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. 

 
 
 
 

Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.


What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.