Predictably, and no less welcome for that, the most thorough and informed exploration of the background to the Grenfell Tower fire so far has just been published by Inside Housing in the person of its news editor Peter Apps.
Ploughing through what he calls a “treasure trove” of documents, many of them public, going as far back as 2010, Apps points to “three clear strands” running through a story whose complexities have frequently been ignored amid a sometimes distasteful rush to judgments and a clamour for culprits to tear apart.
The three strands are about money, trust and regulations. The paper trail provides some reinforcement of allegations that have been made against the authorities from day one. But they also show that some big decisions which look disastrous in hindsight were taken within particular wider contexts and very possibly in good faith.
You should read Apps’s long article without delay. Find it here. Having done so myself, I have a few thoughts to share about each of the three strands:
- It is widely held that the fire spread with such terrible fatal effects because the Conservative-run Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), the richest local authority in the land, wanted to save a few miserly quid it could easily have afforded at the expense of some of its least affluent residents. But Inside Housing’s account demonstrates that it is not quite that simple. Pregnant mention has been made elsewhere of RBKC’s plentiful “useable reserves”, but, as Apps explains, the flexibility of local government finances is substantially constrained by national government rules. In 2012, local authorities were put in charge of their own housing finances, to be run separately from the rest of their responsibilities and with restraining strings attached. The amount they are allowed to borrow against their assets is strictly limited. London politicians across the party spectrum, including Boris Johnson when he was mayor, have long lobbied for this “headroom” to be increased, without success. The refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was the direct responsibility of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) rather than the council itself, but borrowing limits placed on the council led to financial pressures on the budget for Grenfell’s refurbishment. An ensuing “relentless focus” on holding down housing costs contributed to the conditions under which a combustible form of cladding was chosen over a more expensive and more fire resistant kind, in the apparent belief that it was, nonetheless, safe to use. None of this destroys the case that RBKC should have been more generous and there are well-informed opposition politicians in the borough who argue that a way could have been found to commit some of those plentiful “useable reserves” to the Grenfell refurbishment. But it does go to show that even filthy rich RBKC was under financial pressure in the area of housing maintenance.
- No one predicted that a fire breaking out in single flat in Grenfell Tower would spread via the cladding throughout most of the building and with such terrible consequences. But complaints about indifference on the part of the TMO to residents’ disquiet about various aspects of the refurbishment process and other issues prior to it are solidly substantiated by Inside Housing’s report. In line with verbal accounts I have been given about the culture of the TMO, minutes of meetings and other documents suggest an entity more adept at screening out and closing down residents’ concerns than addressing and dealing with them. Whether any responsibility for the fire can be pinned on the TMO’s methods and attitudes is for others to decide. But the state of its relationship with those whose needs it is supposed to be responsive to is a matter that should concern all those in housing governance positions across the capital.
- The third strand, which dates from 2010, concerns the presence or otherwise of devices on entrance doors to flats within Grenfell Tower to ensure that those doors were self-closing. “In fire safety terms, self-closers are crucial,” Inside Housing says, quoting an expert who explains that such devices hold fire doors in place when they come under pressure during a blaze. It reports that a TMO programme to install self-closers had not covered the entire borough. “When it comes to Grenfell, whether flat entrance doors were uniformly fitted with self-closers is unknown,” Inside Housing concludes. “What is known is that the [Grenfell] corridors and stairwells filled quickly with choking black smoke, trapping residents as they tried to flee.” This strengthens my expectation that the outcome of the Grenfell inquiry will be big on the dull but crucial details of fire regulations, their application and their enforcement and rather smaller on the types of conclusions some political activists are thirsting for. But we shall see.
Again, do read Peter Apps’s piece for yourselves. Whatever conclusions you draw from it, I direct you to the one he closes with:
[The] public inquiry into Grenfell begins next month. It can only be hoped that all of these questions – spend, scrutiny and fire doors – will be fully answered by the time it concludes.
It’s hard to disagree.