The government’s inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London, on June 2017, in which 72 people died, has resumed. The inquiry has been agonising for the survivors and bereaved.
Fire safety problems are much wider than previously thought. Trade publication Inside Housing concluded: “Nobody knows how many are caught, but the figure will undoubtedly reach into the millions… In the final analysis, almost everyone who lives in a high or medium-rise building may be affected by this crisis in some way.”
The much-delayed inquiry was set up by former Tory prime minister Theresa May to kick the can down the road at a time of mounting anger over the disaster. It started by looking at the firefighters’ response, rather than on the nature and causes of the fire.
Many pointed out this was illogical because the starting point would be what sort problems the firefighters faced. The corporate media seized on the first phase as an opportunity for critical publicity on the role of firefighters.
More recent hearings have revealed the cynical profit-seeking culture in the construction industry in lurid detail. But they have received much less coverage. Even the right wing commentator, Dominic Lawson, in the Sunday Times, was moved to comment: “It turns out that the depravity, at a corporate level, was worse even than we could have imagined.”
The inquiry heard how staff at Kingspan – a company that made some of the combustible material used on Grenfell Tower – joked in 2016 about claims that their product was safe: “All lies mate… all we do is lie in here.” QC Richard Millett was right to suggest it was “a pithy summary of Kingspan’s culture at the time”.
In 2009, Kingspan persuaded the local Tory council that the K15 plastic foam insulation used on Grenfell was of “limited combustibility”. Kingspan’s technical manager boasted: “We didn’t even have to get any real ale down him.”
Kingspan threatened to sue the national building control body when it raised doubts about K15. Just weeks after the fire, Kingspan engaged PR firms to lobby the government and set up rigged tests on non-combustible material.
The inquiry counsel commented: “Kingspan, even in… the face of an investigation into fire safety after Grenfell, was doing its best to ensure that the science was secretly perverted for financial gain. That has been… Kingspan’s general approach for years. It’s still going on… Did you see the aftermath of the Grenfell fire as something of a commercial opportunity?”
Housing association Notting Hill Genesis is using Kingspan’s K15 on Zenith House in Colindale in Barnet in north London. Since December 2018, K15 is banned on buildings taller than 18 metres.
Zenith House is 50 metres tall, but K15 is permitted because the work is deemed ‘repairs’ rather than ‘replacement’! “Even if they are right within the letter of the law, it still feels like they are cutting corners”, said one resident.
Residents sounded the alarm when the cladding was spotted stacked in the car park. It was later removed following a request from the London Fire Brigade. The fact the decision to use K15 was taken by a ‘not for profit’ housing association shows the importance of organising in groups such as the Unite union housing workers-initiated Social Housing Action Campaign.
Another key manufacturer involved, Celotex, falsified fire test results on its RS5000 insulation boards by using fire retardants. Arconic, the US-based manufacturer of the now-banned ACM PE cladding panels, knew its product was highly flammable and yet knowingly promoted its sale, taking advantage of the UK’s weaker regulatory regime.
Arconic’s former UK sales manager, Deborah French, is expected to appear before the resumed inquiry after initially refusing to attend.
A major Arconic shareholder donated nearly £25,000 to Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. Karim Mussilhy, of the survivors’ group Grenfell United, has called on the prime minister to return the money.
“How can we trust this government to deliver truth, justice and change when they themselves, including the prime minister, take donations from one of Arconic’s major shareholders. Right now, Arconic is getting away with not cooperating fully with the inquiry and the government appears not to be doing enough. Is this cosy relationship one of the reasons?”
And the key refurbishment companies – project managers Rydon, architects Studio E, and cladding designers Harley – do not appear to have given any serious consideration of fire safety in the selection and installation of the materials used to clad the tower.
Rydon is also the developer for the Canalside block on the Packington Estate in Islington, north London. After inspecting the building and finding faults, fire-safety experts said a ‘waking watch’ would be needed. But Rydon has refused to pick up the bill – the equivalent of over £1,500 a month for each flat.
Tory prime minister Boris Johnson promised to accept all recommendations from the first phase of the inquiry, but just four out of 46 have been fully implemented. In September 2020, the Tories rejected an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill, which sought to legislate for some of the recommendations – including requiring landlords to share design information with the local fire service, carry out regular inspections of flat doors and lifts, and ensure evacuation and fire-safety plans for residents.
As a minimum, tenants and resident organisations should demand that these are implemented by landlords. ‘Social landlords’ should be leading the way.
Since the 2017 Grenfell fire, more and more fire-safety problems have come to light. Massively profitable companies – which often give fat donations to the Tory party – are building sub-standard and unaffordable homes. On this basis, the government’s much-trumpeted plans for a building boom will not ‘build back better’.
While others suffer, the housebuilders are booming. Vistry group reports sales up 20%, and predicts bumper profits of £130 million.
In 2017, Chris Blythe, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building, called for the ‘nationalisation’ of the housing market and the creation of a ‘national housebuilding body’. “If we are educating people and looking after their health, does it not make sense that we should close the loop with good housing that promotes health and enables people to take advantage of our investment in their education?”
As well as pressing for full implementation of the findings of the inquiry, the workers’ movement should take up the call for nationalisation of the construction industry with minimum compensation based on proven need, and a planning process based on social need not profit, with full democratic input from local people. This could be the way to deliver a mass programme of much needed high-quality green council homes.
Leaseholders have been left with unmanageable bills and unsafe, unsaleable ‘shared ownership’ homes. Builders, housing associations and the government have left them to twist in the wind; the claim to be supporting people onto the ‘housing ladder’ has been revealed to be hollow. They support big capital, not individuals trying to house themselves.
A ‘shared owner’ in Southwark had his flat repossessed because he could not keep up with the bills imposed because of unsafe construction. He only ‘owned’ the lease on 25% of his flat and has therefore been forced to continue to pay huge bills to cover the rest of the flat. As it lacks a safety certificate it is all but unsaleable and Hyde Housing (his housing association) has refused to buy it back, even at a discount.
Some Tories have become increasingly concerned at the electoral impact of the government’s failure and have called for action. Following a recent vote in Parliament, it appears that there will be further proposals to help. But if these amount to loan schemes that place the ultimate costs on leaseholders, they will be inadequate.
There are unconfirmed reports now that the additional cladding funding will be £5 billion, leaving a £10 billion shortfall in relation to the most often-quoted estimate for the total cost in relation to towers.
This leaves aside the problem of risk in low-rise blocks. The fires in Barking, Bolton and Worcester Park were shocking reminders that the threat to life doesn’t stop when a block is less than 18 metres high.
Leaseholders groups including SHAC (Social Housing Action Campaign) will have to discuss organised non-payment of service charges and support for victims who have already lost homes.
The Socialist Party says:
- No establishment stitch-up – for an independent, public inquiry led by the local community and trade unions
- Make homes safe and bill the government – don’t make tenants pay for repairs that are not their fault
- Residents should be kept informed and take democratic decisions themselves
- Cuts to local government funding, and councils passing on cuts, must end
- For a mass council house building programme
- Rent caps, reductions and controls
- Nationalise construction under the democratic control of the working class