Justice For Grenfell
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Three years ago today, the worst residential fire since the Second World War broke out on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, a block of housing flats in Kensington and Chelsea. Tragically, the fire cost 72 lives and displaced hundreds of families. On the third anniversary of the fire, we would like to remember the victims and their families. The Crisis Project firmly believes in impact, and will outline ways to take action at the end of this post.
Grenfell Tower was purchased by the Kensington and Chelsea council in 1974. The tower was managed directly by the council for 22 years. In 1996, Kensington and Chelsea TMO (KCTMO) was formed as a tenant management organisation to manage the borough’s entire council housing stock. There is evidence of years of tenant and leaseholder dissatisfaction, regarding not only a lack of action regarding maintenance and repairs, but also consistent management failings. The emphasis placed on cost-cutting rather than the welfare of the building’s inhabitants was repeatedly flagged up by the Grenfell Action Group. Fire safety, in particular, was a huge concern - the group published 10 fire safety warnings in the 4 years preceding the fire. This chilling quote, likened to the canary in the coal mine, is taken directly from a blog post by the group in November 2016 - “It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice."
Between 2015 and 2016, Grenfell Tower underwent a major renovation, including a new aluminium-composite cladding - a material often used to improve the aesthetics and energy efficiency of a building. Rydon Ltd won the renovation contract via competitive tender, by undercutting their main competitors by £2.5 million. This choice of cladding proved fatal. It not only contained flammable materials which buckled under high temperatures, but also was installed onto the building in such a way that a gap remained between the building’s structure. This enabled the ‘chimney effect’ - a phenomenon whereby the fire, seeking oxygen, burnt its way up the building, whilst also setting alight more of the cladding and stoking its own flames. Shockingly, the burning materials were also waterproof, rendering the efforts of the external fire crews useless as it burned itself up from within.
Grenfell Tower lacked a centralised fire alarm system, and only had one central stairwell for around 350 residents to use as an escape route. Furthermore, there was a ‘stay put’ policy in place - in the event of a fire, residents were to remain in their own flats, since each flat was supposed to be individually fireproofed and able to contain a blaze for up to an hour. This compartmentation would theoretically allow a rogue fire to burn an entire flat to a crisp whilst leaving its neighbours untouched. This policy also explains the lack of a centralised fire system - an entire block of panicked residents attempting to leave would itself create a chimney effect within the stairwell. It would also hinder the efforts of fire crew heading to their intended rescue. The stay put policy is not itself inherently deeply flawed, but it relies on a robust building system, which Grenfell fundamentally lacked.
This fire broke out when a fridge-freezer caught fire around 00:50 BST. The resident was alerted by his smoke alarm, and immediately called the fire brigade and warned his neighbours. The first two fire engines arrived within 6 minutes, at which point the fire was just a glow in the window. By 01:10, the fire had begun to penetrate the window frame, at which point several senior fire officers were dispatched, as well as command vehicles and a fire investigation unit. By the time the unit began to extinguish the kitchen fire, flames had leapt up the building at a terrifying rate. Residents on various floors had been awakened by their smoke alarms and had fled the buildings. The date of the fire may have prevented hundreds from losing their lives. It occurred during Ramadan and so the majority of Muslim residents were awake for their morning meal, allowing them to raise the alarm for their own neighbours.
It is difficult to describe the horrors that must have been endured both by the tower residents and firefighters during the following hours. Burning debris cascading from the building made the aerial unit’s job unimaginably dangerous - one firefighter was seen to deflect a molten piece of cladding with his water hose. Meanwhile, within the building thick smoke, zero visibility, and temperatures reaching 1000 degrees celsius in places made the fire crew’s job close to impossible. Residents were desperate - some waved white cloth from their windows, others strung together bed sheets in an attempt to escape. Some even jumped to their deaths rather than be swallowed by the inferno. The stories of families separated are truly heartbreaking, and there are several interviews of the victims that are beyond painful to watch.
The final rescue took place at 08:07. The fire burnt for over 24 hours and was eventually put out on June 15th. This fire claimed 72 lives, including a stillborn baby. The Prime Minister at the time, Theresa May, announced a £5 million fund for the victims of the fire, as well as an extra £1.5 million for emergency services mental health support and promised that they would be relocated as close as possible to their original home within 3 weeks. Nationwide, panic had spread regarding tower block cladding - the government promised that they would test up to 100 buildings daily for combustible cladding and assured that they would take immediate action to ensure resident safety.
Let us now turn to injustice. As of the three-year anniversary, 300 buildings are covered with the aluminium-composite cladding used in Grenfell, and 1700 more have dangerous cladding.. At the rate that cladding is currently being replaced, it would take 39 years to finish the task. Over 56,000 individuals live in these buildings, at an immense cost to their own mental health. Residents of these buildings often pay up to £100 a month for 24-hour fire safety patrols, to ensure that a similar disaster does not occur.
Grenfell was covered with this deadly cladding to make the building appear less of an eyesore and less like the ‘poorer cousin’ of the newly constructed leisure centre next door, as described by one architect. Kensington and Chelsea is widely regarded as the London borough with greatest levels of inequality. The life expectancy differs by over 20 years depending on one’s location within the borough. In poorer areas of the borough, the average income is £15,000 and childhood poverty, overcrowding and homelessness are rife. This is a stark contrast to the blatant opulence of streets such as Kensington Palace Gardens, where the average house price is £30 million. While 1200 houses in the borough are regularly empty due to being second homes of the wealthy, 7 families from Grenfell Tower are still living in temporary accommodation, three years on.
They were promised three weeks.
The United Kingdom claims to be a welfare state. A welfare state is based upon the principles of equal opportunity for all, a system whereby the government protects the economic and social wellbeing of its people. We cannot create the NHS and call it a day. Surely adequate housing is a right of every citizen in a welfare state? Austerity is not simply the negligence of our governments, it is a wilful abandonment of the country’s most vulnerable.
It has been three years, and our government may have moved on, but hundreds of people cannot. There are still holes in families and hearts, and dozens of fire personnel remain psychologically damaged by what they witnessed that night. We will not forget Grenfell.
Here’s how you can help.
Write to your local MP and demand that they lobby for all buildings covered with dangerous cladding to be made safe immediately
Petition you can sign to show your support for this cause here
Don't let any more lives be lost before we demand change.
Written by Soumya Krishna Kumar for The Crisis Project