The real crimes of Grenfell are coming out — and the media is silent
A rigged safety test should be front page news
It was a controversial decision, and the Fire Brigades Union was quite correct to protest about it at the time. The Grenfell Tower Inquiry would be divided into two phases: the first to cover the events of that terrible night, including the actions of responding firefighters; the second, everything that happened in the lead-up to the fire, including the decisions of local government officials and private contractors.
The ordering was back to front, argued the union. It would mean that the inquiry would open in a flurry of publicity, with firefighters the first witnesses to be scrutinised on the stand. Their every decision, every action, every minor mistake — perceived or otherwise — would then be picked over and laid bare before the nation.
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The media would have their pound of flesh, and the public would be left believing that it was the shortcomings of the fire service that caused the tragic deaths of 72 souls inside the building.
No matter that those firefighters were confronted by something during those dark hours that none of them had ever before witnessed, nor that the root causes of the fire lay in the years of deregulation by central government, cost-cutting by their counterparts in local government, and the drive for profit by private companies. No, it was almost certain that firefighters would become the immediate scapegoats.
Then, many months later, when it was the turn of the privateers and public officials to take the stand, the media circus would have moved on and public interest would have waned. And so the failings of the real culprits would receive nothing like the exposure given to the actions of firefighters, and the narrative would remain fixed: firefighters were to blame, and that was that.
Sure enough, such predictions have proved entirely accurate. This week, the inquiry — now well into its second phase — heard deeply disturbing evidence from Jonathan Roper, a former manager of Celotex, the firm which manufactured the insulation used at Grenfell Tower. Roper said that the company had rigged a safety test to achieve a pass for the insulation, and that a national building control body had then copied and pasted on to a certificate the manufacturer’s own ‘dishonest’ description of the product in a way that gave it a veneer of legitimacy.
This chilling testimony ought to have been plastered over the front pages of every newspaper. If it is true that such crimes were committed in the drive for profit, and that 72 innocents perished as a consequence, it would represent a significant national scandal. Yet the revelations commanded no more than a few column inches in most papers and the odd snatch of broadcast coverage.
Firefighters are understandably furious at the disparity between the media’s focus on the two phases of the inquiry. That’s why all of us, in everything that we read and hear about what happened on that fateful night, would do well to remember where the blame truly lies. It isn’t with those who plunged courageously into the flames, not knowing whether they would emerge alive. It is with some of those currently on the stand at the inquiry, and others still in the shadows.
I don’t think this is correct. The media, quite rightly, reported at the end of the first phase of the enquiry that its conclusions were deeply critical of the fire service response on the night. The first phase only looked at the events of the night of the fire. The second phase is looking at the refurbishment process and materials. It is not finished and no conclusions have been issued. These are witness statement that are part of the process. The reporting is at a similar level to the witness statement from the fire service in the first phase. Clearly, some of these current witness statements are horrifying, but trying to draw conclusions and report on them will not be done until all the witnesses have been heard. I’m quite sure the conclusions and reporting will be far more damning than those of the fire service in the first phase.
The Guardian has been reporting regularly on the enquiry in print and online, but not headline material as yet.
The author is right: the airtime given to this testimony is pitifully little, after all the time dedicated to the relatives testimony about the victims.
Hopefully some time will also be given to examining the Labour government’s policy which pushed housing authorites into installing “Improved” insulation in the first place.
Insulation standards have been upgraded successively under governments of all colours. Not sure why this would be a ‘Labour’ thing.
Because there is an enormous distinction between a standard and its application.
That policy is benign. It’s the actions of the company that matter.
As I understand the object of the refurbishment was to increase the insulation, with a budget of Â£10,000,000.
The committee of 12 people chose the best insulating material thus fulfilling their brief.
There were better fire retardant options available, but with lesser insulation characteristics and were thus discarded.
There was a fire expert in the committee, what was his/her opinion?
The author makes a great play about the Fire Brigade, who have claimed that there was no policy for a fire at a tower block other than to tell people to sty put – why?
It now appears that the National Building Control Body (who are they?) were conned into giving the insulation a certificate – how? Do they not have any checks?
My understanding is that the policy was “stay put” because they had designed the building with fire walls, concrete, etc., in a very deliberate way that made significant internal spread nearly impossible. As far as I can tell, this was a sensible plan for such a building. The problem was that the cladding on the outside was unexpectedly flammable (how exactly the judgement to use it was made idk—I get the impression most weren’t aware or particularly curious about the implications of the new material, and that the connection wasn’t made as to how it would interact with the fire-safety design of the building. probably too many people involved at too many stages). So once the fire hit the windows, it spread along the outside of the building, which rendered internal design suddenly useless. When a more experienced fire chief arrived, he instantly saw that and ordered immediate abandonment of the plan. But the younger people in charge before then were caught off guard by what happened and reluctant to suddenly give orders directly contrary to policy.
The fire expert and various inspectors/people involved with the certificate seem to be the ones who need to be under real scrutiny. It will probably be mostly a tragic combination of human error/negligence (like Station Night Club). But if they faked certification, that should be criminal.
Tower blocks have an OUTSTANDINGLY GOOD record of fire safety. Grenfell was the exception because of abusive “improvements”, likewise Lakanal. We never hear about the many people being killed in low-level housing, because if every instance of that was shown on the TV (several incidents per week) people would very soon stop watching due to being (a) sick to death, and (b) scared to live in their low-level housing. Ditto with road “accidents”.
As for the stay put policy, the buildings are DESIGNED for that. They were very much NOT designed for evacuation, which is why it was entirely proper that fire officers were very cautious about rushing to such a risky innovation. The blame on Commander Dany Cotton was entirely unjustified.
Yes, I’m in agreement with that—the tower was well-designed for fire safety, and the stay put policy made sense. The “improvements” to the exterior then nullified all of this—that was the problem. The stay put policy unexpectedly failed, and required a quick reversal. It is entirely understandable that fire officers were cautious, and they should not be held responsible, but it was no longer a risky innovation when the underlying logic of the problem became clear. Once the fire was spreading on the outside of the building, an evacuation probably needed to be risked immediately. The people running the building are at fault in various ways, as you have documented. Terrible recklessness.
The tower cladding (the thin outer layer
added to protect the insulating layer from the weather) was fine, but
the insulation was not; the latter was the best available to meet the
energy-efficiency standards (Directive 2010/31/EU
) enforced by the EU, which override fire-regulation standards proposed
by national bodies, such as our own BS4814, which cannot be implemented
as a result. There may have been many failings at UK national and local
government level contributing to this disaster but the EU’s part is
crucial in emasculating national competence and authority. It then lets
the opprobrium rest on others’ shoulders when disaster strikes. We hope
that the enquiry into the fire will point this out. For more details see
EUReferendum.com (4 July: http://www.eureferendum.com….
The sensible EU recommendation to insulate more and use energy less, is not and never was the reason for the KCLB wish to make the Grenfell Tower “look nicer”. The were the client who ruled out adding “sprinklers” in the design brief (something that the Building Regulations did recommend, but alas not require for existing buildings).
Grenfell would not have happened if there had not be breaches of tenant involvement. No one has more valid legitimate interest in tower block decisions than those who actually live in them. No way would the tenants have allowed this fire to happen if they had been INFORMED of what was going on.
A key factor that is constantly overlooked is that of tenants not being allowed to be involved or even informed of what was going on.
This is in breach of the Tenant Involvement and Empowerment Standard but the Regulator of Social Housing lacks sufficient power to enforce unless risk of “serious detriment” is involved. The new White Paper rightly proposes to get rid of that serious detriment criterion.
Tenants had filed an FOI but were refused on grounds of “commercial confidentiality”. But there should not be such an exception. If a company doesn’t want its information to be released to the relevant residents, then they are free to ssodd off elsewhere. The rights and safety of the tenants are more important. By the way, there is not some great risk of fires in tower blocks, only a great risk of abuse by the “social” landlords.
The GTI was informed that “LABC” had issued a product certificate (which was based on the rigged fire information from the manufacturer). The UK sold off its state owned and thus “neutral testing labs” in 1985 (BRE) (Thatcher Government). The same Thatcher Government removed the explicit requirement from the Building Regulations (in 1985) for all tall external walls to be “Fire Resistant”.
The hope will be that the lessons will prompt a reform of building control in order make it a better resourced and more effective check on the building industry. But there has been no change at the political level in terms of a move away from deregulation, self-certification and out-sourcing. Expecting effective reform the current government is thus likely to be a vain hope.
At least this week’s Sunday Times magazine had an expose of the widespread use of materials that pose a fire hazard and the financial motives and conflicts of interest that prevent anything effective being done about it. No one can claim not to know about this scandal now even if the publicity circus has moved on.
Sadly the Sunday Times magazine is behind a pay-wall so most of us will never see it.
I think there should be prison time on the cards for the professional technical and inspection people involved in the refurbishment, and if we can prove their managers instructed them to cut corners then the managers should also cop for a spell in pokey as well. All the directors of all the companies found to have contributed to the disaster should be hauled up on corporate charges with unlimited liability. It cannot be permitted for 72 people to be killed and no one is held to account because it was a team effort. In regards to the firefighters who had to deal with such a horrific and unprecedented situation, they should be lauded for their heroic efforts and their so obvious bravery.
Construction involving too many committee decisions strikes me as a major danger, allowing for things like this, accidental or otherwise, to go overlooked. The relative flammability of materials can only be judged by a relatively small number of people, and they need to be involved with every decision. It seems like there was way too much going on here at once, which I know is typical and partly intentional, to dilute responsibility and cut costs, in addition to bureaucratic reasons. It’s not a safe way to build. Building material choice is higher risk than people realize and it is easy for someone not knowledgeable and looking for a cheaper solution to make a major mistake, one that fire officials may not be able to easily catch. What happened with Station Night Club should be understood by anyone making any such decisions.
Crooked management does everything it can to prevent tenant involvement, so they can get away with corruption unobserved. We have this situation in Birmingham, where the Ladywood Housing Liaison Board was deliberately de-recognised on a false excuse and there has been ZERO tenant involvement/informing for the past 5 years. This is in severe breach of the Tenant Involvement and Empowerment Standard but no-one gives a damn, least of all the LIEbour councillors.
Tower blocks are great for making money. Make a lot of money by pretending they need lots of “improvements” (even if the tenants strongly object). Make even more by pretending that they are all about to collapse and kill everyone, as, after all, Ronan Point collapsed. (Sure it collapsed 52 years ago and NO OTHERS have in the FIFTY YEARS since, and even the rest of Ronan didn’t collapse but who needs facts when bribes are more agreeable.)
This definitely needed to be said and Paul Embery has said it very well.
“This chilling testimony ought to have been plastered over the front pages of every newspaper. If it is true that such crimes were committed in the drive for profit, and that 72 innocents perished as a consequence, it would represent a significant national scandal.
indeed and explains perfectly why the media is burying it.
External insulation and cladding on a tall building should not be inflammable at all. There are fibreglass and mineral wool alternatives to the highly flammable foam plastic insulation that appears to be the only choice ever even considered for Grenfell Tower.
I agree but the 1985 Thatcher Government did not and removed this requirement from the Building Regulations.
Some truth in what you say Paul and as an ex LFB Officer I see what your saying.
This is not intended to be political rather more factual but the amazing thing to me is that, post Grenfell, I have yet to see or hear of any reference to the Blair days and the start of self-certification after many years of successful Fire Service enforcement in conjunction with Local Authority Building Control departments. Transfer of these powers was around the same time as the Fire Service, nationally, was taken from The Home Office to boost the ego and the empire of John Prescott and the expanding Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Inside the ODPM at that time was a department of “Communities?” under which came fire and the minister, I think, was Nick Raynsford MP. In 2002 Raynesford wanted to reduce the size of the fire Service and was implicit, I believe, in wanting to reduce the historic rank structure to the preferred terms of “managers” I note that LFB are now seeking to reverse that.
What I am really left wondering, as if I didn’t know, is why the Grenfell enquiry, politicians and the written and visual media haven’t made far more of any of the above. Perhaps Paul you may wish to follow this up to prove me either right or wrong.
I think there needs to be a differentiation between the firefighters, who are beyond reproach, and the fire service.
The media are very selective on which stories they keep in the spotlight long term e.g Hillsborough and Dominic Cumming travels during lock down compared to others such as Islamic led stabbings in Reading, Telford Abuse or the Grenfell fire causes. It’s shocking!
“…and the media is silent.”
as Unherd demonstrates by burying PAUL EMBER’s post
‘the root causes of the fire lay in the years of deregulation by central government, cost-cutting by their counterparts in local government, and the drive for profit by private companies.’ No need for a public enquiry, Paul knows all. I am fifty four, and I have been reading things like this my whole life. The cliches, the threadbare tropes, the horribly predictable repetition of things I’m not sure anyone ever believed, let alone still believes. I can only assume that if a publicly owned company had designed and manufactured the cladding, and a government official had failed to test it properly, and it had be put on the outside of a publicly owned tower block, and seventy two people died in a fire because of it, Paul would demand that all records of the event be suppressed and expunged from the record, just to make sure everybody could be certain forever that only the private sector do stupid, careless, lazy things.
There is a massive distinction between public sector businesses and regulators. There is a large body of evidence to suggest that cost cutting in regulatory bodies has resulted in reduced monitoring and oversight in a whole host of industries. Are you honestly suggesting that oversight and regulation does nothing to prevent accidents or safeguard quality standards?
Engineers specify what materials go into a building. Well, ok, in any sane and well-run society, engineers specify what materials go into a building. If they are gainsaid by a committee of know-nothings, then the consequences are the responsibility of the latter.
I am sorry, I don’t remember the details but, after the fire, I read an article in the US that the company that made the cladding was forced to include in its US specs that the material was not safe above two stories – or maybe one – because its combustibility was known about. However, it did not include this information, nor was it enforced to, on this material exported to other countries.
X An unknown quantity
SPURT A drip under pressure
I recommend watching “Inquiry. The Great British Housing Disaster (Adam Curtis, 1984)” on YouTube – “Inquiry. The Great British Housing Disaster (Adam Curtis, 1984)” on YouTube https://youtu.be/Ch5VorymiL4 . I am not sure if Grenfell Tower was system built, but if it was the cladding/insulation was more than just to keep the heat in – it was probably to stop it falling down!
“…the root causes of the fire lay in the years of deregulation by central government, cost-cutting by their counterparts in local government, and the drive for profit by private companies.”
just another result of privatization, austerity, conservative ideology and “red in tooth and claw” capitalism.
Well commented Nun
so many experts appearing on the scene to air their views. What sort of expert approves tower blocks with only 1 staircase? Sunley built a tower block Arlington House Margate in 1963 I believe, to the existing standards then, still standing, and safe. Instead of moving ahead we should examine what went wrong with fire standards between then and now.
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