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Grenfell Tower

'Warnings Ignored and Money Saved

Regulators Put Cost Before Safety' (Headline 'New York Times', 24 June)

The provision of 'social housing' constitutes a charge on the profits of the class of owners whose interests must prevail while class divisions persist. It is this fact that should be borne in mind in any analysis of the wider issues behind the immediate causes of the Grenfell Tower disaster. 

In 1999 a House of Commons All Party Select Committee considered the risks involved in the use of cladding in the five hundred tall buildings in which it had been applied. They reported that they thought that all external cladding systems should be required either to be entirely non-combustible or to be proven by testing not to pose an unacceptable risk in terms of fire spread. The actions they recommended should in their view be applied to old as well as new buildings and they concluded that:

‘...we do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks. The evidence we have received strongly suggests that the small-scale tests which are currently used to determine the fire safety of external cladding systems are not fully effective in evaluating their performance in a 'live' fire situation’

(First Report of the Select Committee on Potential Risk of Fire Spread in Buildings via External Cladding Systems,14 July 1999 - https://tinyurl.com/y92b7kjr, emphasis added).

The responsible government department replied agreeing with most of what the committee had recommended but could not ‘find the Parliamentary time’ to legislate and put the recommendations into force.

Note here the use of that innocent sounding phrase 'all reasonable steps.’ ‘Reasonable’ really means that which is not too costly, that which does not bite too deeply into the profit-making system as a whole. All local authorities are constrained by that overarching necessity. The decision-making process in capitalism takes place within this framework – the often unasked question being: ‘Is the price of putting this problem right less or greater than leaving things as they are?’

The other highly political question concerns how little can those who control society spend in their attempt to have the system run smoothly and with the minimum of interruption. One factor that has received more than unusual attention following 14 June is the apparent loss of confidence in authority. While the upper echelons of the power structure of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council were seen as completely ineffective large numbers of 'ordinary people' (i.e. the ones that actually do run society from top to bottom) came forward and, in the absence of any emergency plan, provided comfort and relief to the victims.

The management of Kensington and Chelsea’s housing stock is delegated to Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) who are monitored by the Housing Department. Their performance during 2015/16 was commended in the Annual Review as there has been considerable success in meeting the agreed targets set. The Grenfell Tower ‘regeneration’ project had generated an income of just over £3.1m from commercial rents in 2015/16. Health and safety continued to be delivered thus:

‘...enabling the Council to meet its statutory duties and strategic aims...[and]... the pro-active asset management ensures that the Borough’s stock, both residential and commercial, is being maximized in terms of use and rental income...’ (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation Performance Review 2015/16, Laura Johnson, Director of Housing - http://tinyurl.com/ycdg9pkw, emphasis added).

Compliance with health and safety legislation, the review stated, continued to protect residents ensuring that the Borough ‘...continues to provide quality housing services within the resources available’ (emphasis added). http://tinyurl.com/ycdg9pkw

This overly optimistic view of the workings of KCTMO should be compared with the views of conditions at Grenfell Tower where tenants were struggling with their landlords to bring safety measures back to acceptable standards. They were so incensed with the indifference and lack of concern of KCTMO that they posted several reports highlighting the dangerous conditions at the tower in an attempt at redress. This is from their blog posted on 20 November 2016:

‘It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.

‘Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation’ (https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2016/11/20/kctmo-playing-with-...).

The Council's response was to threaten legal action.

Kensington and Chelsea Council are not beyond pleading poverty when it suits their purpose, but at the time of the catastrophic fire they were managing a budget surplus of £274m (Independent, 30 June) and had recently been urging cost-cutting measures on the companies undertaking the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. The original quote for the whole project came to £9.2m; the price after the implementation of a cheeseparing exercise was £8.7m. A large slice of the savings came at the behest of KCTMO's project manager eager to please the chairman of Kensington and Chelsea housing committee. He urgently emailed the contractors that ‘We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow’(Guardian, 30 June).

The savings were made by the simple expedient of choosing cheaper, inherently less safe because more flammable material with which to clad the building. The dangers inherent in this practice well recognised in the building industry. In 2014 the Fire Protection Research Foundation had recorded twenty major fires in tall buildings worldwide. In twelve cases cladding similar to that used in Grenfell Tower was involved in spreading the flames. Subsequent testing of 149 tower blocks across forty-five local authorities resulted in a staggering failure rate of one hundred percent.

The savings to the Council’s budget condemned eighty people to death in a building with no sprinklers, faulty alarm systems, and inadequate means of escape.

GWYNN THOMAS