Britain - Grenfell Tower: murder by neglect and profiteering

Summer 2017

We will probably never know how many actually died in the Grenfell Tower fire, in the early hours of 14 June. At the time of writing, the official death toll stands at 80, but the investigation of the building by firefighters is still far from over and the police have admitted finding remains of 87 bodies. What's more, there is no reliable list of those who were actually there at the time of the fire.

What is certain, however, is that the shock caused by this disaster immediately took on a political dimension because of the crude light it shed on Britain's deep social inequalities.

Indeed, Grenfell Tower is part of an island of dire poverty, located right in the middle of the "Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea", Britain's richest borough and one of the world's richest. Yet, it was in this island of poverty that people died in such numbers, in a fire which was unprecedented - in fact, unthinkable - in a borough where so much money is spent to protect the locals' wealthy dwellings, paintings and jewels, against every possible hazard.

In a matter of minutes, the flames set alight the cladding wrapping of the Tower, engulfing its 24 stories. There seemed to be nothing to slow them down, even less to stop them. Some of the victims were burnt alive, others probably died from breathing in toxic gases, others still were killed when they jumped out of their windows in an attempt to escape from the furnace.

But, above all, they all died because they were working-class people and because, for this reason, no-one in authority, whether in this borough or elsewhere, gave a damn about their welfare. And each one of the subsequent reactions and revelations were to highlight this damning reality.

First, there was the response of the Tory-dominated local council. It was reluctant and shambolic. This council had one of the largest cash reserves of any local authority in the country, at £274 million. Yet in the following days some displaced survivors were reported to be sleeping rough or in cars. Others, who had been temporarily sheltered in a nearby hotel, were later given just a few hours to move out in order to make space for well-off tourists. Others, still, were eventually rehoused in an unfinished housing development - but only in its "affordable part", with a separate "poor door" next to the bins! This rich council just treated the survivors in the same way as the wealthy treat beggars they want to put out of their sight!

Then there was the response of the government. The fire came less than a week after May got her comeuppance in the 8th June election, in part at least because of her arrogance and obvious contempt for the problems faced by the poorest section of the population. Her refusal to meet the survivors on her first, belated visit to the site of the fire, only confirmed the impression she had given to many voters during her election campaign. So that when, having had second thoughts, she eventually tried to meet some of the Grenfell dwellers, she was duly booed and heckled by angry protestors and forced into a humiliating retreat.

Shortly after, May's Communities secretary, Sajid Javid, officially promised that all survivors as well as all displaced residents from blocks surrounding Grenfell Tower, would be rehoused by July 5th at the latest. However, on that day, it emerged that only 14 of the 158 households concerned had accepted offers for temporary accommodation. Was it to divert attention from its own failure that the government decided then that it had to be seen being more pro-active? In any case, the very same day, the announcement came that "independent" experts were to be appointed to run the council's housing department. However, there was no question of appointing administrators to take over the failed Kensington council as a whole - as Cameron had done, for instance, in far less dramatic circumstances with Tower Hamlets. Apparently, May didn't want to upset the super-rich of Kensington & Chelsea, by depriving them of their favourite Tory administration!

A cynical buck-passing exercise

In the meantime a flow of revelations had begun to expose the four decades of criminal neglect and mismanagement which had paved the way for the Grenfell disaster.

At first, Chancellor Hammond went on television to defend his own government's record. He claimed that, surely, the use of the inflammable external cladding which, by then, had been proved to be responsible for the inferno, must have been illegal in Britain, just as it was in many other countries.

Except that, as it turned out, this was not actually true. The official guidance on building regulations issued by the privatised BRE (Building Research Establishment) on behalf of the government, states that materials in external walls should either be of "limited combustibility" or comply with a testing regime. And, of course, such vague regulations are open to every possible abuse.

For good measure, Hammond did his best to minimise the role played by the absence of water sprinklers in the Grenfell fire. But, as it turned out, he was just trying to justify the fact that, for years, successive Tory governments had chosen to ignore the recommendation made by fire experts that all tower blocks should be fitted - and, if necessary, retro-fitted - with sprinklers.

In short, May's government was desperately trying to deny any responsibility. When this failed, it went into a panic. What followed was the chaotic reaction of a huge bureaucracy in which every institution, from the government itself to each local council, was frantically rushing to cover its own back, while trying to pass the buck to someone else - regardless of the consequences for ordinary people.

May initiated this buck-passing frenzy by ordering all councils to get their tower blocks investigated at once by the BRE. No such demand was made on private sector landlords, though - they were only respectfully "encouraged" to follow the government's recommendation! But, of course, the only aim of this huge operation - which targeted 600 tower blocks across England - was to shift all responsibility to the local councils themselves. And, predictably, every single panel of cladding tested by the BRE was found to be faulty - not according to the BRE's own unspecific regulations, but to what appears to be a tailored-made specification, which is so opaque that it baffles a number of fire experts!

At the time of writing, no fewer than 190 tower blocks, in 51 local authorities, have been found to need urgent replacement on this basis. And the odds are that most, if not all the 600 tower blocks under investigation will fail the government's test as well.

What did May care about the consequences, as long as this finger-pointing allowed her to shift the blame for the Grenfell fire - and, by the same token, for any future disaster - onto local councils and away from her own government? Especially as she had already announced that her government could not afford to offer additional funding for councils to pay for the repairs - despite the 40% cut imposed on their budgets since 2010! Besides, there was an obvious political dimension to May's all-out offensive: after all, the councils targeted usually had a large working-class population and were, therefore, bound to be Labour-controlled. What better way was there for May to paper over the fact that, in the case of the Grenfell Tower, the responsibility actually fell on the country's most affluent Tory council!

Predictably, May's buck-passing exercise caused local councils to go into a tailspin, terrified of having to carry the can. The climax came at 2am on Saturday 24th June, when 4,000 tenants from Camden's Chalcots estate were ordered to leave their homes, without any advance warning or explanation. It was complete chaos. They had no time to prepare. They were crowded into gyms or packed into hotel rooms. No provisions had been made for the disabled and sick. The 80 or so households which refused to leave their flats were even threatened with forced removal. It was as if the Chalcots estate tenants were being deported.

But then, the council's faceless bureaucrats and politicians did not care about the effect on the tenants of issuing such drastic orders. Following May's example, they were just covering their backs - with exactly the same contempt for the working-class poor at the receiving end of their manoeuvres.

The disaster's root causes

The Grenfell Tower fire did not come out of the blue. Countless fire experts have already argued that this was a disaster waiting to happen. Their explanations will be discussed later in this article.

But the technical factors which caused this disaster would simply have been unthinkable, if it had not been for a long series of political decisions made by successive governments over nearly four decades. All these decisions had one objective in common: maximising the earnings that private profiteers could make out of public funds, while shrinking social budgets to the bare bone. The resulting cost for the working-class poor living in social housing was quite simply irrelevant. As far as the politicians involved were concerned, these working-class people were just dispensable pawns in the greater scheme of things. Whether Tory or Labour, they considered that their job was to promote the interests of British capital, in a society designed to serve its interests and run accordingly.

To start with, though, one should get rid of a common preconceived idea which has permeated many of the comments made after the Grenfell fire - namely that, in and of itself, living in a high rise is a risk.

In terms of urbanisation, Britain has long been an exception among the world's industrialised countries. Individual houses - and even, if possible, detached houses - have long been held as the be-all and end-all of "successful" housing. This fitted in quite well with the frantic individualism on which the capitalist social order is based - and, by the same token, with the greed of landowners who were able to retain their control over the land, thanks to the ancient and anachronistic lease-holding system which still prevails across Britain. And, of course, far from receding, this trend was even reinforced by the advent of Thatcherism - and the policies of every subsequent government - which held on to the myth that Britain should be a "nation of homeowners".

Never mind that the individual housing model resulted both in a colossal waste of social resources - by making it virtually impossible to rationalise the use of public infrastructure - and in an atomisation of social relations, since every household was supposed to live in quasi autarchy, within its own private individual bubble, in isolation from - if not in competition with - its neighbours.

For decades, the only exception that could be found to this individualist model was in social housing. After WWII, in particular, there were attempts to implement some of the progressive ideas of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, among others. So there was an attempt to build estates in which spaces were specially dedicated to various forms of collective life; to design buildings so as to make it easier for people to meet; to conceive the overall structure of the building so as to rationalise the use of facilities, such as lifts, domestic waste and energy, while giving them a harmonious, striking shape. These ideas also gave birth to the so-called "brutalist" style - because of the undecorated concrete that was used as their main construction material. Grenfell Tower was designed by this architecture school. Others, like Trellick Tower, also in North Kensington, and Balfron Tower, in Tower Hamlets, both designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger, are now Grade II listed buildings. Some of these high rises, which were sold off later, have even been turned into fashionable, luxury flats for the well-offs.

These attempts at building decent homes for the working class were imperfect, because council housing was built on the cheap and, later, because of inadequate maintenance. What's more, on-going cuts in social expenditure deprived these embryonic forms of collective life of the manpower they needed to function. Youth clubs disappeared for lack of youth workers, among many other things.

Ironically, though, over the past decade, high rises have come back into fashion - but only because of the meteoric increase in the price of "constructible" land! Significantly, though, these modern high rises have only been built for the well-off, if not the very rich. Just as significantly, there have been no lethal fires in these affluent towers, although many of them are much higher than Grenfell ! Of course, all due safety precautions are taken in these rich residences, whose inhabitants can afford to pay millions for a flat. If anything, this proves that high rises are not the issue as far as safety is concerned. The only issue is money, as in every aspect of life in this capitalist society.

A "bonfire" of fire regulations

As to Grenfell Tower, it was completed in 1974 as part of the Lancaster West slum redevelopment programme. It had 20 accommodation storeys, with 120 flats, and 4 non-residential storeys. However, two of those were converted to create new flats as part of the building's refurbishment which was completed in 2016 - during which the fatal inflammable cladding was put in place.

Originally, fire safety had been taken seriously at Grenfell Tower as in all the high rises built during this period. The general idea was that, should a fire break out, the design of the building would slow it down, allowing tenants to remain protected from the flames and smoke until firefighters could rescue them. So each flat had a fire-proof lobby and the floors were isolated from one another by fire-proof doors. And this seemed to work - but, of course, only for as long as maintenance was properly done.

However, from the early 1980s, every successive government proceeded to dismantle piece by piece the entire framework which, so far, had offered a relatively safe roof over the heads of working-class households who couldn't afford to buy their own homes.

It all started with Thatcher's sell-off of social housing and her turn of the screw on local government finances. Local councils were made to get rid of the direct works departments, which, so far, had centralised the skills and equipment necessary to maintain, among other things, their social housing stock. As a result, the maintenance and renovation of social housing was turned into a money-spinner for a galaxy of private contractors - which was exactly the aim of Thatcher's policy.

As councils were obliged to get the job done by using a competitive tendering process, contractors were made to bid against one another. This drove prices down, allowing Tory ministers to brag about the "effectiveness of the market" compared to the cost of having the job done in-house. Except that, of course, driving down prices could only be done by cutting corners on materials and doing a quick and dirty job. The quality of maintenance and renovation jobs suffered and, because of the complexities involved in lengthy tendering out processes, their frequency was reduced.

Round about the same time, the Tories' "bonfire of red tape" began to take its toll. For instance, the requirement for fire-proof lobbies in high rises was repealed, in order to squeeze more flats onto each floor, thereby undermining the very basis on which fire safety had been designed for these tall buildings. Likewise, in 1985, a regulation which required FR60-compliant (flame resistant for 60 minutes) cladding to be used in housing was repealed, leaving the choice of material to the discretion of housing administrators.

The process of relaxing fire regulations for the sake of cutting costs was to carry on after Labour came back into office. In 2005, Blair opened up a new loophole - in fact, one of the worst - in social housing fire regulations. The Fire Service ceased to be the only judge of fire safety. Instead, landlords were given the overall responsibility for fire safety and the right to use the services of private safety assessment companies - which, of course, had every reason not to find too many faults, for fear of losing their contracts!

The subcontracting of social housing

Then came a flurry of subcontracting - this time of social housing itself - which lasted for over a decade. It was initiated under the Tories and then continued under Labour. The management of large numbers of council estates was subcontracted, with the objective of turning the screw on social tenants and cutting the cost of social housing. The trick which was most often used was to blackmail tenants into voting for the transfer: they were told that if they did not agree, their run-down estates would never be renovated; but when they did, they soon found that in return for some renovation, they had to pay higher rents, while maintenance remained as poor as before.

It was in that period, in 1996, that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) was set up to take over the borough's entire social housing stock, including Grenfell Tower. With nearly 10,000 homes under management, it became - and remains - the country's largest social housing administrator. But it caused so much grief among the Grenfell Tower tenants that, by November 2016, their organisation, the Grenfell Action Group, was describing

the KCTMO as "an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia" which had been totally ignoring the tenants' warnings of disaster.

Labour in the late 1990s had promoted the rapid development of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) projects - a system first introduced under the previous Tory government - in order to fund new social housing developments, or to take over the maintenance of old ones in "partnership" with the private sector. In these PFI projects, the required capital was raised by private partners. In return for what the government officially described as "bearing the risk", it granted its "partners" a management and maintenance contract for years into the future, out of which they expected to make hefty profits. Needless to say, these profiteers - rather than the architects - were left to make all the vital choices in the design of the project, especially with regard to safety.

It was during that period, in 2006, that the 5 housing blocks of the Chalcots estate - those which were so recklessly evacuated this June by Camden council - were completed, as part of a PFI project.

The growing number of arms-length management organisations, such as KCTMO, and private PFI partners such as the one running the Chalcots estate, meant that maintenance became an afterthought, not to mention renovation. Everything had to be done on the cheap, since this was the only way for these management companies to fulfil their contracts within the tight limits imposed by shrinking council funding, let alone make a profit out of them, in the case of PFI contracts. The fire-proof doors which were meant to confine the flames to the floor where they had started, ceased to be fire-proof for lack of maintenance. Emergency staircases disappeared too. The whole framework on which fire protection had been based in high rise buildings melted away, while private contractors were increasing their parasitism on public funds.

Of course, the initiative of this abrogation of responsibilities in social housing came from governments, both Tory and Labour. But local council politicians did nothing to resist this pressure either. Yet it wasn't as if there were no protests against it. In many cases tenants waged protracted battles against their housing being taken over by subcontractors. But they got no support from council leaders who were terrified by the prospect of a confrontation with the government - and the loss of their cushy positions.

In most cases, council leaders used every possible trick in the book to defuse tenants' resistance. In fact, for these local politicians, who considered that their role was merely to manage the budget they were allocated by the government, according to ministerial instructions, subcontracting the management of social housing involved obvious advantages which they certainly appreciated. After all, it allowed them to avoid taking any responsibility for the cost-cutting and mismanagement of social housing and to shift all the blame onto the contractors!

From the Lakanal House warning...

It was during Blair's first term that a quick and cheap way of prettifying high rises began to spread. Instead of trying to repair the deteriorating concrete of these blocks' façades, which was considered far too expensive, they were to be packaged from top to bottom into a dual envelope of nice-looking cladding on the outside, thermal insulant on the inside, with a one-inch gap in between. This method presented several advantages: it did not require heavy construction equipment, such as big cranes, which would have been costly; the envelope was made of relatively small units which were cheap to manufacture and could then be fitted one floor at a time, without the need for highly skilled labour; and it made it possible to significantly reduce the cost of heating buildings, which had been built at a time when little attention was paid to energy efficiency.

However, these envelopes soon began to show some problems. There were some worrying cases of fire in other countries, before this finally hit home in Britain. In 2009, the cladding covering the 14-storey Lakanal House, in Camberwell, went up in flames within a few minutes. Six people died. The council was subsequently fined for having broken fire regulations, while an enquiry was put together to investigate.

Four years later, in 2013, the enquiry report blamed the rapid propagation of the flames on the cladding material, warning against the risk that a repetition of the same phenomenon might cause many more deaths. It concluded on the need to ensure that any cladding material used should be fire-resistant, to prevent the flames from flaring up along the building's façade, and that all floors should be fitted with water sprinklers, in order to slow the flames down. These recommendations were meant to apply to new high rises but also to old ones.

But nothing was done. Every subsequent government, from Cameron to May, sat on the report, ignoring its findings. Worse even, Brandon Lewis, who was Cameron's Housing minister in 2014-16 (and today, May's Immigration minister), made a point of refusing to tighten fire regulations to include the obligation to fit new housing with water sprinklers, on the grounds that it would discourage developers from building new homes!

... to a disaster which happened

Worse was to come, though, with the fatal refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, which started in 2014 and was completed in May 2016. A planning document referring to this work, pointed out that Grenfell Tower lies between - and is visible from - two designated North Kensington Conservation Areas. As to the planning permission itself, it stipulated that samples of materials to be used on the exterior were to be submitted to and approved in writing by the planning authority, to ensure "that the character and appearance of the area are preserved and the living conditions of those living near the development are suitably protected". In other words, even from the point of view of the local council's planning department, this was all about "prettyfying" Grenfell Tower so as not to spoil the borough's wealthy locals' view! The interests of the tower's tenants were not even mentioned.

In this refurbishment, no fewer than 60 different companies were involved. A few were directly under contract to KCTMO, but most were subcontractors of these contractors, or subcontractors of subcontractors - meaning that it is extremely difficult to know which was actually responsible for what.

Rydon Construction, the lead contractor which installed the cladding, insisted that all the work "met all required building control, fire regulation and health & safety standards", as did all the suppliers and subcontractors.

However, "fire regulation and health & safety" do not appear to have been a major concern for anyone (except the residents, of course), neither for KCTMO, nor for Rydon. Indeed, at an early meeting involving the two entities, in the Summer 2014, a series of amendments to the refurbishment contract were agreed. These included adopting "cassette fix aluminium cladding in lieu of zinc cladding" - and this, despite the fact that the choice of zinc cladding, which was considered safer, had already been agreed with the residents' representatives. But then, since using aluminium cladding allowed KCTMO to make savings worth nearly £300,000, the management company must have considered that it was well worth ignoring the residents' choice. All the more so as aluminium cladding, which has a brighter metallic look, was probably considered better by KCTMO managers, as far as "prettyfying" was concerned.

But then, the catalogue of cost-cutting and disregard for the residents' safety goes on. The aluminium cladding which was eventually chosen for the outside layer, was called Reynobond PE. Yet, according to the manufacturer's own fire safety specifications, this type of cladding was only meant to be used for buildings up to 10m in height, whereas Grenfell Tower was 67m high!

Likewise, the internal layer of insulation which was chosen was Celotex RS 5000. But the planning application named it as Celotex FR 5000 - "FR" standing for fire resistant, as opposed to "RS" for rain screen. Celotex, the foam manufacturer, confirmed later that RS 5000, was what it had been asked to supply.

But why was a fire-resistant insulation replaced with one which wasn't fire resistant? What's more, why was this insulation chosen despite the fact that it contained polyisocyanurate foam, which produces hydrogen cyanide when exposed to high temperature - which is a potentially lethal, toxic gas?

Why? Quite simply because, by making these choices, KCTMO was "saving" £2 per square metre - or a mere £5,000 for the whole building - and this for a project which was expected to cost close to £20 million!

And, to add insult to injury, it was decided to save on water sprinklers too: none were fitted as part of this refurbishment, no doubt to save the £200,000 they would have cost. This, when just one flat in the borough sold for an average £1.4m!

So, yes, the Grenfell Tower fire was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In fact, time and again, residents had explicitly warned the KCTMO and the council about the risk of fire. But the council and its management company sat on their hands, just as successive governments had sat on their hands in response to the report over the Lakanal House fire.

And all along during this lengthy series of petty cost-cutting, in which regulations were repeatedly and deliberately broken, not one inspection, not even an official taking a cursory look at the paperwork, saw the disaster coming - or if someone did, bothered to do anything about it. And for a very simple reason: regulations are only worth what the people in charge of enforcing them are worth. And when those in charge of the enforcement - whether council or government officials - have a vested interest in looking the other way, the regulations turn out to be what they really are - just pieces of paper.

In the end, at least 80 people lost their lives, because they lived in an island of poverty in the middle of an ocean of wealth. They were too poor for the system and its politicians to have the slightest interest in their fate. They were murdered by the profiteering which drives everything in this society and by the deeply entrenched contempt that the capitalists who own everything in this society and their lackeys in office, have for the working class and poor on whose labour and poverty they thrive. They were murdered by a capitalist system which has long proved incapable of catering for the needs of all - a system that only deserves to be overthrown!