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. 

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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