I was woken up at 4 am by the buzz of my phone: a friend was standing outside the Grenfell Tower block in Kensington, watching it burn, and felt like she needed to speak to someone.
She lived down the road – was born and bred in the borough, back when it was slightly less affluent than it is now – and had been alerted to the fire by an impossibly large plume of yellow smoke outside her window as she got ready for bed around 1 am.
When I spoke to her, she’d been wandering the streets for three hours, talking to other residents who had come out of their homes to find out what the commotion was and stayed because they knew someone who lived in the tower or simply felt they couldn’t go back to bed knowing what was going on a few metres away. She sent me photos of herself standing at the police cordon, the tower an unrecognisable pillar of flames behind it. The pavements were covered in black ash for a mile. Grown men were crying.
Although this happened in Kensington, a famously prosperous area of London with an extremely high number of properties worth £1m or more, it didn’t happen in a block of luxury flats. It happened in a high-rise building on a council estate. Those responsible for managing social housing in the area on behalf of the borough were the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), a company which says on its website that it is responsible for nearly 10,000 properties – and a company which the people who lived at Grenfell Tower had complained about for many years.
The Grenfell Action Group residents’ association had consistently warned about the possibility of such a tragedy; this morning, they updated their website with a post which reads: “Regular readers of this blog will know that we have posted numerous warnings in recent years about the very poor fire safety standards at Grenfell Tower and elsewhere in RBKC [the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea].
ALL OUR WARNINGS FELL ON DEAF EARS and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.” Links to their earlier posts prove it: in 2013 they warned that shutting down the block’s car park would mean just one narrow, restricted road for emergency vehicle access, something which eyewitnesses reported slowed down the fire engine response; the same year, they wrote a long post about continuous electrical surges which had been causing fire hazards in the building (“decisive action was only taken yesterday after highly distressed residents descended en masse on the estate office to demand help and assistance.
They had woken to find smoke issuing from various electrical appliances in their homes, including the light fixtures, and descended in panic to the estate office to demand help”) ; and in November 2016, their frustration about what they called inadequate fire escapes culminated in a frighteningly prescient post titled Playing With Fire: “The Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring to an end the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders… It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block… is the most likely reason those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice”.
Of course we don’t know what caused the fire at Grenfell Tower yet, and finding out how this happened will be a painstaking task over the days to come.
But whatever caused the initial spark, the fact that it escalated into an all-consuming blaze implies that something, somewhere went seriously wrong. We’ve been here before. In 2009, a tower block fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London led to the loss of six lives and Southwark Council’s criminal prosecution for fire safety lapses (the council paid a £570,000 fine.)
Just three months ago, it was reported that a government delay in reviewing fire safety regulations for tower blocks – one of the recommendations made after the Lakanal House inquest – could lead to future tragedies. At that time, fire safety expert Sam Webb was reported as saying that there is a “conflict” between fire safety and the materials used to make buildings more energy efficient (“The materials used are not fire-resistant and in some cases they’re flammable.”) We know that the 1970s-built Grenfell Tower had recently been refurbished with modern materials, and that questions have been raised by people who escaped the building about whether the new cladding might have ignited and spread the fire: one man on LBC Radio this morning said that “the cladding went up like a matchstick”.
Conservative MP Mike Penning, a former firefighter, told BBC News that “the cladding was clearly spreading the fire…We need to find out what went on.”
Those who questioned how Kensington could possibly have swung to Labour during the recent general election now have their answer. This is a borough with a serious wealth disparity: it is the most unaffordable area of London, yet it also has the highest rate of out-ofborough homeless placements, one of the highest rates of residential overcrowding, and one of the highest rates of wage inequality (the top quarter of earners in Kensington and Chelsea earn three times or more than the bottom quarter).
The Conservatives have consistently voted against tenants’ rights over the last few years, most memorably voting down a bill requiring landlords to make their homes fit for habitation, where 72 of the MPs voting against the measure were landlords themselves, in 2016. Little wonder Kensington fell out of love with them. And let’s not forget that this is also a party which oversaw the loss of 7,000 firefighters over the last five years, leading to a 25 per cent reduction in the number of fire prevention visits to homes.
As the still-burning Grenfell Tower shows, the time has come when even the politicians of boroughs like Kensington and Chelsea have to listen to the concerns of all their residents. “Grenfell is where they shove all the people who don’t have any choice,” said an angry man to my friend at the scene. Now those people have lost almost everything – everything except the blog they were keeping to detail their endless frustrations with the company contracted to take care of the building they lived in.
That, at least, cannot be erased by the flames. Politicians said it after Lakanal House, but this time they actually have to mean it: something like this should never be allowed to happen again.