Learning the lessons of Grenfell Tower

Originally published on June 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

Why? Why? Why? The questions come thick and fast.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Who let it happen?

I can’t pretend to have the technical expertise to have the answers and it’s important not to leap to the wrong conclusions. So for the moment there can only be questions about Tuesday night’s horrific fire in London.

At least 12 people are known to have died as the fire swept through Grenfell Tower but given the number of people missing the final death toll looks like it will be far higher than that.

Even the immediate questions are endless. Why did the fire spread so quickly? Why were there no sprinklers or fire alarms? Should the advice to stay put be changed?

Did the refurbishment work or the cladding used make Grenfell Tower less safe? Why did the council and landlord not heed residents’ warnings about the fire risks?

Where will the surviving residents live now and how long will it take them to find permanent homes?

The questions keep coming but we need answers and soon about why the tragedy happened and how to stop it happening again.

Why have we seemingly ignored the lessons of tower block fires at Lakanal House and elsewhere that killed residents and firefighters and the near miss last year at Shepherd’s Court?

Why haven’t ministers acted to tighten the building regulations to require sprinklers in all high-rise blocks, as recommended by coroners?

Why, when the Welsh Government acted to require sprinklers in all new and converted homes in Wales, did ministers in Westminster attack it for imposing ‘red tape’ on housebuilders?

Why have so few councils acted themselves and what part did spending cuts play in their decisions? An Inside Housing investigation in 2015 found that just 1% of tower blocks have sprinklers fitted despite the recommendations of the coroners.

Questions like this are asked every time people lose their lives in a major incident and it’s not hard to guess what some of the answers might be.

The usual pattern is that we have an inquiry and eventually recommendations are made to stop the same thing happening again. Some of them get implemented but others are seen as too costly and as memories fade a balance is struck between cost and safety.

But tragedies like Grenfell Tower are so awfui that they change everything. Already, for horrific reasons, it’s being compared to 9/11.

In terms of its impact on housing it’s being compared to Ronan Point, where a gas explosion in 1968 killed four people and exposed shoddy system building.

That came to symbolise the problems with council housing, even though system building was being used in response to central government demands to speed up construction that put quantity before quality.

Already this morning I’ve heard it argued that this is another failure of social housing to follow Ronan Point and that all high-rise buildings should be demolished.

That rather ignores the growth of private residential towers in London and it may also miss something about Grenfell Tower.

I don’t know the figures but almost 40 years after the Right to Buy it would be surprising if the block was not as mixed in tenure as other inner London estates.

Before the tragedy flats were being advertised on Rightmove at rents of up to £2,300 a month.

More than anything else though, Grenfell Tower reminds me of the fatal fires of the 1980s when 56 people died at Bradford City stadium and 31 died at King’s Cross tube station.

It seems incredible now that football clubs were allowed to put their fans in wooden stands with litter underneath the seats or that the underground system in London allowed smoking and had wooden escalators.

Will Grenfell Tower be housing’s King’s Cross? Will it be just as inconceivable that we allowed tenants to live in tower blocks with no sprinklers and with only a single staircase?

The detailed lessons will have to wait for the inquiry but at a minimum it seems inevitable that landlords will be required to do much more to protect their tenants on top of the safety checks and risk assessments that are already underway.

That could mean sprinklers, heat detectors, smoke extractors and proper checks that the buildings work as they were originally designed to and compartmentalise against fire.

Conceivably it could mean that landlords who have already installed cladding on their blocks will have to rip it down and start again.

We should be prepared to do whatever it takes but who pays for it all? It’s not hard to imagine some landlords deciding that it will be cheaper to demolish their tower blocks and regenerate their estates instead.

What happens then? Changes in football since the disasters of the 1980s have made watching it safer but they have also helped make it too expensive for ordinary fans.

Grenfell Tower will be demolished and the homes rebuilt but some surviving residents were already expressing fears yesterday that they will not be able to afford them. Those fears are understandable in the wake of what’s happening on estates across London.

We must learn the lessons of the tragedy and make tower blocks safe for residents.

But if in the aftermath we accelerate a version of regeneration that changes the nature of social housing and discriminates against the very people we are trying to protect then we will have failed all over again.

 

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