Firefighters didn’t cause the Grenfell Tower blaze: a broken system did

Grenfell ablaze, July 2017. Image: Getty.

Labour Assembly Member Andrew Dismore on the true culprits.

Last night’s Channel 4 documentary on the Grenfell Tower fire asked: “Did the London Fire Brigade fail?”

Its producers are right that no part of the run-up, response or recovery from the fire should escape scrutiny. Anything else would be a betrayal of the 72 Londoners who did not escape the fire, and the many hundreds more who have seen their lives changed forever by loss and trauma.

However, we must not let our questions be defined solely by the horror and heroism of the night of 23 June.

The London Fire Brigade (LFB) was undoubtedly overwhelmed by the Grenfell Tower fire. Though firefighters threw everything at an incident that should never have arisen, it is right that the Brigade is making a wholesale review of its operations. On the London Assembly Fire Committee we regularly check LFB’s progress on new equipment, training and policies.

But it is wrong to pin that disaster on firefighters. The real issue is that years of deregulation, oversight and cuts allowed this catastrophe to happen.

It is beyond belief that the UK’s building regulations allowed a high-rise residential block to be wrapped in layers of combustible materials. The frankly uncaring attitude displayed by those responsible for managing and maintaining Grenfell Tower left those residents in danger every day. As fire safety expert Professor Barbara Lane told the public inquiry: “If those materials had been known… the building shouldn’t have been occupied”.


While London Fire Brigade must learn the lessons of Grenfell, we can trust that this mission is underway from the London Fire Commissioner to newly-trained firefighters.

The same cannot be said for those who produced and fitted the products that made the fire so deadly. Arconic claimed its cladding, with combustibility similar to petrol, was “at most a contributing factor”. Experts agree the fire started in a Whirlpool fridge – but its manufacturer still alleges a cigarette ignited the building. And despite London Fire Brigade’s firm guidance to fit sprinklers to tall residential buildings, recent checks found developers routinely ignoring it. 

In London, more than one hundred towers remain with the same dangerous cladding that was present on Grenfell and which the government has banned. This is causing financial hardship, deep anxiety and real risk to thousands of Londoners. At the Fire Committee, we were told that some private building owners were not reporting suspected cases of dangerous cladding because of the cost implications. We cannot claim to have learnt from Grenfell until this continuing scandal is addressed.

London Fire Brigade staff will never stop examining their actions on the night of the fire. But the Grenfell community and all Londoners need more than a narrow focus on the London Fire Brigade. The rotten system put firefighters in an impossible situation and cost 72 residents their lives. Let’s focus on fixing that so no one else must experience this avoidable catastrophe.

Andrew Dismore is a Labour member of the London Assembly for Barnet & Camden. 

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL