Photos: The Powerful Grenfell Protest Outside Parliament, May 14, 2018, and Updates About Safety Concerns

17.5.18

Four of my photos from the Grenfell protest outside Parliament on May 14, 2018. Clockwise from top left: Natasha Alcock of Grenfell United, Moyra Samuels of Justice4Grenfell, Diane Abbott MP and Grenfell community organiser Niles Hailstones.See my photos on Flickr here! And please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist, commentator and activist.





 

Please also check out ‘Grenfell’ by my band The Four Fathers, and please mark the following date in your diary: Saturday June 16, ‘One year on: Justice for Grenfell Solidarity March’, organised by Justice4Grenfell, starting outside 10 Downing St at noon.

Monday May 14, 2018 marked eleven months since the fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower, in north Kensington, killing over 70 people in an inferno that should never have occurred, and, to mark the occasion, survivors, members of the local community and supporters from across London converged on Parliament as MPs were preparing to debate the government’s response to the disaster, as I discussed in my previous article, Grenfell Campaigners Mark Eleven Months Since the Disaster That Killed 71, As MPs Debate the Government’s Response, written after I had attended the rally in Parliament Square

I also took photos, featuring representatives of survivors’ groups and the local community (including Justice4Grenfell and Grenfell United), which I have just posted to Flickr, so the purpose of this article is to provide a link to the photos, but also to provide some important updates on the Grenfell story that have emerged over the last few days.

The Parliamentary debate was taking place because, after the fire, Theresa May had announced the launch of an official inquiry, but campaigners wanted representatives from the local community to be involved, and launched a petition demanding this from the government, which secured the 100,000 signatures that made it eligible for a Parliamentary debate after grime star Stormzy promoted it to his many followers in February.

Last week, Theresa May attempted to defuse campaigners’ anger by announcing that two additional members would be appointed to the panel for the inquiry, which is only finally beginning its formal assessment of the fire next week. However, as I explained in my article after the rally, “it is by no means certain that this concession will satisfy the community’s demands, because the government has not made clear who these two additional members will be, and how they will be chosen.”

As I also explained, “the speakers also made a point of explaining how, eleven months on from the disaster, they have little reason for believing that the government intends to deliver anything resembling justice to survivors and the local community, primarily because many of the survivors are still living in temporary accommodation. They also made it clear that their concerns are for all the inhabitants of refurbished tower blocks around the country, who are living in fear, because their buildings also have dangerous cladding, just like Grenfell had, and yet no one is in any hurry to spend the money to make their homes safe.”

Theresa May’s £400m “promise”

Yesterday, Theresa May tried to address this latter criticism by promising £400m to remove unsafe cladding from tower blocks around the country, but, again, questions remain — about where the money is coming from, under what circumstances it will be provided, and what will happen if it is not enough.

Peter Apps of Inside Housing, for example, responded with a pertinent tweet in which he asked seven questions of the government:

1. What is the £400m estimate based on? Will the pot of cash be increased if this does not prove sufficient?
2. Will councils and HAs [housing associations] be recompensed for work already carried out, or is it only for outstanding jobs?
3. Where is the £400m coming from, and is it going to be grant or loan funding?
4. What has changed since previous refusals to provide cash?
5. What will happen in private blocks with dangerous cladding?
6. How will ‘dangerous cladding’ be defined?
7. Does this represent an acceptance that deficiencies in building regulations led in part to the cladding being installed?

May herself was quite vague when she announced the provision of the £400m at Prime Minister’s Question Time. As the Guardian described it, she “said it would be wrong if the cost of such cladding work meant housing providers had less money for maintenance.” After stating that “fire services had now checked more than 1,250 high-rises”, in the Guardian’s words, she said, “Councils and housing associations must remove dangerous cladding quickly, but paying for these works must not undermine their ability to do important maintenance and repair work.”

A spokeswoman for Theresa May later clarified that “cladding replacement work was needed on 158 high-rise blocks – defined as being 18 metres or higher – in the social sector in England, and that it had begun on 104 of these.” Referring to privately owned blocks, for which no funding was provided, May’s spokeswoman said the Prime Minister “thought the cost should be met by the landlords”, as the Guardian put it. The spokeswoman said, “This is money for social housing. We expect private building owners to take responsibility for removing and replacing and to not pass the cost on to leaseholders.”

Labour criticised the government for the delay. John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said, “It’s welcome, but why on earth has it taken the prime minister 11 months to make this commitment? Almost a year on from the Grenfell Tower fire, over 300 other tower blocks have dangerous, Grenfell-type cladding, but only seven have had it replaced.”

Dame Hackitt’s report on building regulations and safety

Today, adding further pressure to the government’s tattered reputation for keeping those living in social housing safe, Dame Judith Hackitt issued a report into building regulations, commissioned by the government after the Grenfell fire.

As the Guardian described it, her report “concluded that indifference and ignorance led to a ‘race to the bottom’ in building safety practices, with cost prioritised over safety”, exactly what campaigners were eloquently and knowledgeably complaining about before the fire happened, when they were shamefully ignored.

The Guardian stated that Dame Hackitt’s report said that “a new standards regulator should be the centrepiece of a reformed system.” and, in further analysis, reported that her recommendations were for “a new building regulations system”, which “should at first focus on buildings of 10 storeys or more.” She added that a “new regulator called the Joint Competent Authority should be made up of local authority building standards, fire and rescue authorities and Health and Safety Executive officials”, which “will be independent of the building owner” and “will approve” — or not — “designs before construction begins.”

“What I want to see happen here is we do not want to have to wait for a tragedy like Grenfell before we apply the full criminal sanctions of the law,” Hackitt said, adding, 

“We have to get to a position where people putting lives at risk by what they’re doing gets picked up at the time and there’s sanctions applied there and then, not in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy like Grenfell. If this had been in place prior to Grenfell, I do not believe the cladding that was put on Grenfell would have got through the system in the first place.”

As the Guardian put it, what happened at Grenfell, owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was that “the building regulations were checked by RBKC’s own building officers while works were already under way”, with [t]he same thing happen[ing] on dozens of other buildings clad in combustible material nationwide.” 

As well as intending to set up a regulatory system that will deal with these self-certifying short-cuts, Hackitt’s report also called for “tougher penalties for failures”, having “found rates of enforcement action against breaches of building regulations had fallen 75% in the last decade”, although I fail to see how this would be policed.

Most of the above is very commendable, but Hackitt also attracted criticism by refusing, in her report, to call for combustible materials to be banned. “Restricting or prohibiting certain practices will not address the root causes,” she stated, and argued that “there shouldn’t be prescription about what materials could and could not be used”, as the Guardian put it; “instead the onus should be on the ‘construction industry to take responsibility for the delivery of safe buildings rather than looking to others to tell them what is or is not acceptable.’” She added that “it will be important now for industry to show leadership in driving this forward”.

She explained that those involved in the industry “did not bother to read regulations and when they did, they did not understand them”, and added that “concerns were ignored during the building process because ‘the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible rather than to deliver quality homes’” — a powerful criticism — and that “some builders use the ambiguity of the regulations to ‘game the system.’” She also said that safety in the industry was compromised because people “did not know who was in charge”, becasue “enforcement was patchy”, and because “penalties were so small as to be ineffective.”

However, as well as refusing to ban combustible materials entirely, she also “stopped short of banning controversial desktop studies, which can be used to justify using certain materials without a fire test.” She explained that she wanted them “to be carried out only by qualified people, which she said would effectively stop unregulated fire engineers paid by builders of building owners from declaring systems safe.” However, she also said that the “detailed results of those tests should remain commercially confidential.”

In what appeared to be an add-on, the Guardian noted that that she also said that the new regulatory framework must also address the fact that “residents often go unheard, even when safety issues are identified.”

Responding to the failure to ban combustible cladding entirely, which, to me, seems to make no sense, the Guardian noted how “Grenfell survivors said they were ‘disappointed and saddened’ that the report rejected their calls for a ban on combustible materials.” David Lammy, the Tottenham MP who has been a persistent critic of the government’s failure to deal adequately with the Grenfell aftermath, called the report a “betrayal and a whitewash.” As the Guardian also noted, “Architects, councils and fire experts also condemned the approach.”

Inside Housing noted that the survivors’ group Grenfell United, who met Dame Hackitt and “asked her personally to ban combustible cladding”, eloquently rebuked Dame Hackitt for failing to take their concerns on board. Shahin Sadafi, the chair of Grenfell United, said: “Worrying that a fire like Grenfell could happen again is something that keeps many of us awake at night. When we met Dame Judith Hackitt we asked her for an outright ban on combustable cladding. We are disappointed and saddened that she didn’t listen to us and she didn’t listen to other experts. The cladding on the Grenfell Tower was deemed to be limited combustibility, but it cost 72 lives. It must be banned. We need to hear from government a clear promise that these dangerous materials will never be used on homes again.

Sadafi added, “This isn’t just about cladding – the whole system of building regulation is broken. The industry has too much influence over regulation and testing, desktop studies are totally flawed, profit is valued more than people’s safety and residents are left powerless. All of this must change. This report is a start but we’ve had recommendations before – after the Lakanal House fire [in 2009, in which five people died] and they were ignored – so we’re asking Dame Judith Hackitt to finish the job she has started and make sure this report leads to a serious culture change across the industry. Grenfell United, we will keep fighting until everyone is safe in their homes.”

As the Guardian noted, after the report was published, Dame Hackitt “appeared to contradict her own report and admitted she would in fact support a ban on combustible materials as long as it was alongside the wider reforms she proposed”, and the criticism was also picked up on by the government, with James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, announcing what the Guardian described as “a consultation on a ban in a statement to the House of Commons about plans for new building safety rules that will reduce ‘buck passing’ on projects and require builders to demonstrate they have taken ‘decisive action to reduce building safety risk.’”

It seems to me that a ban on flammable cladding should have been an obvious outcome of the Grenfell fire, and I hope the consultation announced by the government swiftly comes to that conclusion, but, that said, I commend Dame Hackitt for having identified a “‘race to the bottom’ in building safety practices, with cost prioritised over safety.” 

It now remains to be seen how these conclusions can be applied to the official inquiry that begins next week, to correctly identify how responsibility for the deaths at Grenfell rests with central government for deliberately cutting “red tape”, with Kensington and Chelsea Council for its persistent indifference to those in social housing, with the corrupt and incompetent Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation to whom responsibility for the borough’s social housing was devolved, and with contractors who failed to make safety their main priority. And when we’re looking at a culture of indifference, it’s also important to see what took place in government regarding safety standards pre-2010, and what councils in general have been doing for the last ten years or more.

Ultimately, the Grenfell survivors — and those living in social housing in general, and especially in tower blocks — need any and all investigations into the Grenfell fire not only to accept responsibility for what took place, and to make sure it never happens again, but also to recognise that there is a human cost to the establishment’s long-running drive to devalue social housing and those who live in it.

So what also needs to come out of the Grenfell disaster is an official recognition by the establishment (the politicians, the bankers and the housing industry) that we need more genuinely affordable social housing (at social rents, not “affordable” rents that are no such thing), that it must be adequately maintained, and that anything other than this remains a deliberate war by the rich on everyone with less than them — from those in lower-paid jobs, the elderly and the unemployed to those who, while paid well on paper, are spending far too much of their income servicing landlords and banks whose greed is almost entirely unfettered.

Also see the album here:

A poignant placard at the Grenfell protest outside Parliament, May 14, 2018

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, linking to the photos I took of the Grenfell protest outside Parliament on Monday, as MPs debated the government’s response to the disaster last June, in which over 70 people died. I also provide updates – about Theresa May’s promise to make £400m available to remove dangerous cladding on other tower blocks (a promise for which further details have not been provided), and about Dame Judith Hackitt’s report into building regulations, published today, in such she concluded, powerfully, that there had been “a ‘race to the bottom’ in building safety practices, with cost prioritised over safety”, but disappointed survivors and housing experts by failing to order and outright ban on the use of flammable cladding materials. The government immediately promised a consultation on flammable cladding (which obviously should lead to a ban), but it remains to be seen whether there will be serious and credible action to address the “race to the bottom” identified by Dame Hackitt. As I describe it, survivors – and anyone living in social housing, and especially in tower blocks – deserve nothing less, and “need any and all investigations into the Grenfell fire not only to accept responsibility for what took place, and to make sure it never happens again, but also to recognise that there is a human cost to the establishment’s long-running drive to devalue social housing and those who live in it.”

  2. Tom says...

    Keep the pressure on.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. There’s actually a lot of media coverage right now, and I can’t see it letting up with the 1st anniversary of the fire approaching, and the official inquiry beginning next week.

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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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