Learning the lessons from the Grenfell Tower disaster

Posted On: 
28th June 2017

Dods Monitoring consultants Sabine Tyldesley & Kerri Blyberg summarise the political updates which have followed the Grenfell Tower disaster and highlight some of the next steps for the families of the victims and survivors.  

The Government has come under significant scrutiny after Theresa May was forced to apologise for the lacklustre national and local support for victims.

The Grenfell Tower fire has been the centre of political debate since the residential block caught fire in the early hours of 14 June, a tragedy in which at least 79 people died.

Quickly MPs from all sides waded into the debate, both inside the Commons Chamber, as well as on the air. In the days following the fire, the Prime Minister, the Opposition and even the Queen spoke on the issue; Monday even saw two debates, one led by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid the other an adjournment debate by Jim Fitzpatrick MP.

Outside the Chamber, media and experts have been considering different aspects of the debate, from legal aid cuts, building regulations, governance failure and neglect to possible solutions to work better in future. This article considers some of the debate and policy background on Grenfell – all in one place.

Legal inequalities

Legal commentators quickly highlighted how the situation revealed inequalities in the justice system, asking whether residents had been ignored because they were poor.

Francis FitzGibbon QC, Chair of the criminal Bar Association highlighted several lawyers had offered services for free to residents in the aftermath but concluded “the ability of poor people to enforce their legal rights without being shown charity should be non-negotiable in a society that claims to stand for the rule of law.”

Grenfell residents had been blogging about risks arising from the lack of fire escapes, the stairwell and ‘stay put’ instructions since 2013. One post read: ‘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.’ Survivors later revealed they had been unable to access legal aid.

Cuts to legal aid in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act restricted housing legal aid which had been much wider. Making claims even more difficult, the law governing housing standards has been called insufficient, making legal challenges ineffective.

Liability and possible charges

Criminal proceedings would need to establish the chain of liability. Some have been calling for an inquest, fearing a Government-led inquiry would not be sufficiently independent. Several lawyers highlighted it further lacked the speed of a coroner’s inquest, and did not allow questioning by victims.

At the centre of attention, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, its management organisation, contractors who had conducted a recent upgrade and Council fire safety officers. The shadow secretary of state for housing John Healey called for a “triple fire safety lock” around buildings and works on them, and a “profound change of course on housing”.

Under scrutiny are further the building regulations and health and safety legislation. Fitzpatrick on Monday called for a review of the guidance in Approved Document B, independent of the inquiry, to begin as soon as possible. He also pressed the Government on the decision "not to equip new schools with fire sprinklers, reversing the upgraded advice that they should have sprinklers, published in 2008."

Renewed attention has also been on Whirlpool Hotpoint, after it was revealed a faulty fridge freezer had likely been the origin of the fire. Andy Slaughter MP has written to Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for BEIS about the issue of faulty electrical goods, an issue he raised following a 2016 fire in Shepherds Bush leading to large scale campaign on product recall.

It has been suggested that a charge of Corporate manslaughter could be brought; but Met Police confirmed they were still investigating any basis to bring criminal charges.

Could the Government have done more?

The Government has come under significant scrutiny after Theresa May was forced to apologise for the lacklustre national and local support for victims.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the cladding issue posed “a nationwide threat,” adding that the Prime Minister needed to “get a grip and lead a national response”. Sir Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesperson used similar language saying she had failed to react to what amounted to a "national disaster".

John McDonnell went as far as to claim the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire had been "murdered" by a combination of underinvestment in social housing and cuts to the fire service.

The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan took a similar view saying it was a "preventable accident" caused by years of "mistakes and neglect".

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that “Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.” This led to questions over the Government’s actions in 2009 following the inquest into the fire in Lakanal House.

The Lakanal House fire, in which six people died, followed a 1990’s report by architect Sam Webb who had surveyed hundreds of residential tower blocks, concluding half of the buildings inspected did not meet basic fire safety regulations and were ‘a disaster waiting to happen’.

At the butt of current criticism, Theresa May’s new chief of staff and former housing minister Gavin Barwell, who is accused of failing to act on a 2013 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety & Rescue Group which called for an urgent review of safety regulation in the aftermath of Lakanal. He had announced a review into Part B of the Building Regulations 2010 in October last year, but its launch never materialised.

Local Authorities

The response from the emergency services has been praised by several policy makers, in contrast to the mounting criticism of the local authority’s response and support for survivors. The former chief executive the Council Nicholas Holgate resigned following intense criticism but later accused the Government of forcing him to quit.

The Department for Communities and Local Government consequently requested councils and housing associations send in samples of cladding for testing, to establish whether it was of the same “combustible” nature. At the time of writing, the record stood at a 100 per cent failure rate in cladding samples meeting combustibility tests, with 32 local authorities’ areas confirmed as containing at-risk towers.

This has raised further questions over local authority funding with concerns that councils could struggle to finance urgent remedial action. Indeed, while the Government has sought to reassure authorities and associations that support will be given to those with scarce resources, former Communities and Local Government Select Committee chair Clive Betts has called for a “comprehensive finance package” for this work, rather than “merely increasing borrowing”.

The results will pose further questions, in particular since it emerged that Grenfell contractors had used a more flammable type of material for the outer layer of the cladding, which Chancellor Philip Hammond said was banned in Britain. It was further confirmed that the polyethylene filling between building panels did not pass building regulations for tower blocks over 59ft (18m) and a flame retardant material should have been used instead.

What now?

The Queens Speech committed the Government to developing a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new Civil Disaster Reaction Taskforce for dealing with any future civil emergency but could this now prompt a new era in housing policy, too?

Certainly, while new Housing Minister Alok Sharma will have to prioritise what is likely to be a hefty in-tray since he took office, the review into building regulations will be top of the agenda.

Notably, Sajid Javid was one of 72 landlord MPs who voted against a Labour amendment to the 2016 Housing and Planning Act which sought to ensure rented properties were fit for human habitation. While this would have pertained to private landlords and would not have had an effect on the Grenfell tower, undoubtedly discussions on substandard housing in both the private rented and social sectors need to be intensified, with a renewed focus on social housing.

On the response for victims and survivors, the Government announced plans in the Queen’s Speech to create the role of an “independent public advocate” to act on behalf of families in Hillsborough-style tragedies. This has raised the question whether this role could help secure justice for victims of Grenfell.

Stakeholders and charities

We may well see a more coherent way of working going forward involving stakeholders and interest groups after the Met, London Fire Brigade and the Red Cross had been called in to coordinate the response.

Several charitable funds have been established for victims alongside a £1m fund for local charities responding to the disaster. Survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire will also be given priority for discretionary housing payments, the Government has said.

The Fire Brigade’s Union demanded a more collaborative approach, and to be a core participant in the inquiry, along with families of victims and survivors. Overall, they highlighted cuts to the fire and rescue service, with a new figure obtained this week that 11,000 frontline firefighter jobs had been lost since 2010.

Calls for the Government to address resource shortages are becoming louder – similarly to calls for adequate resources for police following the low-tech terrorist attacks in recent months. For councils and better fire protection, these calls follow the news that a ‘cheaper and more flammable’ cladding option was chosen for Grenfell Tower reportedly in order to save £5,000.

Javid revealed some more detail on Tuesday on the independent expert advisory panel to advise on any steps that should immediately be taken. Victims, campaigners and stakeholders now await what actions will be recommended, and whether lessons will be learnt - from Lakanal House to Grenfell tower.