I went earlier today (25 June 2017) to visit Grenfell Tower site. This is far more chilling in reality than in the photographs. It has the impact of a large concrete grave.
Even today that smell and sense of death lingers. I wandered over to the local Methodist Church where the flowers and tokens of remembrance are emotionally powerful. I was in Lagos when it started and felt a sense of horror. I had been in the past chair of the largest provider of housing for the homeless in London for over a decade. These sorts of scenarios are one’s worst nightmare. However to hear people rushing to TV cameras to declare ‘it was not their fault’ even while residents were still dyeing was stomach churning.
When I learnt that resident had been complaining to management about fire safety and had been ignored I immediately sensed the culture of the organisation. When I took on the role of Chair my first objective was to stamp out this culture of condescension. This attitude that we are doing these poor people a favour and they should just say thank you and shut up. I insisted that we had been given money to provide a service. Like John Lewis we provide that service regardless of your status, regardless of whether you are uneducated or a graduate. I can hear the managers joking that these semi literate resident complaining about fire safety when they can’t read the fire regulations. Don’t they know we have it covered and its beyond them anyway. A private block would be treated differently. If residents complained about fire safety it would be attended to immediately with consequent action whether the complaint was fully justified or not, perception being highly important.
Just walking about the area one could hear continuing conversations. Emotions are still raw. One person described how there was only one usable stairway and the fire was already in that area. People could be seen at windows complete stranded. Even more heart breaking, some were speaking with other members of their family who were still inside on mobile phones as the fire swept over them. A special anger was directed at the news organisations. Witnesses said the Evening Standard sent a helicopter to the scene. Many resident rushed to the roof believing they were about to be rescued only to discover the news organisations had come to watch them die.
Talking of news organisations – there is some serious breach of trust going on here. We know from the work of Charles Perrow that major accident do not happen alone – there are usually several warnings that are ignored as a prelude. In this case the warnings are quite explicit:
As reported by The Telegraph:
The dozen letters, sent by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group in the aftermath of a 2009 fatal fire in Lakanal House, south London, warned the Government “could not afford to wait for another tragedy”, according to Panorama.
The Parliamentary group wrote in March 2014: “Surely … when you already have credible evidence to justify updating … the guidance … which will lead to saving of lives, you don’t need to wait another three years in addition to the two already spent since the research findings were updated, in order to take action?
“As there are estimated to be another 4,000 older tower blocks in the UK, without automatic sprinkler protection, can we really afford to wait for another tragedy to occur before we amend this weakness?”Note 1
There had been a previous fire in 2009 and an All Party Parliamentary group had pleaded with the Government to do something. This fits Charles Perrow’s model of catastrophic accidents precisely. No wonder the residents are seeking justice.
However the Minister in Charge (Home Secretary) had a different agenda:
‘Fire brigades will be told to cut costs as part of a major shake-up of the way they are run after Theresa May announced she was taking over responsibility for the service.’ 19 Dec 2015 Note 2
Mrs May added: “I look at the fire and rescue service and I see the need for many of the same reforms that I started in policing five years ago.” After the spate of terror attacks her reduction in funding of the police appears unfortunate and now with this horrendous fire at Grenfell her rejection of firm advice to enforce higher fire safety regulations appears almost actionable.
It is reported that the Police are considering corporate manslaughter charges (Note 3). At present the residents are pointing fingers at the Council. I suspect fairly soon the Council members, faced with corporate manslaughter allegations, will point the finger way up higher.