The horrifying fire in the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington that, as I write, has claimed the lives of six Londoners* and counting is already prompting a range of responses. Sadiq Khan has said that all the answers to the many questions raised by the tragedy will be answered, and it is good that the mayor has made it his responsibility to see that they are. The local Grenfell Action Group has drawn attention to its view, expressed as recently as November, that the recently refurbished tower contained fire risks, and their various claims merit close attention. There must be no stone left unturned in pinpointing how this disaster came about.
Other reactions to the fire have been of less value. Social media warriors are trotting out their usual rhetoric and already the disaster is being fashioned as a metaphor to fit the familiar “two cities” narrative, in which the housing of the very wealthy is contrasted with that of the poor as if that alone explained what has occurred. The location of the gutted tower lends itself to such easy populism: Labour’s shock capture of the Kensington constituency last Thursday has been a good reminder that not all of that area is filthy rich.
But there should be no rushing to judgments of any kind, either factual or moral. We do not yet know what started the fire or why it was able to spread with what appears to have been great speed. We do not know in clear detail what advice was given to residents when it broke out or what checks were conducted in recent days. The facts will have to be solidly established.
Few people other than residents of the tower and those who live close by will know what the social make-up of the tower’s residents was. I certainly don’t pretend to, but it is the case that many council-owned housing blocks and estates across the city have a broader income mix of residents than is often assumed.
The long term condition of the tower, built in 1974, and its recent refurbishment will surely be looked into. So will the actions over time of those responsible for managing the building. Recent warnings that a government delay in reviewing safety in tower blocks across the country look worthy of examination, as does any relevance of local government spending cuts. Royal Kensington and Chelsea’s reputation in many eyes as a patrician Conservative borough that cares about its less well-off will come under scrutiny. Southwark Council’s administration of the time did not emerge well from the fire in Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009, which left six people dead. All that said, jumping to conclusions will not help.
The dreadfulness of this event has unfolded before Londoners on the very morning that Borough Market reopened following the London Bridge attack. For many in the capital it has lately became routine to wake in fear of terrible news. Responding to this latest cruel event will require the same qualities we should expect are being applied to those that have come before it: a remorseless, forensic determination to find out exactly what happened and why, and to prevent anything like it from happening again.
*Update, 15 June 19:00: The death toll has now risen to 17 and is going to rise higher. BBC News has produced a measured report about issues that investigators might need to consider.