Grenfell Truths: catastrophes don’t come in black and white

by Dave Hill

On Thursday, the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire will formally open at the Connaught Rooms in Great Queen Street. Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a former Appeal Court judge, will make an opening statement and the long, slow haul through a million words and deeds will be underway.

Every level-headed person to remark on Moore-Bick’s selection for the task has said he has exactly the right type of legal mind and expertise to sort through the vast array of organisations, contracts and regulations that had input into the refurbishment of Grenfell that created the potential for the fire to take hold; to assess how it was responded to; and to pull the whole hateful mess into a large, coherent picture of cause, effect and responsibility.

To try to predict the outcome would risk adding to the cheap heap of grand pronouncements and wild accusations that followed the blaze of 14 June. But it seems safe to assume that no single culprit will end up being singled out and that disappointment might await those hoping for a few prominent heads to be metaphorically removed and impaled on poles by London Bridge.

Catastrophes do not come in black and white. And when you filter out the monochrome noise of rash politicians, conspiracy freaks and soapbox columnists, it’s the amorphous grey areas where devilish details may lurk and hold the answers the inquiry will seek.

Let’s remind ourselves that some of the cruder claims about what happened before and since have already been firmly challenged, though their folk myth afterlife endures: a survivor family that went to Preston did so because it has relatives there, not because Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) forced it to on threat making it homeless if it declined to; a crisis management specialist of my long acquaintance tells me that council staff working non-stop to help people were horrified by false reports that survivors had been rehoused near Heathrow; accusations, perpetuated by, among others, well known journalists I won’t embarrass by naming, that the cladding on the tower was put there in order to please local rich people and “luxury developers” have been properly dismissed by housing lawyer Giles Peaker as “nonsense“, along with other assertions worthy of the word.

Also debunked are media “revelations” about the number of residential properties that have stood empty in the royal borough for more than six months, accompanied by calls for these to be “requisitioned” for survivors’ use (we never learned if that was what survivors’ actually wanted, though such heroic assumptions can be dealt with another day).

It is true that RBKC has contained the highest number of such properties in London for several years, according to figures compiled by the government. But John Bibby at Shelter has shown that the percentage there is similar to the national average, albeit that a large number of properties left mostly empty is a problem for the borough.

From Inside Housing we have learned that the existence of “useable reserves” in RBKC’s coffers does not necessarily mean larger sums could have been spent on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, including on a more flame-proof type of cladding, because of rules governing the use of local government finance.

More recently, an exploration of the history of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) by the same magazine has underlined that its formation by the council was a move intended to preserve its stock of social housing, rather than to degrade or wash its hands of it.

The distinctive size and reach of this particular TMO is a reflection of RBKC’s own distinctiveness, including among London’s Tory councils. Officers in nearby boroughs are said to call it Trumpton, due its quaint, old-fashioned ways. In his history of the boroughs, Tony Travers says its Conservative style has “more in common with shire Tories than urban ones”.

Aspects of that culture, which one RBKC Tory councillor characterises as a disempowering paternalism, may end up being uncomfortably exposed in the months to come. But one part of it has been an emphasis on placing social housing ahead of providing other affordable types and seeing it as integral to RBKC’s overall social mix, notwithstanding the sharp separation between the poorer north of the borough and most of the rest. Only very recently has the council placed a greater stress on intermediate affordable housing types that is commonplace elsewhere in the capital. In its earliest days, Travers tells us, RBKC linked its council housing rents to tenants’ incomes, so that the more affluent among them subsidised the poorer.

The TMO is to cease running RBKC’s 10,000 council homes and many concerns have been raised about its attitude to tenants. The same goes for the council itself. That said, some of the political pressure on it began to ease not long after the fire when it emerged that other London boroughs, notably Labour-run Camden, had discovered that cladding they had seen installed might be a deadly fire risk too.

Former leader Nicholas Paget-Brown was never seen braving it among angry tenants, which did nothing for his, his borough’s or his party’s image. Do not be surprised, though, if the inquiry hears a rather different account of what he and colleagues did in the first hours and days from the impression of clueless indifference that has formed.

It won’t just be Tories, housing managers and a large cast of contractors who come under scrutiny by Moore-Bick. The National Grid and the London Fire Brigade too seem assured of being asked some searching questions as the proceedings unfold. The outcome must be waited for respectfully. But expect something more akin to a tangled parable of fallibility than crowd-pleasing placard simplicity.

A previous article on Grenfell Truths is here.

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