Nearly two weeks have passed since Londoners woke to the news that Grenfell Tower was on fire. That time has been filled with an overpowering quantity of news, opinion and social media exchanges. Some has been measured and wise, but incautious judgments have been rushed to too. Some of the commentary on what the blaze has signified about London has obscured more than it has revealed. It is vital that the city – and the rest of the country – learns the right lessons from Grenfell. As boroughs across the capital seek to ensure that their buildings are safe and thoughts begin to turn to the public inquiry to come, the dangers of jumping to wrong conclusions remain. Here are some small thoughts on that large theme.
We still don’t know exactly what happened
There are some things we do know: it’s been established that the fire started on the fourth floor in a faulty fridge-freezer; the cladding and insulation fixed to the outside of the building as part of its renovation, completed last year, have failed safety tests; the Met, which has opened a criminal investigation, has been told that the speed with which the fire spread was “unexpected”. But the London Fire Brigade says the reason for that speed is not yet understood. Experts have spoken of a possible “chimney effect” due to a lack of fire barriers within the cladding installation and discussed how much help sprinklers might have been in lessening the fire’s impact. But no conclusions about these things have yet been reached by those investigating Grenfell. And until that has happened…
We do not know who or what is to blame
Someone well acquainted with the delivery of works and services at local government level has described to me how responsibility for risk can be delegated down quite a long decision-making chain. Who said what to whom and who did what at every stage in the whole process of Grenfell Tower’s refurbishment will surely be of interest to the public inquiry team. Negligence, incompetence and actions taken in good faith that turned out to be catastrophic all seem possible parts of the picture of blame that will eventually emerge. A wider context involving politicians, regulations and public finances might be parts of that picture too. But for now, we do not know.
Survivors must be allowed to speak for themselves
An array of pundits, activists and politicians have been speaking up for people who lived in Grenfell Tower. Some of those voices surely deserve to be heard, and any allegations they have made about the tower’s refurbishment and fire safety measures should be examined carefully. But they must not take precedence over residents themselves and others who live nearby. Some have already spoken up in public but many more have not. The danger of their views and interests being expressed for them by proxies is that the full range of residents and their perspectives might not emerge and be respected. Both the quality of representation of residents’ wishes and that of the authorities’ responses to them are relevant. The range of people who live in council-owned residential properties can vary greatly, whether by tenure, personal circumstances or affection for their homes and neighbourhoods. They are never the lumpen underclass of poisonous popular derision. They might well have an array of experiences of officials, managers and contractors to share. All of these should be sought and valued.
Rash accusations do not serve justice
Rhetoric, recriminations and conspiracy theories have been flying. Some of this has been forgivable – people are angry, frightened and upset. But some has been misjudged. Note that the London Fire Brigade is reported to have flatly denied John McDonnell’s assertion at Glastonbury that fire service cuts “contributed to” the deaths. Note too that an independent review for Sadiq Khan of cuts made under Boris Johnson concluded that they should be “embedded”. Other claims have been unedifying, almost gleeful, displaying a mob sanctimony driven by ignorance – including by well-known journalists and other politicians. A prime example has been the cry that the cladding was put on the tower to “appease luxury developers” and wealthy residents who live nearby. This has been justified by citing council planning documents refering to views from adjacent conservation areas being among the planning issues to be considered with regard to the refurbishment. But it is routine for councils to think about the effects of new buildings or alterations to existing ones on neighbouring territory. Conservation areas, which can be found all over London, are likely to be given additional weight. But the planning documents also say that the cladding, and new windows which were also installed, would improve sound insulation and ventilation for residents and the ecological properties of the building. If undue concern for conservation area residents is found to have contributed to decisions that resulted in the fire spreading, so be it. But we are a long, long way from making such a serious charge stick. And the more that false conclusions become received wisdoms, the less easy it becomes for the right conclusions to be acted on – and, as a result, the chances of such a fire happening again being reduced.
‘Two cities’ metaphors and other Grand Narratives are tempting but not much help
London is very good at generating wealth but not so good at sharing it among its own people. We all know this: we know that millions of Londoners struggle to get by and that 40% of London children live in poverty. The capital contains extreme income inequalities, and these have come into sharper focus due to rich Kensington and Chelsea being very, very rich and other parts being far from it. But adopting the Grenfell fire as a social parable for bad things that flow from the contrast between the two doesn’t help much with learning why it occurred. Neither does appropriating it to bolster Grand Narratives about the end of neoliberalism and so on. Though tempting, these are reductive simplifications of a catastrophe which may well be connected with austerity, the longer-term denigration of social housing and decades of downgrading of local government, but may also turn out to be every bit as much a product of bureaucratic inertia, unclear regulation, poor site management, communications breakdowns and all sorts of specific local factors that don’t neatly illustrate any over-arching hypothesis. Grenfell is rightly seen as having deep implications for London and the nation. These may be many and various. So let’s not be shallow about it.
Photograph: Metropolitan Police Service