Images of the Grenfell Tower fire will be etched in our memories for many years, much like the tragic events that took place at Hillsborough. There is no doubt that this tragedy was avoidable and not an accident in the true sense of the word ‘an unforeseen circumstance, that happens without apparent cause.’
This tragedy was foreseen, it’s just that the people and organisations who foresaw it were ignored.
Last Wednesday evening I attended a seminar held at the Queen Mary University entitled ‘Grenfell Tower – An Avoidable Tragedy’. The speakers included Criminologists and experts in Human Rights as well as the General Secretary of the Fire Brigade Union and a QC representing the families. The seminar opened with a statement from the Justice for Grenfell Group which stated that the tragedy was “emblematic of the deep inequality in Britain”. Hillsborough was mentioned throughout the seminar, often as a warning about how governments approach disasters such as Hillsborough, shifting blame onto the fans in that case. It was also used as an example of how decisions made in the aftermath of a disaster can have consequences many years into the future.
Those that criticise the Human Rights Act would do well to remember that the Article Two of the Act, “the right to life” was instrumental in overturning the discredited Hillsborough inquest verdicts of 1991 and led to new inquests in 2016 which found that the 96 victims were unlawfully killed.
The General Secretary of the FBU said it was a miracle that no firefighters were killed at Grenfell Tower and gave a detailed timeline of detrimental changes to the administration of fire services in the UK dating back as far as 2004. These changes include the privatisation of building control and fire risk assessment as well as the reduction in fire fighting personnel.
A culture has developed, accelerated by the years of austerity, where Health & Safety regulation is seen as ‘a burden to business’ and this is demonstrated by the current Government’s ‘red tape challenge’ which prides itself on removing what is believed to be unnecessary legislation. When we hear Sajid Javid, the current Minister for Communities and Local Government say that no stone will be left unturned in the investigation we should remember that it was his own department, then run by Eric Pickles that in 2013 repealed regulation 20 of the London Building Act which dealt with fire safeguards in buildings over 30 metres. This Act which had its roots as far back as Great Fire of London in 1667 has been chipped away centuries later for profit, hidden under the cloak of cost benefit analysis. See the link below for the Final Impact assessment document produced by the Communities and Local Government department in 2013.
A further avoidable tragedy was how the residents of Grenfell Tower were treated after the fire in what appeared to be a total collapse in the ability of local government to deal with the crisis in front of them which left a vacuum which was hastily filled by volunteers, charities and the local community. This failure to provide a basic duty of care to the people of Grenfell Tower is a stark example of austerity in action.
I have serious concerns about how this disaster will be investigated. The first words of the Judge appointed to lead the Public Enquiry don’t inspire confidence, stating that the families are likely to be disappointed, and that the enquiry will only deal with the causes of the fire itself and not the wider aspects.