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After the Smoke Had Cleared

Exactly one year since the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72, there are still residents without a home, and over 50 public housing buildings covered in materials known to fail fire safety tests. What has happened?

Local community at the Wall of Truth following the silent March, 14th May 2018

“Justice has to be about change. That’s what we want in the year after. We want to see change. We don’t want to see a massive report that people just sit on and gathers dust somewhere.” Moyra Samuels is clear with me about what she wants in the wake of Grenfell. On 14th May this year, eleven months after the deadly fire tore through the tower, she, and others from the community it left behind are demonstrating in Parliament Square. In half an hours time, at 4:30pm, MPs will head into the Houses of Parliament to debate the petition backed by Stormzy, Adele and 156,000 others to ‘build public trust in the Grenfell Tower inquiry’, specifically by adding additional panel members to sit alongside Chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

On Friday 11th, just prior to the debate, and prior to the demonstration, the government granted this request. Despite plans to add two members to the inquiry panel, Moyra and many other activists representing a number of advocacy groups are here regardless. “It’s our job to actually raise the questions and for the community to reflect and think on them and think ‘oh this is a victory in some ways, but what kind of victory? A small victory? A big victory?”

She’s speaking with me just after addressing the crowd in front of a huge banner reading ‘United For Grenfell’. In the grass to our side is a mosaic of 72 pictures, the faces of the 72 people that died in the fire. A key representative of the Justice4Grenfell campaign, she is a veteran of demonstrations like this, and is already generating turnout for the next: “Let’s make some noise on the anniversary to remind Theresa May, to remind this government that actually, we will not be silenced, we haven’t gone away and we will not be silenced until we have justice.”

With this country’s abysmal track record on investigations of national tragedies, it’s little wonder why campaigners like Moyra are so concerned about being given small concessions only to be denied the big victories they’re after. As shadow justice secretary and Labour MP for Leeds East, Richard Burgon said in Westminster Hall later that afternoon “Far too often in this country politics seems to act as a dam, actually holding back justice rather than helping justice to flow. Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence, Bloody Sunday – examples of when the state did not use its great powers to deliver truth and justice but instead blocked truth and justice for years and years.”

It is for this reason that the community is demonstrating outside a debate which has already been won. A small victory has been achieved, a bigger one is immediately in the crosshairs. “We want to have a say and vet who goes into this inquiry nothing less. Two’s not enough” says Clarry Mendy who joins Moyra and I after the demonstration is over and the debate has begun. Having lost two relatives to the fire, and being a part of Humanity for Grenfell, she met with Theresa May last month to apply further pressure on the government to grant additional oversight to theinquiry.

Discussing the strength of community involvement in Ladbroke Grove with Fahim Mazhary, a member of the area’s faith community, the tower’s burned out remains still loom over many of the streets we walk down. The fire itself started with a electrical malfunction of a fridge freezer in a fourth floor apartment and quickly spread to the buildings insulation and cladding. The installation of these materials by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council, to provide better insulation and “significantly improve the appearance of the building”, underwent many rounds of ‘value-engineering’ before being finalised. Communications with the first likely contractor, Leadbitter, who had been in the process of sourcing non-flammable cladding, ceased after they quoted a total project cost of £11.3 million, over the £9.7 million budget. Despite the council having £235 million available, their tenant management organisation putpressure on their new preferred contractor, Rydon, to cut costs. After this point the decision was made to switch from zinc cladding to flammable aluminium composite with a flammable plastic core for a saving of just £300,000. The Guardian also reported that independent fire safety experts have stated that, had the initial proposed materials been secured and installed by Leadbitter, the fire would not have spread very far or caused the loss of life that it did.

The building regulatory framework which guided the council and contractor’s choice have since been found by an independent review to be “not fit for purpose”. England’s ‘approved inspector’ approach means authorities don’t have to sign off on the safety of buildings so long as one of a number of approved organisations do. In contrast to the government’s own specifications, at the time of the Grenfell renovations, one of the larger inspectors, National House Building Council (NHBC), was issuing guidance which stated the flammable Celotex insulation used on Grenfell could be covered with B grade cladding (as reported by Newsnight). Worse still, the BBC has revealed that the actual cladding used, made by Arconic, while initially tested at B grade, was actually known by the company to have since failed tests and been downgraded to C and E grades.

This convoluted regulation and inspection process has cast into doubt the integrity of the safety guidelines. So too has the fact that Mark Allen, then technical director of Saint-Gobain, the company which made Grenfell’s flammable insulation, actually sat on the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) at the time of the fire, a board which advises the government on building and safety regulations.

In addition to the initial failures during the refurbishment, the organisation which managed the tower, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) persistently ignored the fire safety concerns of residents for years before the event. In a series of online blog posts, writers from Grenfell Action group documented their safety concerns and the KCTMO’s disinterest in resolving them. With stunning prescience one post notes “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.”

Discussing the community’s relationship with local authorities with Fahim two months before the demonstration outside parliament, he told me that many in the community feel a long-standing mistrust. It’s exactly this kind of persistent neglect of community concerns by the RBKC and KCTMO at almost every stage of the process which has caused such an issue.

One might expect significant ramifications for the corporations, public bodies and individuals responsible for these fatal oversights. Indeed, both the Leader and Chief Executive of the RBKC council resigned almost immediately after the fire, as did the chief executive of the KCTMO, Robert Black. However, The Guardian obtained evidence indicating that Black was still receiving a six-figure salary, at least until September last year, for co-operating with the inquiry.

Both Celotex and Arconic removed from sale the flammable insulation and cladding that fuelled the fire but, while a part of the company which was subcontracted to install the cladding has gone bust, the main contractor Rydon, made a profit of £14.3 million last year according to The Guardian.

More serious than the physical damage to property, however, is the adversity that’s been inflicted on the communitysince the fire. Only 74 of the 210 households displaced by the blaze were, 11 months after the event, in permanent accommodation. Only 68 were in temporary solutions, while 59 who had accepted accommodation offers were still living out of hotels. “‘Why are you so slow in housing? What is wrong with your housing policy?”

Moyra tells me the community has persistently asked the council, “all we get back is more flip flap. Their housing policies, you look at them and you go ‘I can’t understand a word they’re saying’ and often, when you read the subtext, it very often comes out as very much blaming one group of residents off against another. There are the survivors who were in the tower and there are the underlying blocks, and they were also impacted.”

Questions about the Council’s housing response seem warranted: The New York Times reported the council had spent approximately £210 million pounds trying to find suitable accommodation by April. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, MP James Brokenshire, reported, at the May debate, that the council had 300 properties available “to those who need them”. If the council’s rehousing policy has not been badly executed, it has, at best, been poorly communicated. Addressing the crowd outside Parliament Moyra made clear her position on the council’s inability to find suitable housing: “We don’t want to hear excuses about, you don’t have flats that are disability adapted. Find them! Spend the money on them and give people decent houses to live in!”

Perhaps most worryingly, The Guardian reported in October the mental health response was the largest of its kind in Europe, with over 11,000 people likely to be seen by professionals. Clarry makes clear that it’s not just those who escaped the tower who have been affected in the wake of it’s incineration: “there’s not just bereaved and survivors, there’s evacuees, there’s localresidents and they’re being poisoned every day and having to face the crematorium in the sky”. In addition to services provided by the NHS, Fahim also emphasised to me the continued efforts of local churches, mosques and faith communities in providing, counselling and assistance in relation to trauma sustained as a result of the fire.

Clarry is not ambiguous about the government’s response on the whole: “Unsatisfied. If we were weren’t so unsatisfied we wouldn’t be here [outside Parliament] today.” When I asked what people want to see in the next year Moyra tells me: “We’d like to see the beginnings of the implementation of whatever comes out of the first phase of the inquiry. That those recommendations, the deficits that are identified, that that is implemented immediately, not waiting for two years until the inquiry is over to then implement it because actually, in the rest of the country there are people living in dangerous buildings and we need to make sure that a Grenfell doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

People gather with hearts for the silent march, 14th May 2018

Initially the nationwide response was disappointingly slow. The Telegraph reported that, after two weeks, and failed safety tests from 75 high-rise buildings around the country, landlords and councils were being told to continue insulating and cladding their buildings using the standard protocols despite the obvious risks of doing so. The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government stated that, by January, of the 312 high-rise buildings which had failed fire safety tests, only 26 had had flammable cladding totally removed, and only three of those had had replacement panels installed. Worse still, of the 158 social housing buildings around the UK now known to be clad with unsafe materials, over a third (54) were still not in the process of remediation work eleven months after Grenfell was consumed by fire fuelled by such materials.

Recently, however, the response has improved. The government announced it would make £400 million available to remove dangerous cladding from tower blocks owned by councils and housing associations.In the RBKC alone, the council is planning to spend £3.5 million replacing all 4,000 fire doors on it’s social housing. While news like this is obviously encouraging, and indicates the beginnings of a concerted effort to secure safe living spaces, Fahim tells me that there is still residual anger in the community and that, after such a long history of neglect, it will take the council a long time to regain the trust of some residents.

On the corporate side of the issue, the large ‘approved inspector’ NHBC has withdrawn it’s guidance that some insulation-cladding combinations explicitly shown to be dangerous could be used on buildings, but only after Newsnight’s reporting on the issue.

Speaking at Wadham last term on the topic of Grenfell, local resident and hip-hop artist Lowkey spoke of ‘invisible violence’ – the slow process by which disadvantaged communities are marginalised and put at risk. Almost by definition, it doesn’t make headlines until it is too late,until after avoidable disaster strikes. Though the Grenfell Tower fire was started by a faulty fridge, the causes of it’s fatality lie in exactly this kind of uninterested neglect from the government, businesses, but perhaps most importantly, the public.

The fire has been referred to as a tragedy in three acts, opening with years of neglect, reaching a tragic climax on 14th June 2017 and closing with a sustained failure of government to act quickly to secure justice for this community and safety for others at risk. What the last year has shown us is that Grenfell guarantees nothing. Until reporting from Newsnight, NHBC did not revoke dangerous building advice. Until petitioned, the government did not grant additional oversight to the inquiry. Still, the community has no guarantee the additional panel members will be people they trust. The shadows of Hillsborough and Stephen Lawrence mean many are still wary about the miscarriage of justice.

It is the community that has been so hard hit that has supplied the bulk of personal support throughout this time: you can’t walk out of Ladbroke Grove tube station without seeing posters and fliers attached to walls and pavements advertising community groups, events, demonstrations and art exhibitions. Leaders and followers of all faiths have united to provide support. And, on the 14th of every month, the silent march of hundreds, if not thousands, brings people together tomake its procession around the area from the Methodist Church to the Wall of Truth, united in commemoration and solidarity.

The silent march, 14th May 2018

Speaking again, this time in front of the Wall of Truth at the end of the silent march in May, Lowkey addressed the community he credits with so much following the crisis: “we are in the situation today where our victories are gradual. Our victories are gradual and they are hard fought, but they are victories nonetheless and we have to celebrate them”.

If Grenfell is to guarantee a safer future for people in all communities, people away from those directly affected need to join in in voicing a demand for these victories and remember, even when predictable tragedies aren’t making headlines, “justice has to be about change.”

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