Grenfell fire
Image: © NEWZULU/Staisy Mishchenko/NEWZULU/PA Images

The big questions behind Grenfell, explained

How could this possibly have happened in the richest borough in the country?

It’s been a matter of days since a fire ripped through a 24-storey housing block in West London, and there are still a lot of questions: how it started, who’s to blame and how such a tragedy could have been prevented.

But, as firefighters are still working in the building, and with the death toll continuing to rise, there are very few answers.

What we do know is that people are angry. Angry that residents safety concerns were ignored. Angry that the UK social housing system seems to have failed. And angry that people were living in unsafe conditions next door to multi-million pound luxury blocks.

In an attempt to understand, let’s look at some of the big questions that have come up over the last few days, to work out what we do know about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.

One of the biggest questions is whether this would ever have happened in a luxury block.

In a TV interview a local pastor said that rising inequality in areas like Kensington was to blame. “The disparity in this country between rich and poor is disgusting. This would never have happened in those £2 million, £5 million flats around the corner,” he said. “Things like this are going to keep happening if the poor are ignored in this city.”

Kensington is one of the richest boroughs in the country, yet one of its wards, Golbourne, is the joint poorest. According to some reports it has the greatest gap between rich and poor of anywhere in the country.

Another is why the building didn't have fire safety measures installed, especially given it had just been redeveloped.

Residents asked for improved fire safety measures in a recent multi million pound redevelopment, on the property, but they didn’t get them.

Those multi million pounds were spent on cladding, placed around the building as a way of improving the way it looks. Since the fire it’s emerged that the same cladding has been linked to other fires which have also accelerated through buildings. The company that fitted the cladding said it met all fire regulations. The Times newspaper reported Friday that it wasn't fire resistant, and that it would have cost a total of £5,000 more to use a fire resistant alternative.

The new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, said in an interview “The council want to develop this area full of social housing, and in order to enable that they have prettified a building that they felt was ugly ... The idea that that has led to this horrendous tragedy is just unthinkable.”

...and how on earth the building didn't have sprinklers.

John Healey, the shadow minister for housing, has said the government must answer serious concerns for "failing to learn" from the Lakanal House fire, and another in a tower block in Southampton. 

An investigation by a housing magazine found that ‘only a few’ tower blocks have been fitted with sprinkler systems since the Lakanal House fire.

It’s pretty clear that a sprinkler system could have helped in this situation. So why isn’t it law to have one? The current government is pretty wary of regulations – in a parliamentary debate in 2014 a Conservative minister said he believed more regulation would raise the costs for developers and discourage housebuilding. He said it should be the responsibility of the fire industry to ‘market’ or sell safety products to developers, rather than the responsibility of the government to ensure it.

The Kensington Council leader said Friday that the residents ‘did not want’ a sprinkler system. Or rather, that there was no “collective view” in favor of one.

Some are asking big questions about whether this shows that  the UK's 'social housing' system has failed.

Social housing is when secure homes are let at low costs to people who need it – normally by the council, or a not-for-profit organisation.

The number of people in social housing in the UK is in decline and councils are selling off the properties (the nearby Trellick Tower, designed as social housing, has now been revamped into luxury flats).

In Kensington, management of social housing was outsourced to a separate organization in the 1990s, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization – according to its website KCTMO is responsible for 10,000 properties in the borough, and while the council still owns the properties, KCTMO is responsible for their management. It’s this organization that tenants had complained to about a lack of fire safety.

Others are asking whether the company involved is to blame, calling it "corporate manslaughter".

A Labour MP for another London borough, David Lammy, said the tragedy is “corporate manslaughter” – or that the behavior of an organisation is to blame for the fire. “People should be held to account,” for allowing people to live in such conditions, he said.

The London Police Service (the Metropolitan police, headquartered at Scotland Yard) announced Friday that it was opening a criminal investigation into the fire.

In 2009, a fire at Lakanal House in Camberwell, South East London killed six people. It was found that the property was in breach of fire regulations, and the council pleaded guilty in February this year to four counts of breaking fire safety regulations.

The London Assembly’s housing committee told the Guardian the committee had called for stronger building regulations, including fire safety measures, in tower blocks after the Lakanal House fire, but it wasn't made law.

And the most important question for the families affected:  what now?

Volunteers at Grenfell Tower
Volunteers at Grenfell Tower Image: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

The most immediate concerns are around identifying the people still missing in the fire – and rehousing the survivors. The Labour party has argued that residents should be rehoused in empty multi-million pound houses around Kensington.

Since news of the tragedy broke, there has been a huge outpouring of support for the local community. From people donating shoes and clothes, to online donations.

Lawyers have been offering legal services for free – help with things like compensation claims, for example, and to find out who is responsible. But also helping the people affected deal with things like loss of earnings and employment, and the more complex issues that might come up in the next few weeks and months.

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Reader Comments

  • Macrocompassion

    The pictures of the fire were horrifying because of the speed of advancement of the flames. It was as if the outside of the building was enclosed in oiled paper or the equivalent. The other horrifying matter is the failure of many people trapped inside to escape by means of the inside stairway. It certainly should have been designed to allow an outside fire to not obstruct by smoke this safe means of escape and rescue. One vital but unanswered question is about the possibility of this being repeated in other similar built tower-blocks having the same materials used in their construction and without the necessary water spray system and automatic alarms. If there are any such buildings with little protection, then there is a crying need for a) a permanent fire fighting crew to stay there until b) these faults are completely corrected. This might well be a lot more costly that the apparent saving by the use of non-retardent materials and the absence of these other two precautionary features listed above. Who or what insurance coverage is being responsibly used for those who need new homes and who have lost wage-earners, etc?

  • Manu Leach

    Asimov did not define the laws of robotics! He was just a veery good writer, butr those laws were not intended to be used in any real-life application. They do not actually work. Indeed, he wrote about their shortcomings