The Official Inquiry Into London’s Grenfell Tower Fire

Photo by Guido van Nispen | CC BY 2.0

The official inquiry into London’s high-rise Grenfell Tower fire is now underway.  The blaze occurred on June 14, 2017 and killed 72 people. Most such official inquiries end-up being a whitewash, and so far, this one has displayed some worrying signs regarding this prospect.

At root for the inquiry are two general sets of considerations: (1) the immediate emergency response to the conflagration and what transpired subsequently; and (2) the causes and conditions, primarily political and bureaucratic, which made a disaster on this scale possible. Given existing circumstances, was the fire foreseeable?  Could it have been avoided, and could more have been done to put preventive measures in place?

The available evidence indicates that none of the firefighters was really equipped to reach the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, many of whom fled to the top of the building as the fire rose upwards from its source on the 4th-floor.

London Fire Brigade’s aerial-platform vehicles can only reach heights of about 32m, while Grenfell Tower was 68m high.  In Dubai, where skyscrapers such as the Burj Khalifa are more than 160-storeys tall, the fire brigade there has aerial-platform vehicles that can reach 80m.

Lacking aerial platforms of the requisite height, firefighters had to ascend the stairs of the Tower by foot, with their firefighting equipment, and the breathing apparatuses for most of them were almost empty when, after several hours, they managed to reach the top of the building.

Was there any possibility of transporting spare breathing apparatuses for any survivors on the presumption they could be brought down to safety?  Hopefully the commission of inquiry will comment on this presumption in a coda to its final report.

London Fire Brigade and its senior officers advised residents of the Tower to “stay put”, and failed to order a full evacuation of the building when it became clear after about 30 minutes that the stay-put policy was failing.  According to The Huffington Post:

“The first… call to the emergency services was made at 12.54am by… the occupant of the fourth floor flat where the fire began.

Danny Friedman QC, speaking on behalf of a group of law firms representing survivors and the bereaved, said… that by 1.15am the strategy was considered to have begun to fail and by 1.26am it had “substantially failed.”

A leading fire safety expert… said she was “particularly concerned” by the delay after 2am, when a major incident was declared, until 2.47am before the advice was officially changed to total evacuation”.

These LFB officers are now facing a police investigation, conducted by Scotland Yard separately from the official inquiry, to ascertain if this advice violated health and safety regulations.

However, the options facing London fire chiefs that day was invidious.  Built in 1974, Grenfell Tower lacked several features possessed by high-rise buildings today.

Grenfell Tower had a single stairwell, and fire chiefs gave the “stay put” order to residents envisaging a scenario in which firefighters ascending the building with their equipment would be hindered by panicked residents rushing down this stairwell to safety.   Quite simply, Grenfell Tower was not designed to facilitate a mass evacuation.

By contrast, skyscrapers in Dubai have more than one stairwell, including a stairwell reserved exclusively for firefighters.

The commission of inquiry is bound to make a judgment with regard to this “stay put” order.

A key contributary cause to the scale of the conflagration has been identified as the highly flammable plastic external cladding put on the building during its refurbishment between 2014 and 2016 by the Kensington and Chelsea borough council and its tenant management organization (the latter was directly responsible for the building’s operation and maintenance). According to The Guardian:

“The Grenfell Tower fire was fuelled by botched refurbishment decisions that went well beyond the use of flammable cladding panels and insulation, a report for the Metropolitan police has reportedly revealed.

Gaps around windows, wrongly fitted cavity barriers meant to stop fire, and dozens of missing or faulty door closers were also responsible for helping to spread rather than limit the fire….”

Prior to the fire, the Grenfell Action Group–  formed in 2010 to defend the rights of the residents of Kensington and Chelsea borough’s social-housing estates–  had issued repeated warnings about fire safety in the building.

On its blog, the Group said 7 months before the fire: “Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation] 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”.

The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and its Tenant Management Organisation are known to be under investigation by Scotland Yard as corporate manslaughter suspects.  Detective Superintendent Matt Bonner, who is leading the police investigation, has said that 36 companies and organizations involved in the construction, refurbishment, maintenance and management of Grenfell Tower were the focus of this investigation. Grenfell Tower is still considered a crime scene.

It is widely suspected that the Tower’s refurbishment was undertaken by London’s richest borough primarily for cosmetic reasons. The brutalist 70s structure built of non-flammable concrete was something of an eyesore when compared to the handsome properties owned by the Tory-controlled borough’s wealthier inhabitants, and the suspicion is that the installation of “attractive” but flammable cladding on its unprepossessing exterior was intended to make the Tower easier on the collective eye of monied individuals.

There is a vast body of evidence worldwide that the use of plastic external cladding poses a significant fire risk, and in 1999 the UK’s parliamentary regional affairs committee wrote to local authorities warning about the dangers posed by such external cladding on towers.

A similar warning was issued by London Fire Brigade to London councils after a cladding fire at the nearby Shepherd’s Court tower in 2016.

So why do some suspect there is a likelihood that the official inquiry will turn out to be a whitewash?

The official inquiry is being held at a venue in Central London 7 miles from Grenfell Tower, which makes it difficult for the fire’s survivors– many suffering from acute psychological trauma–  who need to use crowded public transport for an hour or more each way in order to attend the proceedings.  Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, has called, unsuccessfully, for the hearings to be held at a venue closer to the Tower.

The inquiry’s procedure is also stacked against survivors seeking to question those responsible for the tragedy.

Survivors have to submit their questions through the legal Counsel to the Inquiry (Richard Millett QC), and Millett will then decide with the Inquiry Chair (the former court of appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick) if the submitted question can be put before the Inquiry.  Roundaboutery Round One?

Roundaboutery Round Two will hinge on the Inquiry Chair’s pending decision to allow survivors to interrogate those giving evidence. If Moore-Bick decides against the posing of pertinent questions by the survivors and the families of those who died when evidence is given, then this group, which has already suffered much, will be rendered voiceless.

Moore-Bick, in determining the Inquiry’s remit with the prime minister Theresa May, decided against an examination of the social and political conditions underlying the disaster, including the running of social housing in the UK. He deemed this “not suitable for a judge-led inquiry”, though he also said these questions could be dealt with in a parallel inquiry.

Moore-Bick’s decision drew a scornful response from the head of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, who asked “How is it remotely possible to seriously examine the causes, spread and results of the fire without examining ‘social, economic and political’ matters?”.  Wrack said that Moore-Bick’s decision was a “mighty kick of some really fundamental issues into some very long grass”, and that “There is clearly no intent from government for any wider inquiry or serious debate”.  Indeed.

In response to this pressure for the inquiry to be given a wider scope, the government announced that it is adding 2 members to the inquiry panel with the experience to examine “the cultural and community reasons” underlying the fire. However, the 2 additional members will only participate in the inquiry’s second phase, namely, examining why the fire occurred.

A lawyer for some of the survivors and bereaved, Imran Khan QC, has called for the inquiry to consider whether “the council and tenant management association were guilty of institutional racism and issues of religion and class should also be considered”.  Martin Moore-Bick did not comment on Khan’s request.

In a piece in the paper version of CounterPunch (titled “The Fires of Neoliberalism”, vol 24 no 4,Jul 31, 2017), I outlined how Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sell-off social housing not only spurred an unprecedented housing crisis in the UK, but also created conditions which enabled scoundrels and greedy bastards with nothing but profit in mind to take over the housing market.

The Tory-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has always been at the forefront of these Thatcherite privatization “initiatives” in social housing, and a meaningful official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy will need to look closely at the way the RBKC’s politicians and officials administered its social housing.

If this investigation into RBKC is not forthcoming, the official report on the fire probably won’t be worth the paper it is printed on.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.