Twelve people are now dead and many more are seriously injured because of a fire which was easily preventable. The event at Grenfell Tower has led to an outpouring of solidarity across the country. Here at Evolve our thoughts are with every victim and all those affected by this truly horrific event.
But as well as solidarity, the fire at Grenfell – which houses around 120 families – has led to massive public anger at the landlords, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), who were warned repeatedly by tenants that Grenfell Tower was an accident waiting to happen. In November 2016, Grenfell Action Group even wrote an article entitled ‘Playing with Fire’, which begins:
It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the everyday management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.
In a statement of heart-rending foresight, they concluded that
Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation.
Amongst other things, the Grenfell Action Group raised concerns about the fact that there was only one entrance and exit to the building complex, and in the event of a fire the fire brigade “could only gain access to the entrance to the building by climbing four flights of narrow stairs.” More than this, they also complained that “the fire escape exit on the walkway level” had been sealed.
Concerns have also been raised about the cladding material used in the recent refurbishment.
Online records indicate that the contractor Harley Facades Limited installed “over-cladding with ACM cassette rainscreen” at Grenfell Tower. ACM stands for Aluminium Composite Material – the same combustible product blamed for fuelling nearly a dozen major high-rise fires globally in the past decade.
Witness reports certainly seem to confirm this. Mark, 45, a witness to the fire, believed the cladding caused the fire’s intensity.
It was burning like paper, it wasn’t the building, it wasn’t the structure. That cladding – it was just like throwing fuel on the fire.
Another witness, Sam, 23, was returning to his home on a street nearby Latimer Road at 1am.
The whole thing just went up, it took off like a match to paper.
Whole panels were coming off in flames, their hoses could reach only halfway up the building, and whole bits of the facade from the top, these panels were literally falling down. It was horrible.
And what was the principle reason for using this material? To improve the appearance of the bock of flats for the benefit of nearby luxury penthouse owners.
This incident is far from an isolated case as well. Prior to last night’s fire, KCTMO had already been issued with legal warnings over fire safety in two other tower blocks that they manage – Adair and Hazelwood Tower.
The role of the Tory-led council
Although Kensington and Chelsea is the richest part of the UK, it includes many working class residents. In fact, anger at the housing situation in the borough is one of the factors behind the surprise victory for the Labour candidate in last week’s general election.
The Tories, by contrast, played a similar role to the bosses at KCTMO – that is, protect the profits, screw the residents.
A spokesperson for the Grenfell Action Group was interviewed by the BBC earlier today. He pulled no punches in his criticism of the Tory-led council:
I’ve spoken to [Tory councillor] Nick Paget-Brown, and I spoke to the other councillors, and they refused to investigate. They wouldn’t believe that the residents were concerned.
90% of residents signed an independent petition asking for there to be an investigation into the organisation that runs this building because they are so incompetent, and the council turned it down.
68% of residents felt they had been threatened, harassed, pressured, of bullied by the same organisation, or by the contractors doing the work.
I personally had the contracts manager come and threaten me on my own door – that was the conditions we were dealing with. And they didn’t listen to our concerns.
In fact, more than just ignoring the appeals from local residents, the Tory council actively tried to shut down criticisms from the Grenfell Action Group, sending a threatening letter to the author of the blog.
But the Tories complicity does not stop there.
After six people died and more than 20 were hurt in a 2009 blaze at Lakanal House in Camberwell, a review was called for by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group.
And for eight years this review has been repeatedly shelved.
Honorary administrative secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Ronnie King, said the building regulations “haven’t taken account of the Lakanal House fire inquest, or updated recent accredited research.”
There are still 4,000 tower blocks within the UK which have the same regulations applied to them.
The message this sends to fat-cat landlords and corrupt housing providers is that the government will not interfere with the smooth running of their business, even when lives are at stake.
The individual responsible for postponing the review most recently is the ex-Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, who, having lost his parliamentary seat in Croydon last week, has been pulled into the direct services of Theresa May as her chief of staff.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has consistently fought for tougher regulations on private landlords, to make their homes safe and “fit for human habitation”. Indeed, such an amendment was proposed to the Government’s new Housing and Planning Bill – a raft of new laws aimed at reforming housing law – in January last year. But it was rejected by 312 votes to 219.
Appallingly according to Parliament’s register of interests, 72 of the MPs who voted against the amendment were themselves landlords who derive an income from a property.
And let’s be clear, tragedies like Grenfell Tower are far more likely to happen because of the Tories’ cuts to public services. After the recent terror attacks in Manchester and London, we have already seen cuts to the police force literally costing lives.
And now we have also seen the impact of Tory cuts on fire services. Of course, nobody is disputing the fact that emergency service workers are doing an amazing job. Two hundred firefighters attended the scene with numerous fire and rescue engines, alongside at least 20 ambulance crews. These people are heroes.
But it is important to note the flagrant disregard the Tory government has for our public services, even as they venerate them on occasions like today.
As part of a wider package of fire cuts, three fire stations close to Grenfell Tower have been closed in recent years. This undoubtedly led to an increase in response times and overall effectiveness this morning.
When these cuts were being handed out, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) were emphatic:
Mayor Boris Johnson will have blood on his hands. It will be only a matter of time before someone dies because a fire engine did not get to them in time. You cannot close 10 fire stations and slash nearly 600 firefighter jobs without compromising public safety.
Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the warnings of the Grenfell Action Group to me.
The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation who value property above human life, the Tory councillors who scoffed at the concerns of Grenfell residents, the Tory MPs who voted against tougher landlord regulation. These people all have blood on their hands.
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