Five Years Since the Grenfell Tower Fire, No Justice for Survivors, and No Safety For Hundreds of Thousands of People Trapped in Unsafe Flats


A tree decorated in memory of the 72 people who died in the Grenfell Tower fire, located close to the tower itself, on June 14, 2022, the fifth anniversary of the disaster (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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Today marks five years since the Grenfell Tower fire, a disaster that led to the deaths of 72 people, when an inferno engulfed the 24-storey tower block in North Kensington that was their home.

The disaster was foretold by those who lived in Grenfell Tower, who had found themselves ignored until it was too late by the organisation responsible for their safety — the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which had been given control, by Kensington and Chelsea Council, of all of its social housing.

In post after post on the website of the Grenfell Action Group, residents had repeatedly warned that the KCTMO was “an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the everyday management of large scale social housing estates.”

Ignored for years before the fire, the residents then found themselves largely abandoned as the inferno raged, and left to fend for themselves afterwards.

The combination of all these factors created an extraordinarily powerful sense of community solidarity, but five years on, no one has been held responsible, preventing any kind of closure or sense of justice, even though it was clear from the beginning who was responsible — everyone in politics with responsibility for social housing, and everyone profiting from ‘regeneration’, refurbishment and maintenance programmes; in short, everyone responsible for the safety of those living in Grenfell Tower let them down, and contributed to the horrendous death toll on June 14, 2017.

‘Managed decline’ and social tenants as second-class citizens

Just as Grenfell changed the community of North Kensington, so it did for countless other people around the country, myself included. In my case, as a social housing tenant, I was aware of a process whereby, over the years, as owner-occupiers had been fetishised to prop up an insane housing bubble as a replacement for any other kind of viable economy, and social housing was repeatedly denigrated in the mainstream media, we had become considered second-class citizens.

I had watched — and photographed and written about for my photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’ — the cynical destruction of council estates so that they could be replaced by lucrative new ‘regeneration’ projects (see here, here, here and here, for example), and I know that one way that councils seek to justify the destruction of these estates is to subject them to ‘managed decline.’ This primarily involves a deliberate failure to conduct repairs and maintenance, so that the estates increasingly resemble the failed projects they are portrayed as, and it also helps councils to put pressure on tenants to move out — to be ‘decanted’ elsewhere — and on leaseholders (those who had bought their homes as a result of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ programme) to accept Compulsory Purchase Orders that, to add insult to injury, offer derisory amounts for their homes that don’t even enable them to afford to stay in the area.

One alarming aspect of ‘managed decline’ is how it potentially compromises the safety of residents, but it was not until Grenfell that it became apparent that indifference to residents’ safety — based on the belief that social housing tenants were inferior beings — could actually lead to their deaths.

Internally, Grenfell had, for years, been subjected to ‘managed decline’; firstly, through a refusal on the part of central government — because of an obsession with prioritising cost-cutting and contractor profits over safety concerns — to learn lessons from previous tower block fires regarding the importance of fire safety (effective fire doors, uncluttered escape routes and the need for sprinkler systems, for example); and secondly, through the council and KCTMO’s general disdain for spending money adequately maintaining the homes of second-class citizens.

The normalisation of deadly, insanely flammable cladding

To add to this disgraceful situation, it also transpired that the speed with which the fire at Grenfell spread was, in particular, caused by other, more contemporary failures in the building industry, revealing what was, to be blunt, a homicidal disdain for safety: the installation of cladding — installed in 2015-16, as part of the redevelopment of the outdoor sports pitches and leisure centre at the foot of the tower — that was, by any objective measure, insanely combustible.

Although no one has been held accountable for the Grenfell Tower fire, an official inquiry — which has now been underway for nearly five years, and will conclude soon, although is final report is not expected until next year — has, at least, established in horrific detail how the entire building industry, and everyone involved in it, up to and including ministers and council officials, either knew or should have known that the type of cladding used at Grenfell — ACM (aluminium composite) panels filled with polyethylene — was homicidally dangerous. As Inside Housing has explained, polyethylene is “a ferociously combustible plastic which has been compared to solid petrol by experts”, and in the early days the inquiry heard that, as the Times described it, “The use of combustible materials on Grenfell Tower had the effect of dousing the building with 32,000 litres of petrol.”

The inquiry has also heard how the primary manufacturer of the cladding, the US-based firm Arconic, covered up or manipulated the results of safety tests showing how dangerous it was, and how the British government had ignored warnings about it since 2002, refusing to change regulations governing its use so that the UK became a dumping ground for these deadly products; primarily, a cheaper, but even more flammable type of ACM panel that was used on Grenfell to cut costs, even though it had been banned in other European countries.

In addition, the botched cladding operation had also paved the way for disaster through the installation of horizontal and vertical cavity barriers that were “defective”, as an expert explained to the inquiry, and through replacement windows across the entire block that “were smaller than the original ones and left gaps between the frames and the original concrete columns”, and which were filled with an “Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM) weatherproof seal”, another highly combustible material.

These are specific problems relating to the cladding at Grenfell, but what is particularly striking about the inquiry’s findings — beyond the criminal activities of Arconic and two other cladding manufacturers, Celotex and Kingspan — is how so many of these working in the industry apparently failed to recognise what is immediately apparent to most lay people — that plastic-filled cladding is deadly and shouldn’t even be allowed to exist.

This oversight is particularly startling in light of numerous fires involving ACM cladding that took place in the years before the Grenfell fire — “20 serious cladding fires around the world”, as facade engineer Jonathan Sakula told the inquiry, including “seven fires in towers in the United Arab Emirates [between 2012 and 2016] that were particularly prominent in the press, including a blaze at the 63-storey Address hotel in Dubai where similar plastic-filled aluminium panels to those used on Grenfell fuelled a huge blaze.”

The result of this collective indifference has spread from Grenfell across the entire country over the last five years, with a particular impact, ironically, on leaseholders who bought flats in countless new developments whose exteriors also feature potentially deadly cladding, and who have discovered, to their horror, that they, like social housing tenants, are also now regarded as second-class citizens in a country in which the profits of developers and everyone involved in the construction industry are regarded as more important than the rights of individuals to live in buildings that are safe.

I have covered some of these stories in ‘The State of London’ — see here and here, for example — as developers, insurers and other complicit parties have sought to shirk responsibility for their failures, and to pass the costs of remedial works onto leaseholders and tenants, already burdened with vast mortgages and unregulated service charges, who are being told that, while living in flats that are both worthless and unsafe, they will have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for the privilege of having been lied to.

“640,000 people are still living in 345,000 unsafe flats”

I’m grateful to Martina Lees of the Times for having established, just three days ago, that “640,000 people are still living in 345,000 unsafe flats”, and that “only 6% of flats with flammable cladding have been fixed” since the Grenfell tower fire. The Times’ research established that the total number of flats affected — in the private market as well as social housing — is 2.3 million, that 1.5 million flats are “potentially unsellable”, that 345,000 flats are “still dangerous”, and that only 21,000 have been “fixed.”

As Lees also explained, Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan, have “all made misleading statements on the panels that spread the fire” at Grenfell”, and that all three firms “deny liability.” As she also described it, “They have made £6.5 billion in profit since the disaster, but [have] paid nothing to compensate survivors or to strip their products from blocks across Britain.”

The Grenfell Tower fire should have led to a massive rethink about what housing is, and how everyone is entitled to live in a home that is safe, but, instead, those responsible for people’s safety continue to believe that, when it comes to creating housing, profits are more important then human lives. ‘Managed decline’ and estate demolitions continue to be prioritised by councils, instead of refurbishment (even as the environmental case against demolition becomes ever more compelling), and developers continue to fill every available space they can find with new developments that, in the search for profits, always include high-rise towers.

It may be that the deadliest of materials are no longer used in these developments, although I’m not convinced, as, when I cycle around the capital for ‘The State of London’, what strikes me in particular is how new housing developments involve two particular components — the environmentally ruinous concrete used to create the structures in situ, and the mass-manufactured products that are used to create the flats that are slotted into these concrete towers. The environmental cost of all this is truly shocking, as products are flown, shipped and driven from all around the world, with little or no regard for how environmentally friendly — or unfriendly — their manufacture is, but we are also required to trust that they are safe, when everything we have learned since Grenfell indicates that the construction industry is profoundly untrustworthy.

Five years on from Grenfell, we need refurbishment over demolition, refurbishment over ‘managed decline’, and an end to the crazed ‘regeneration’ industry, facilitated by politicians, that continues to build new high-rise towers, not because they are desirable, but because of the profits that that can be made from them, and that, like the manufacturers of flammable cladding, continues to seek to absolve itself of responsibility for having been involved in placing profits above the safety of its leaseholders and tenants.

We all deserve to be safe, and we need to live in a country where ensuring that safety comes before the claimed ‘right’ of those involved in the construction industry to prioritise profits above any other concern, even when, as the Grenfell Tower fire showed, that might be our lives.

As Peter Apps, the great chronicler of the Grenfell Inquiry for Inside Housing, tweeted yesterday, publicising a great summary of the Grenfell story that he has written for the unHerd website, “What has emerged is a profoundly depressing portrait of a private sector with a near psychopathic disregard for human life, and a public sector which exists to do little more than serve or imitate it.” And the same — sadly, shamefully — is also true of the huge, horrible and clearly under-regulated new housing development and ‘regeneration’ industry that continues to blight the capital, from Nine Elms to the Aylesbury and the Heygate, and from Croydon to Woodberry Down and Tottenham Hale.

How many of us are truly safe in the ongoing neoliberal nightmare that is the British housing industry?

* * * * *

For my song about the Grenfell Tower fire, which I wrote in 2017, and recorded in 2018 with my band The Four Fathers, and with the great Charlie Hart, who also plays on it, click on the link below:

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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 2017 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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, marking the 5th anniversary, today, of the Grenfell Tower fire, on June 14, 2017, when 72 people died, in a disaster that should never have happened, but that came to pass because everyone responsible prioritised cost-cutting and profits over the safety of residents.

    I explain how, as a social housing tenant, the fire changed my life, because it revealed how those us who live in social housing are not only regarded as second-class citizens, but are also considered so inferior that our very lives are disposable.

    I also discuss how the insanely flammable cladding, which was the primary cause of the disaster, was also used on hundreds of other buildings, both public and private, and discuss how, in the shameful deregulated world of housing safety, much of it is still in place, still endangering lives, and leaving everyone involved – whether leaseholders or tenants – trapped in homes that are both worthless and unsafe.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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