As Grenfell Tower Death Toll Reaches 79, Calls for an Urgent Public Inquiry in the Face of Systemic Failures of Government, Council and Management

19.6.17

Grenfell Tower in the afternoon of June 14, 2017, and tenants in a neighbouring block (Photo: Andy Worthington).After last week’s horrendous and entirely preventable loss of life at Grenfell Tower in west London, which I wrote about in Deaths Foretold at Grenfell Tower: Let This Be The Moment We The People Say “No More” to the Greed That Killed Residents, I am unable to turn my attention away from this bleak testament to greed and the disdain of the rich for the poor, and of the largely white establishment for ethnic minorities, immigrants and the white working class.

As the death toll officially rose to 79, Commander Stuart Cundy of the Metropolitan Police said this morning, “Sadly today, as of 8am the number of people has increased. I believe there are 79 people who are either dead or missing and, sadly, I have to presume are dead.” As the Guardian described it, he added that “it was ‘a truly awful reality that there may be some people who we may not be able to identify’ because of the intensity of the fire.”

The Guardian added, “His voice breaking, he said it was ‘incredibly emotional’ for those from the police, London fire brigade and London ambulance service who are working in the burnt-out skeleton of the 24-storey block,” which had housed between 400 and 600 people in 120 flats.

Commander Cundy also said, “On Saturday I went in myself and went to the top floor and it is incredibly hard to describe the devastation in some parts of that building. I have investigated major crime for most of my service and I have seen some terrible things, but I don’t think anything prepared me for what I was going to see when I was in there.”

He also said that the scale of the criminal investigation, which has just begun, was “truly, truly significant”. adding, “We are looking at all criminal offences that may have been committed.”

He said, as the Guardian described, that the investigation “would be ‘exhaustive’, looking not just at how the fire started and spread but also ‘why this happened.’ It would be ‘far-reaching in a number of areas’, from how the building was managed and maintained, the fire safety measures, its construction and the recent refurbishment.”

This is reassuring, of course, as are calls for an inquiry to be held on an urgent basis — something Theresa May promised on Thursday, but that the government needs to be pressured to undertake as diligently and urgently as possible. Louise Christian, who “acted for the closest family members of all those who died in the July 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, London, in which six people died,” wrote today that, “Because of the criminal investigation there was no inquiry until four and a half years later, and by that time the promised public inquiry had been downgraded to an inquest. The delay hugely prolonged the suffering of the families of those who lost their lives.”

Although friends had been recommending over the weekend that an inquest must be held, Christian made it clear that a public inquiry is the best way forward. As she stated:

[I]t is important to grasp the crucial distinction between a public inquiry and an inquest. By law a coroner cannot proceed with the substantive part of an inquest until any criminal investigation has concluded. But a public inquiry is not hampered in the same way. The scope of a public inquiry is also wider. Beyond doubt, a public inquiry is a better option than an inquest. As with the rail crashes, the most urgent thing is to know what went wrong and put it right elsewhere. If that means removing all cladding on tower blocks everywhere in the UK, reviewing the building regulations and retrofitting sprinkler systems in all old tower blocks, let’s do it within months not years. Of course in the long run if somebody needs to be prosecuted for manslaughter that should be done. But the first priority is to make sure there is a very fast, public and transparent accounting for exactly what went wrong.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the failure of Theresa May’s government to deal adequately with the disaster continues to resonate. May’s already tattered reputation does not deserve to recover from her refusal to meet survivors on a visit to Grenfell Tower the day after, when, instead, she only met representatives of the emergency services, and although she has now offered £5,500 to those made homeless, her gestures come too late to convince those closest to the disaster that she truly cares.

The same, moreover, is true of Kensington and Chelsea Council, whose indifference has, astonishingly, been even more pronounced, and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation, which was responsible for managing not only Grenfell Tower, but all of the 10,000 social properties in the borough, and whose shocking mismanagement and indifference towards the fears of tenants was highlighted in my previous article.

The day after the disaster, the Guardian reported the fears of other tenants in high-rise blocks in Kensington and Chelsea run by the much-criticised KCTMO. One shocking fact from the Grenfell fire was that instructions were in place in the block telling residents to stay in their flats on the event of a fire. This was because the flats were supposed to be fireproof, but as was seen so horrifically at Grenfell, the fireproofing of every aspect of the block failed.

In nearby Adair Tower, a 13-storey tower block, Fabio Freemantle, who lives on the top floor, spoke of how, last October, he opened his front door “to find the stairwell full of thick smoke.” The report continued: “A fire had started in a flat on the third floor. He decided to ignore the advice to remain inside his apartment. ‘I was woken that day by the smell of burning,’ he said. ‘There were no alarms and there’s no sprinkler system in the building or panic buttons. I got my elderly neighbour out of his flat and we walked all the way down the 189 steps. The smoke was so thick, we lost each other on the way down. I still suffer from PTSD. I was struggling down through the smoke and was taken to hospital for smoke inhalation afterwards. Your life is too precious to stay put. Since the [KCTMO] took over from the council, they have made it worse.’”

Another couple interviewed by the Guardian, who bought a flat on the ninth floor of Adair Tower, said “they saw little in return for the £4,000 service fee they pay to the landlord each year” — a shocking revelation of the extortion that KCTMO indulges in, alongside their homicidal indifference to the safety of their tenants.

The couple said they were in their flat when a fire broke out last October. “It was impossible to go out because of the smoke,” they said. “They told us to put wet clothes on the floor. [The KCTMO] doesn’t spend enough on safety. The windows don’t work. They put in new doors after the fire last October, but you can see daylight around the edge.” They added that it “did not look fireproof.” They also said, “Kensington and Chelsea is a rich area. They should have spent some of that money.”

There’s much more in the Guardian’s article that is worth reading, from other tenants in Adair Tower, and also regarding tower blocks in Camden, where “Camden Council has been asked to urgently review cladding on five high-rises in the borough after tenants discovered that the contractor used in the Grenfell Tower block refurbishment [Rydon] was also responsible for renovation of their buildings.”

Yesterday, in the Observer, Amelia Gentleman provided more information, explaining how “[r]esidents of the three blocks of flats at the foot of Grenfell Tower have expressed anger at the local council for its chaotic response to the disaster and its continued failure to deliver information about whether their homes were safe.”

Gentleman met Nina Masroh, who lives in a flat at the base of the tower, who “said the only contact she had had” from KCTMO “was two short texts on Friday telling her she could return home but warning that there would be no hot water or gas.”

She added that Masroh “remained worried about whether her flat and the block were safe amid conflicting advice from police officers stationed around the building,” and said, “We don’t feel safe.” She works at Kensington Aldridge academy, the school by the tower – which, as Gentleman noted, “remains closed and is sending pupils to study elsewhere in the borough.” As Masroh said, however, “We are closer to the tower than the school and the tube line, and they are both closed because of the risk of falling debris. There’s debris on my balcony. We’ve had no one here to tell us if it is safe. It is ridiculous. We feel so angry.”

In the meantime, Kensington and Chelsea Council, like KCTMO, has also come under sustained criticism. An article on Saturday stated, “Kensington and Chelsea council has been relieved of responsibility for taking care of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster. The work is being handed over to a new Grenfell fire response team, made up of representatives from central government, the British Red Cross, the Metropolitan police, London-wide local and regional government and the London fire brigade.” The article added, “The move comes as the Conservative leader of Kensington and Chelsea, Nick Paget-Brown, resisted calls to resign in the face of mounting criticism over the chaos and paralysis that have gripped the council in the wake of the disaster.”

The Guardian also noted that opposition councillors were “angry at the way council leaders appeared to freeze when confronted by a disaster on the scale of the fire.” They said they were “kept in the dark and repeatedly given incorrect assurances that accommodation had been found for residents,” adding that the Tory-run council had also “failed to return calls from neighbouring councils offering to provide accommodation and other help.”

Other criticisms included “a failure to communicate with survivors and their families; a lack of visible staff on the ground providing advice; a failure to distribute any of the money being donated; and a failure to ensure that surviving residents were allocated suitable accommodation nearby.”

This is a damning list of failures, but it is, sadly, typical for a council run by people who have no natural sympathy for the poorer people in their borough, even after a disaster on an unprecedented scale, like Grenfell. Had it been richer people made homeless by some disaster, they would undoubtedly all have been put up in a hotel, but instead it took Jeremy Corbyn and senior Labour MPs to call for “homes left vacant in Kensington and Chelsea by overseas investors to be ‘requisitioned’ in order to rehouse those left homeless due to the Grenfell Tower fire,” as the Independent described it, a view that met with considerable approval from the general public.

Instead, rumours swirled that those made homeless would be rehoused outside the borough, even though, today, the Guardian revealed that Kensington and Chelsea Council “has stockpiled £274m of reserves and offered rebates to residents paying the top rate of council tax,” and could therefore easily provide for those made homeless at Grenfell.

The Guardian article explained, “In 2014, the council decided to hand back £100 to residents paying the top rate of council tax in 2014 after a claimed ‘overachieving efficiency drive’, a decision criticised in a letter to the Guardian following the high-rise fire.”

The Guardian noted that the author of the letter stated that the rebate “was paid weeks before local elections which returned a Conservative council,” and added, “Austerity, K&C style: you give to the rich while taking from the poor (nobody with discounted bills or claiming council tax support was eligible to share in the bounty of the town hall blue-chips) … As the toxic ash of Grenfell Tower’s vanity cladding falls over the neighbouring streets, we are left with the acrid truth in our throats: regeneration in the Royal Borough is in fact a crime of greed and selfishness.”

If, like me, you recognise that the Grenfell disaster is the most horrific manifestation of the greed and lack of accountability that has been prevalent since the 1980s, then please get involved — keep talking about it, and sharing relevant information, and please get out on the streets. This Saturday, June 24, the March for Homes, meeting in Parliament Square at 12 noon, would be a good start.

We need to come together to finally stop the neo-liberal greed that has been making poor people poorer while the rich grow richer, and the super-rich grow super-richer, and that, since the advent of a cynical and opportunistic “age of austerity” declared by the Tories in 2010, after the global banking crash of 2008 (created by criminals on a colossal scale, who have largely gone unpunished), has been strangling our hospitals, our schools, and all our public services, and has turned housing — a basic human right — into a rigged casino for the greedy and unprincipled, one that, as the Grenfell inferno showed, can actually involve the lives of those of us in social housing being perceived as worthless.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s an update on the Grenfell Tower disaster, as the death toll reaches 79, with reports from neighbours in tower blocks fearing for their safety in a borough in which both the Tory council and the management company responsible for their homes have shown contempt for them historically, and have failed to provide any leadership or organisation since the disaster – and nor, of course, has central government done much better. I’m finding it hard to avert my eyes from this story. As I explain in the article, “We need to come together to finally stop the neo-liberal greed that has been making poor people poorer while the rich grow richer, and the super-rich grow super-richer, and that, since the advent of a cynical and opportunistic ‘age of austerity’ declared by the Tories in 2010 has been strangling our hospitals, our schools, and all our public services, and has turned housing — a basic human right — into a rigged casino for the greedy and unprincipled, one that, as the Grenfell inferno showed, can actually involve the lives of those of us in social housing being perceived as worthless.”

  2. Tom Pettinger says...

    I saw in this article – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40330789 – that several letters were sent to the Ministers responsible over the last few years (following the Lakanal House fire in 2009) warning about a tragedy like this happening….. with nothing done, obviously. It’s never going to happen but it would have been cool to see a simple gesture like the KCTMO giving them back the ‘service’ / extortion payments from the last ten years or something. I’d come down to the march but I’ve got to be in Leicester this Sat.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hoping this is getting out to people. I posted it late, as I didn’t write it this morning when I should have, due to getting tied up in admin, then I went out cycling in the sun – to the West End and back – and then had to post the 150 days of Trump ‘Close Guantanamo’ photo and then start writing this Grenfell article, following up on a whole load of links I’d compiled earlier.
    I’ve watched no TV tonight, so I don’t know if I’ve missed anything in particular. It’s ironic, but when Theresa May triggered Article 50 at the end of March until just a few weeks before the election, I completely stopped watching the news, sickened by the relentless pro-Tory, anti-Corbyn bias, and the refusal to deal with Brexit as robustly as this act of madness deserves. Then May’s collapse became compelling, as did Corbyn’s rise to effortless statesman, and the news was back, although it will be switched off again if there is any sign that the turning of the tide in the country to the left, towards social justice, adamantly against austerity and Brexit and the totally discredited, intellectually and morally bankrupt Tories shows any sign of being sidelined or ignored or dismissed.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I think you strike to the heart of the problem there, Tom. There’s no evidence that KCTMO has ever treated its tenants with respect and dignity. Instead, they seem to have been systematically regarded as lower life forms to be exploited. It’s beyond imagining that they would give anything back to them, just as it’s beyond imagining that they would understand that those made homeless need rehousing just as urgently as if KCTMO’s bosses had lost their homes in an inferno. They don’t get it, and their inability to understand is now being permanently highlighted.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s another Guardian article by Amelia Gentleman. In it she writes about how London Resilience, a Mayoral/GLA city-wide emergency response team that has taken over from the useless Kensington and Chelsea Council, has finally rehoused “126 households from the tower and the damaged block immediately at the foot of the building … in hotels in or close to the borough.”
    it does not seem correct to describe all the accommodation as “hotels”, however, as Gentleman also noted, “While most survivors were content with the hotel accommodation they had received, at least two single men had been housed in ‘really horrible B&Bs'”, according to Labour councillor Judith Blakeman. She “attended a private meeting of survivors on Monday, where she heard that one man was moved from a very basic and dirty room to a second substandard bed and breakfast where the showers were not working.” If you’re wondering how a B&B that is so filthy can survive, it’s worth reflecting that it probably doesn’t exist for tourists, but for people on council waiting lists – a scam whereby unscrupulous landlords charge councils a fortune for housing those on waiting lists in often severely sub-standard accommodation.
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/19/grenfell-tower-survivors-put-in-bb-with-no-shower-says-councillor

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    The Guardian also reports that “Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, has told senior figures in local government that councils will be fully reimbursed for any building work carried out on tower blocks that could face a similar fire risk to that of Grenfell Tower. A letter sent by the Local Government Association chairman, Gary Porter, to council leaders in England and Wales and seen by the Guardian, claimed the minister made the promise in a private conversation. Lord Porter said he had “secured assurances that funding will be made available to those councils that need to conduct work.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/19/government-will-cover-costs-of-fire-safety-work-councils-told-grenfell-tower

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    This is very sad – ‘Some Grenfell Tower victims may never be identified, lawyer says.’ Victoria Vasey, the director of the North Kensington Law Centre, says, “Some victims of the Grenfell Tower fire may never be identified because they were living in flats sublet without permission by the original tenants,” while other survivors “were reluctant to seek help from the authorities because they feared being detained over their unresolved immigration status.”
    Vasey “welcomed the large number of lawyers who had volunteered to help provide free legal advice,” and the Guardian explained that “[d]aily legal clinics have been set up to advise displaced tenants on housing problems.” As Vasey explained, “Many people were concerned about their immigration status. Some were in the middle of applications [to be naturalised] and have lost all their papers. We are offering support to them. Some of the people feel they can’t seek help because they are terrified they will be carted off to immigration detention. It’s a big problem. We are trying to get the word out to get them to come and see us. We can give them advice on the basis of client/lawyer confidentiality.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/20/grenfell-tower-some-victims-may-never-be-identified-lawyer-says

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    This is a hugely important exposure of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s hypocrisy by Guy Shrubsole on his ‘Who Owns England’ website, establishing, from the council’s own data, that “[t]he latest figures for Kensington & Chelsea reveal there are 1,399 vacant dwellings in the borough, as of April 2017 – and the number hasn’t dropped below a thousand for over a decade.” Guy also maps where those properties are, and, in the process, discovers about 50 homes “that have lain empty for between 11 and 15 years.”
    Check it out here – and please share it: https://whoownsengland.org/2017/06/18/where-are-the-empty-homes-in-kensington/

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Laurette LaLiberte wrote:

    This whole thing is obscene.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Laurette. It’s so disgusting that, in one of the richest countries in the world, people should have died in such horrendous circumstances because a chain of greedy people – many in various forms of government and building management – wanted to make more money.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Laurette LaLiberte wrote:

    Andy, I also think about in my own country, with situations like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan… deaths, children who will have life-long and irreversible health and learning problems just because the government wanted to save a few bucks on proper water treatment, a situation which will now cost the state billions to correct, and no one cared until the damage was done because they’re poor, so fuck ’em. How many more catastrophes that we haven’t heard about, or that are waiting to happen, all in the name of greed?

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    If they are made to pay for their crimes, Laurette – financially, not in the sense of anyone actually being imprisoned, which seems unlikely – then they will at least think twice. The worry is that they continue to work assiduously to shirk their responsibilities, dumping costs onto taxpayers, for example, and waiting for the spotlight to move on to some other story so they can fail to make the necessary regulatory changes. In particular, now, we need politicians who put the needs of people before profits.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Laurette LaLiberte wrote:

    Andy, It seems they never pay, ever. We do.. What can be done? People have a short attention span and not enough of us seem mad enough to do anything. It always takes some sort of disaster, then people move on with the spoltight, as you say, or get used to it after the initial outrage and it becomes the new normal…. I feel a tipping point is coming soon.. this situation is unsustainable.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Laurette LaLiberte wrote:

    Andy, Someone asked me recently what I have against rich people. I have no problem with wealth, but I do have a problem with greedy horders who get rich off of the enforced misery of others and people who have no compassion or empathy until something affects them personally.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I’m with you 100%, Laurette. Analysts often talk about how citizens in Scandinavian countries say that they are happier than citizens of other countries, and one clear reason is that the gap between the rich and poor tends to be smaller in these countries than anywhere else.
    I don’t know what can be done about people’s attention drifting. My hope is that people are joining the dots and seeing the bigger picture in greater numbers, so that everything is seen as connected.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    A few updates: (1) Four unfinished blocks in Kensington Row, a luxury development, contain “68 flats purchased by the Corporation of London for families who lost their homes in Grenfell Tower,” as the Guardian reports: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/21/rehousing-of-grenfell-tower-families-in-luxury-block-meets-mixed-response
    Those living there were not generally happy at the prospect:

    Among those exercising dogs and small children, the views were more mixed. “It’s so unfair,” said Maria, who was reading the news in the Evening Standard with two neighbours. She bought her flat two years ago for a sum she was unwilling to disclose. “We paid a lot of money to live here, and we worked hard for it. Now these people are going to come along, and they won’t even be paying the service charge.”

    Nick, who pays £2,500 a month rent for a one-bedroom flat in the complex, also expressed doubts about the plan. “Who are the real tenants of Grenfell Tower?” he asked. “It seems as though a lot of flats there were sublet. Now the people whose names are on the tenancies will get rehoused here, and then they’ll rent the flats out on the private market. And the people who were actually living unofficially in the tower at the time of the fire won’t get rehoused. I’m very sad that people have lost their homes, but there are a lot of people here who have bought flats and will now see the values drop. It will degrade things. And it opens up a can of worms in the housing market.”

    Interestingly, a Swiss resident provided a more generous view. AJ “had been horrified at the fire.” He said, “It was dreadful, I had friends living there. We gave stuff, and went up and helped for a couple days last week. In my eyes everyone should be equal.”

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Update (2): As the Guardian describes it, “The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid.” The departure was unwilling. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”, which “comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/21/kensington-and-chelsea-chief-steps-down-after-pressure-from-sajid-javid
    However, calls continue for the leader of leader of the Tory council, Nicholas Paget-Brown, to step down or be sacked as well. On ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Tottenham Labour MP David Lammy, after it was pointed out to him that Kensington and Chelsea councillors had given Paget-Brown a vote of confidence, said, “I think they are out of touch with the community they are meant to represent.”
    The head of the management organisation also needs to go too, of course, and the entire organisation needs stripping of its responsibility for the borough’s social housing.
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/22/kensington-chelsea-chief-nicholas-holgate-had-to-go-say-labour-campaigners

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Update (3): “Councils in England estimate that about 600 high-rise buildings have similar flammable exterior cladding to that used on Grenfell Tower”: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/22/flammable-cladding-found-on-other-flats-after-grenfell-fire-says-may

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh – and this: “Grenfell Tower renovation works were inspected 16 times by Kensington and Chelsea council, but these checks failed to prevent the use of the flammable cladding being blamed for spreading the fire that killed at least 79 people. Inspections were spread over almost two years during the £10m refurbishment project between 2014 and 2016, but these appear not to have spotted that the building was being clad in a material effectively banned on tall buildings by the government. Conservative-run Kensington and Chelsea council told the Guardian that the first inspection took place on 29 August 2014 and the last was on 7 July 2016, at which point a completion certificate was issued. It added that building inspectors working for the council undertook the work.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/21/grenfell-tower-16-council-inspections-failed-to-stop-use-of-flammable-cladding

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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