Grenfell Tower: a tragedy of our times

The net of accountability will need to be thrown far and wide in order to catch all those at fault, writes Christopher Goff.

The horrific fire that destroyed a 24-storey block of flats in North Kensington, West London, on 14 June 2017, and claimed an as yet unknown number of lives, was very probably preventable.

There has in the immediate aftermath of the fire been much talk about the lack of sprinklers in the building, but if the cladding fixed to the exterior of Grenfell Tower was so at fault, as has been widely rumoured, well then experts have said that sprinklers would have had little effect in controlling the spread of the fire. Indeed, it seems to have been the very rapid spread of the fire over the exterior panels of the building that proved so lethal in the case of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Writing in the comments section of the Architects' Journal on the day of the fire, Geoff Wilkinson, the buildings regulations columnist for the online publication, said that he had "seen extracts of a fire risk assessment and talk of combustible material stored in the common walkways". The storing of combustible materials in the common walkways might have assisted the spread of the fire from flat to flat, and having objects blocking potential escape routes might have also hindered the safe evacuation of residents, especially if these objects were on fire. There are those who might claim that the storing of combustible materials in common walkways is symptomatic of a poor system of management of the tower block, but there will be others who will say that keeping common walkways and other access points free from obstruction is a basic responsibility of everyone living in a multi-occupancy building, and one that most landlords are actually quite usually good at reminding their tenants about.

Another issue arising in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire has been the one of the fire alarm apparently not sounding. People who managed to get out of the building said that at no point did they hear the fire alarm sound – something which could possibly be explained by either the fact that the fire alarm was defective in some way and failed to sound when activated, or alternatively, perhaps no-one was actually minded enough to activate it in the first place. The main purpose of a fire alarm in any multi-occupancy building is for one occupier to warn the others of impending danger, but I guess in the heat of the moment the activating of a fire alarm is something that might have been overlooked, and especially if people were more focused on the task of self-preservation. One would have thought the activation of the Grenfell Tower fire alarm – perhaps as simple as breaking a small piece of glass – was the responsibility of the person who first discovered the fire, and if this individual failed to do this when he or she had the opportunity to is a failing which might have cost people their lives. The psychology of 'raising the alarm' can be an interesting one – just like you get people who are for some reason reluctant to dial 999 in an emergency situation, so too you must also get people who are reluctant to activate a fire alarm. And clearly, someone's immigration status might be a factor in this process.

There is, of course, also the very important issue of how the fire started in the first place and what, if anything, anyone did to try and put it out. There are unsubstantiated reports in the media of how the fire might have started in an incident involving a refrigerator in a flat on the 4th floor. If so, one wonders if the tenant in question was perhaps knowingly operating their refrigerator in a hazardous condition, with maybe bits of sellotape or the like holding the plug together? And if this refrigerator is indeed found to be the cause of the fire, well then surely the next question should be: Did the tenant do anything to try and put the fire out? Even the most basic of fire extinguishers in the hands of someone with a bit of gumption might have been enough to extinguish the fire, but I have a feeling the answer that will eventually come back on this matter might be the one that goes like: 'But the tenant did not have a fire extinguisher in their flat ready to use'.

False rumour can abound in the aftermath of major incidents like the Grenfell Tower fire, and the story of a refrigerator causing the fire may not be a true one at all. Instead, it might turn out that someone or some group of people up to no good either intentionally or accidentally started the fire. Indeed, in April 2010 a major fire incident did in fact occur at Grenfell Tower, the cause of which was later found to have been a fire that was started deliberately amongst bags of recycling waste on the 6th floor. And in a separate incident elsewhere in the capital, a fire which broke out on the 2nd floor of a block of flats in Brixton, South London, in September 2016, and which ended up almost burning the entire block down, was found to have been started by some idiot having a barbecue on his balcony.

The job of finding new homes for all the former Grenfell Tower residents will be a hugely difficult one. Labour-leader Jeremy Corbyn has said of this task that those homes in North Kensington owned by property speculators and left empty for most of the time should be requisitioned in order to house the people made homeless by the fire. But looking at this issue from a somewhat different perspective to Jeremy Corbyn, I couldn't help but notice just how un-British most of the tenants of Grenfell Tower seemed to be. I would guess that the vast majority of the tenants in what was a council-owned block of flats were probably born abroad. And if Jeremy Corbyn wanted to ignite a debate on London's housing crisis, I would suggest to him that there are probably a great many people looking in on this disaster and thinking to themselves just why public authorities in this country seem so pre-occupied with housing foreign nationals, many of whom might only have a dubious right to be in the country.

If the richest local authority in the UK, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – home to Prince William and his wife, and where the average salary is £123,000 – cannot get on top of its housing crisis, well then what prospect for those poorer districts with similarly high numbers of foreign nationals on their waiting lists? Sadiq Khan, himself a member of a Pakistani immigrant family of 10 (yes, 10) who grew up in a South London council home, said in an interview with the BBC that the Grenfell Tower fire was "a preventable accident" caused by "years of neglect". And while the Mayor of London's comments might in part be true, Sadiq Khan needs to understand that trying to house large numbers of people from all four corners of the globe in decent quality, safe homes is just not possible anymore because of the high numbers involved.

The main focus of blame for the Grenfell Tower fire already seems to be the fabric of the building, but the net of accountability will need to be thrown far and wide in order to catch all those at fault, and I really can't see that happening.

Copyright © Christopher Goff
Tag: Society
Uploaded: 23 June, 2017.