Before the flames were extinguished on that horrific night two years ago, questions were already being asked: how did something as appalling as the Grenfell Tower fire happen, and what must be done so that – in the words of Theresa May – “nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”?
Seventy-two Londoners died in the fire. Is there any task more urgent for our government than making sure no one else is put at risk as they were, and that no more families experience the trauma and bereavement that theirs have?
Ever since the fire, change has been the exception not the norm. While I understand the reasons for the lengthy public inquiry, there is no doubt that the stress caused for the bereaved, survivors and residents could be mitigated by signs of progress in changing policy from the government.
Instead, it has dragged its heels and conducted a litany of jobs half done. While Greater London Authority funding enabled Kensington & Chelsea Council, the borough covering the Grenfell estate, to buy 200 homes to rehouse families, there were still 17 households in temporary accommodation at the start of June this year. It is unacceptable that a nation such as ours cannot swiftly rehouse the residents of one estate after an emergency. Were a similar tragedy to occur again, let alone an event that required rehousing people on a larger scale, it is not at all clear that local authorities would have the resources to cope.
Despite a focus on “resilience”, years of cuts have left local authorities with little backup. This should have been a wakeup call for the government, but in recent weeks the chief secretary to the Treasury announced that the so-called “end of austerity” spending review will be delayed thanks to current political events.
In the field of building safety, too, the government has been tested and found wanting. Investigations by London Fire Brigade have shown Grenfell-style aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding to be just the tip of an iceberg of fire safety faults. After seeing the consequences at Grenfell, any observer would judge it a matter of urgency to get rid of the flammable cladding on other buildings.
Yet residents of the 15,200 homes in London in buildings with ACM cladding will need no reminding that the government has so far failed to mobilise its power to fix this life-threatening problem. And while local authorities have made an admirable job of starting work, 4,600 council and housing association dwellings still have this material attached to them.
Action must also be taken to help those living in the 10,600 privately owned dwellings affected, a far greater proportion of which are in buildings where nothing is being done to remove the ACM. As the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has said, “there is an ethical and moral issue here”. Unfortunately, building owners seem to be subordinating this to their finances.
We might expect the government to step in only now have ministers announced a remediation fund for privately-owned buildings. It is far from certain that the £200 million allocated will meet the demand for cladding removal, and it does not even begin to address the costs of interim fire safety measures that have seen leaseholders run up bills of thousands of pounds.
Wee this not bad enough, there is a growing realisation that ACM cladding is only the beginning. An unknown number of tall residential buildings are clad in other substances likely to fail fire safety tests. The De Pass Gardens fire in Barking shows the terrible ease with which fires can spread across many types of material attached to buildings. Despite these looming storm clouds, official tests to establish which other materials need to be removed from buildings were delayed repeatedly, starting only at the end of April. Even now, MPs have raised concerns that the “bespoke” tests commissioned do not establish such facts as the toxicity of smoke issued when a substance burns.
This summer sees 2018’s Hackitt review of building safety, commissioned after Grenfell, finally begin its progress towards legislation. Implementation is expected in 2021. By way of comparison, the Beveridge Report, the World War II document which created the foundations of the NHS and our welfare state, went from report to reality in six years. There is no way that the urgent need for changes to fire safety should approach the timescales needed to establish a post-war new society.
This underlines the story since 2017: our government failing to get a grip on an unfolding crisis which has left tens of thousands of homes unsafe to live in. Despite the vast resources, financial, administrative and legal, that the British government possesses, its response to citizens in need has been lacklustre. No wonder those affected have little faith in future change. From Brexit to climate change, there is no shortage of challenges on the horizon. Grenfell was a terrible tragedy and we must never forget those who lost their lives. In tandem, though, we must enquire what our government’s failed response to that crisis means for the future mountains we must climb.
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