former Labour Party Member of Parliament for Kensington. Her book, One Kensington, will be published by Quercus on 4 August.