In 50 years time we will remember where we were when we watched Grenfell Tower burn and heard the anguish of those who lost families and friends.
There is no way of describing this tragedy other than an unprecedented disaster in which ignorance, incompetence and impulsiveness created a scenario in which a small fire became a towering inferno.
As word spread the shouts became deafening and North Kensington’s community poured out onto their usually busy side streets and witnessed the horror. Within half an hour the fire had raced up the tower, bursting through rooms at a frightening pace as it illuminated like a blazing sun. Those trapped on the top floors were in a panic, waving towels and sheets in a desperate plea for rescue.
The £8.6 million refurbishment which took place last summer raised frequent concerns from residents over the placement of gas pipes into public corridors. The aluminium cladding with a highly flammable polyethene core that was placed on the outside of the building to improve its image also raised questions.
Why on earth didn’t the building have sprinklers?
The US banned this type of panel on buildings taller than 40 feet. These panels cost just £2 fewer per square metre than those with fire resistant cores, which would have given the building the same appearance and cost just £5,000 more.
Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council subsequently signed this off.
The question people who currently live in high-rise buildings across the UK will ask themselves is, ‘am I safe?’
What is clear to see is that lax safety regulations allowed the contractors to choose dangerous cladding, but they still had a choice to abandon any idea of cutting costs and pick a far safer collection. They didn’t. It’s a decision that will haunt those councillors for the rest of their lives.
A second, obvious question to ask is why on earth didn’t the building have sprinklers? Incredibly there is no statutory legislation which required Grenfell Tower to have sprinklers fitted due to the fact its construction took place in 1974. Yet all tower blocks over 30 metres high built since 2007 must have them installed. Grenfell Tower is twice that height.
After tragic fires in Harrow in 2005, Southwark in 2009 and Southampton in 2010, the consensus was that existing high-rise buildings, especially those above 30 metres, should be fitted with a sprinkler system to control the fire. According to a 2015 survey 99% of the UK’s council blocks don’t have a sprinkler system.
Inequality has always been a chronic problem for the UK.
Why is this so? The argument against installing them is that they would be too costly and time-consuming. For a building such as Grenfell Tower, it may have caused disruption and cost the borough council at least £200,000.
But what price do you put on a life?
In Dubai last year a firework display didn’t go to plan and a high-rise skyscraper caught fire on the outside. However, the sprinkler system activated and even though the fire never ventured into the building it diminished within a few hours. Nobody died.
And the stats regarding central and local government’s attitude to fire safety is repulsively damning. The total number of inspections has fallen by a quarter since 2010 while the number of people employed by fire and rescue authorities has decreased by 18%.
In the last thirty years, the number of people who died in fires reduced by two-thirds, but this likely explains an alarming trend. Local authorities have experienced a myriad of cuts due to austerity and face difficult choices on the allocation of funds to particular public services.
Kensington and Chelsea decided not to invest further into fire safety in Grenfell Tower and similar buildings in the same area. The impression it gives is one that sparked Friday’s protests. Many people are asking leading politicians, ‘do you care about us?’
Inequality has always been a chronic problem for the UK, but the tragedy in North Kensington just signifies a deep frustration for some families with lower than average incomes who could not even afford to pay the legal costs in challenging the sub-contractors on last year’s controversial refurbishments.
When protesters marched through the streets of North Kensington they were going to be heard. Enough was enough.
And can you blame them? Their community experienced frequent rebuttal and refusal for requests to improve fire safety in a building which just five days ago became a deathtrap to their friends and families.
Every family needs the time and space to grieve and overcome what was the worst day of their lives.
So far 58 people are presumed to have died with the death toll expected to rise. Families anxiously wait for news about their loved ones, clinging on to hope but no doubt expect the worst.
Fire safety hasn’t hit the headlines since the Southwark disaster where six people died in 2009. The tragic circumstances in North Kensington create another debate and lessons to be learnt, but no doubt actions should have already taken place from previous experiences which could have prevented this disaster.
So, what now? In the short term, every family affected by the tragedy should be accommodated within the Kensington area.
In the long term, the government must pass a bill which requires every building to be fitted with a sprinkler system while they have to make sure that regulations match that of the US and Germany regarding the banning of a flammable polyethene panel.
Every family needs the time and space to grieve and overcome what was the worst day of their lives. And no doubt every single one of them will want the nation to see this as a wake-up call on fire safety.
Comment pieces are the view of the author and in no way reflect the views of Forge Press.
Image credit: Natalie Oxford.