This essay, on the backstory of the policies that led to the Grenfell fire, was my Observer column this week. It was published 12 December 2021, under the headline “Grenfell delivers yet more horrors. But the guilty still fail to take responsibility”.
Lying. Refusing to follow rules. Mocking the little people. Deflecting any blame. Not just this government’s response to a Christmas party that “never took place”, but the response of successive governments to the issue of fire safety in buildings. Where the former reveals the depth of hypocrisy and contempt within elite circles, the latter exposes a culture of impunity that has had deadly consequences.
Last week, the Grenfell Tower inquiry began its final phase in which it will investigate the role of government policy. Jason Beer, QC for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, declared the department “deeply sorry for its past failures” that had helped create “an environment in which such a tragedy was possible”.
For all the contrition, it was a fauxpology, an exercise in deflecting blame rather than in accepting responsibility. According to Beer, the government had erred in failing to recognise that building inspectors “would not diligently fulfil their responsibilities” and in putting “misplaced trust” in companies and contractors, a trust that had been “abused”. The real villains of the story, in other words, were building inspectors and private contractors; the government’s failure was in imagining that they would act as nobly as it itself would. It was another “it wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine” moment, but no one was laughing.
Inspectors, manufacturers and contractors have much to answer for. But far from being too “trusting”, governments have at best permitted, at worst encouraged, their practices. Successive administrations, Stephanie Barwise QC, counsel for bereaved families, told the inquiry, have viewed deadly fires “as something to be covered up or trivialised”, allowing “industry the latitude it wanted”.
The story of the failures that led to Grenfell goes back at least 30 years to the Knowsley Heights fire of 1991. A block of flats in Huyton, Merseyside, Knowsley Heights had been chosen as a pilot for the government’s “Estates Action Programme” to reclad old, deteriorating estates using “Class 0” material. The debate around Class 0 is complex, but it is in essence material that is often taken to be fire-resistant but is not.
As early as 1986, a Department of the Environment circular warned that “a risk of increased vertical fire spread has been identified during the laboratory testing of overcladding systems”. The warning was ignored. A fire broke out in Knowsley Heights just as predicted.
Instead of learning the lessons, the authorities sought to hush up the findings. Inside Housing magazine unearthed a handwritten memo from the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the national research laboratory, which noted “a request” from the government press office “to play down the issue of the fire”. The BRE report on the Knowsley fire was kept for “limited circulation”. One reason, Barwise suggested, might have been the desire to avoid the expense of fixing combustible cladding. At that time, the cost was estimated at £500m. Today, it stands at more than £15bn.
Eight years later, a fire at Garnock Court, a block of flats in Irvine, Scotland, covered in cladding similar to that in Knowsley Court, led to a death. The BRE report into the fire did not even mention the cladding. A Commons select committee investigating Garnock Court recommended that all cladding systems be required to be “entirely non-combustible” or, at least, “proven through full-scale testing not to pose an unacceptable level of risk”. It added ominously: “We do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks.” The then-Labour government ignored the recommendation by introducing a new testing regime but still maintaining approval for the use of Class 0 material – a loophole that allowed companies to continue using combustible cladding.
A series of fires in other newly clad buildings followed, the most serious of which, before Grenfell, was at Lakanal House, in south London, in 2009, in which six people died. The government refused to make public its report into the fire, so as to “avoid giving the impression that we believe all buildings of this construction are inherently unsafe”.
At the coroner’s inquest, it was revealed that Southwark council had carried out no fire safety checks at Lakanal or any other residential block, even though it had done so for buildings in which its own staff worked. The coroner’s recommendation for the government to review building guidance on cladding was, once more, ignored.
Again, a Commons select committee, under the chairmanship of the late David Amess, took up the case, pressing the government to learn the lessons of Lakanal. Again, they were contemptuously ignored by a succession of ministers. “Should a major fire tragedy with loss of life occur… where the matters raised here were found to be contributory to the outcome, then the group would be bound to bring this to others’ attention,” Amess wrote in desperation to one minister, the Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams. He received no reply.
“The consistent pattern of inadequate investigation and suppression of reports from Knowsley to… Lakanal goes beyond mere accident and involves government collusion,” Barwise observed. The actions of post-2010 administrations, with their mania for deregulation, obsession with cost-cutting and unbridled celebration of the profit motive, led government to “becoming the junior partner in the relationship” with the construction industry, thereby “permitting industry’s exploitation of the regulations”.
And exploit it they did, scamming tests and selling materials they knew could kill. Since the Grenfell fire, the four biggest construction companies involved in the cladding disaster have collectively posted profits of £4.9bn, while their chief executives have pocketed nearly £50m in pay and perks.
“Within the construction industry,” Beer told the inquiry, “there was a race to the bottom, with profits being prioritised over safety.” What he didn’t mention was the role of the government in permitting this. The state has, in recent decades, deliberately outsourced authority and power to independent organisations and private corporations, hollowing itself out, and refusing to take seriously its responsibility to the public. Even now, the government’s failure to meet the challenge of the cladding scandal, forcing individual leaseholders to face the ruinous consequences themselves, reveals how little attitudes have changed at the top.
The collusion of politicians, regulators and corporations in permitting practices they knew were unsafe and could lead to mass death is one of the major scandals of our time. If only it would receive as much attention, and cause as much political turmoil, as a Christmas party at No 10.
As for remedies, can’t the victims sue the private companies for gargantuan sums of money? The asbestos industry was destroyed by this, and tobacco companies fined a quarter of a trillion dollars. Yes, that’s trillion. I could understand the government exempting itself from liability, but if a private company’s lying causes completely foreseeable deaths, surely it’s liable for basically everything, plus punitive damages and court costs. It would be ironic for Celotex, as its earlier namesake was eviscerated by asbestos lawsuits in the US.