On Wednesday morning, we awoke to the devastating news that London has been hit with another tragedy with the horrific fire which engulfed a tower block in East Kensington. The Grenfell Tower contained 120 households and was home to approximately 500 people when it went up in flames.
It has been confirmed that 30 people have lost their life, with the death toll expected to rise as firefighters continue to work tirelessly to search the building. Most concerning about the situation is the numerous reports have emerged that warnings had been made by residents and no action was taken. The Grenfell Action Group has long alleged that the building was a fire hazard. They made repeated warning that the building was a catastrophe waiting to happen.
The responsibility for the maintenance of Grenfell Tower lay with Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation who obtained this contract due to cost cutting measures from the local authority. Saving money cannot continue to be priorities over the lives of those relying upon social housing. Complaints were made and there were failures to act. Someone must be held accountable for these breaches of health and safety laws and accountability must lie with those who failed to prevent this blaze spreading such devastation.
One alleged cause of the fire, amongst others, has been the cladding which was rendered to the exterior of the building. The Grenfell Tower was clad with zinc rainscreen and glazed curtain walling following refurbishment in 2015. The purpose of the cladding, while cosmetic, was also to improve sustainability. Cladding with improved fire protection was £2 per sheet more expensive. A minimal cost against the background of the damage which has been caused to Grenfell Tower.
Tragically, this is not the first high-rise block fitted with cladding which has gone up in flames. A fire in 1991 is said to have been accelerated due to cladding on the exterior of the building. Fire safety experts have also drawn parallels with an incident in 2009 where a fire at Lakanal House, a tower block in Camberwell in South East London, took the lives of six people and the use of cladding on the exterior of the building made the fire worse.
Attention has been drawn to the lack of sprinkler systems in Grenfell Tower. The Government had resisted calls to install sprinkler systems in tower blocks following the incident at Lakanal House. This begs the question, why changes were not made sooner? During an Inquest into the Lakanal House fire, the Coroner said that all tower blocks should have sprinkler systems installed yet this was not acted upon. Eric Pickles, Minister for Communities at the time, acknowledged that this would be a good idea but failed to make sprinkler systems a legal requirement.
Witness accounts of the Grenfell Tower fire have told various media outlets that they could not hear fire alarms ringing on the evening in question. It is not currently a legal requirement for common areas of purpose built flats to be fitted with fire detection and warning systems as the building should be built in accordance with modern building regulations whereby a fire should be contained within the dwelling. This assumption is a clear illustration of the failing which have occurred in Grenfell Tower as the fire was able to engulf the building within 15 minutes.
The health and safety of those living in the tower of flats were put in grave danger due to the failing of Kensington and Chelsea Council, and the Government, as they failed to take heed of previous events and listen to the vast array of warning which were issued by residents in the building, and other, regarding safety risks of high rise flats. Time and time again tragic events occur which result in changes of regulation and law. People have lost their lives, families have been torn apart and a myriad of people have lost their homes because our Government have disregarded health and safety and have allowed inadequate building regulation to become an acceptable standard of living.
The aesthetic improvements of Grenfell Tower, by way of cladding, did little to make the building fit in with its affluent neighbours. Living a mere few metres away from this block are some of the wealthiest people in London. The events which have been unfolding over the past few days highlight the disparaging differences between the rich and poor living in our country. The wealth divide in the area is a matter of grave concern, especially now the lives of the most deprived have been put in danger, and lost, because of spending cuts and austerity measures. It is simply baffling, in an area which is home to such wealth, that the local authority would not have been able to afford to install a sprinkler system which residents have been fighting for. The requests being made by these people were not unreasonable, they were necessary.
It has now been confirmed that Prime Minister, Theresa May, has ordered a full public inquiry to take place to investigate the cause of the blaze. A public inquiry will result in change but it is time we, as a society, stood up and said that the protection of health and safety should not come because of tragic, it is a basic and fundamental human right. Scotland Yard have also launched a criminal investigation.
While the events which have been unfolding in London have been nothing sort of catastrophic, attention must also be drawn to the efforts of the London Fire Brigade who have been working to aid those in need. Many photographs have emerged hailing those who have assisted with the blaze to be heroes. The great people who have helped those affected demonstrate the best in our society.
At this stage, it is too early to say what the exact cause of the fire was but it would be reasonable to assume that there has been a failure which has led to countless preventable deaths. Our thoughts, of course, go out to all of those involved in this tragedy.
Blog by Eilish Lindsay