Grenfell 5 years later, don’t keep calm and carry on: Part 1
The crime was global news and so was broadcast live across the world. The fire’s spread was unprecedented in one crucial way: it spread up, consuming floors in mere minutes and penetrating flats through PVC windows. That had happened before, in Britain and abroad. But then spread around and down, in ways that confounded fire officers. The polyethylene cored cladding covered the tower, even at its very top, where the “crown” of the building also had cladding cassettes bent to shape.
They dripped petrol down the building, allowing the fire to consume concrete and kill 71 people in a night, a further death months later brings the count to 72. Of those who died 18 were children, 41 % of those who died suffered with a disability. Grenfell is an open wound in British society, despite the politics of sedation.
Unlike much of the world, the UK does not have sprinklers, communal alarm systems nor a second means of escape. Those housed upon high were given a death sentence at Grenfell. No one had plans for their evacuation.
''How buildings are constructed is of upmost importance, as the Ronan Point disaster showed the country. If substandard methods of construction are used, disaster is bound to follow. Likewise when you adorn buildings with flammable materials, you should expect fire. Yet, despite deregulation leading to a fundamental break with the theory of compartmentation, the country is told to stay put.''
Across the country, many suffer the same contempt, indifference and neglect that killed five years ago and not enough change has been made to be sure that the next disaster is not simply in the post.
Grenfell is merely one example of mass death through malfeasance and corruption, but it is not the first and nor is it the last. A latent, but omnipresent threat of death is baked into modern statecraft.
When the idea of high rise flats first came to Britain, they were fiercely opposed. Even when they were accepted as a solution to the housing crisis, it was held they should not house children nor the disabled. The preference was for villages, to build low and to build out. But as land got more expensive and post-war visions became stratified by class and race, the high-rises were born. They were built with concrete, with a theory holding that the techniques of building would prevent fire from spreading long enough that the fire service could extinguish the blaze.
This theory of compartmentation creates the conditions by which people “stay put” - they stay in their home, whether it is above or below the fire, on the assumption that the fire could be put out.
It is only a theory because in practice, compartmentation is utterly dependent upon the materials used. Any breach of conditions could lead to either the spread of fire or smoke, with catastrophic results.
How buildings are constructed is of upmost importance, as the Ronan Point disaster showed the country. If substandard methods of construction are used, disaster is bound to follow. Likewise when you adorn buildings with flammable materials, you should expect fire. Yet, despite deregulation leading to a fundamental break with the theory of compartmentation, the country is told to stay put.
The fire service could not put the fire at Grenfell out, not before it killed. Not before it engulfed the building, burning everything around the concrete and all that was unsafe. All of the appendages added to the building in a redevelopment project that fattened the wallets of Rydon and burned holes in families from across the world.
The first phase report makes clear that a considerable amount of the lives that were lost on the night happened in the first few hours of the disaster, while the fire brigade were still operating on the assumption that the fire was external and had not penetrated flats.
Their logic defied empirical reason, for the cameras and people saw what was patently obvious - the inferno was such that people had to get out. It took hours for the fire service to begin to tell people to leave. Many died because they were wrongly advised. There was no plan B. There was no consideration of the worst case scenario.
We live in times where disasters are not tragedies to learn from and prevent, but stops that are shot past on a runaway train.
It is a stark warning of a more perilous future if we let the market’s dominion over the state extend any further. Grenfell properly understood is a need for a push back. For regulation. For renationalisation of regulatory bodies like the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and an understanding of politics separated from business like the Church is from the executive.
If the liberal philosophy means anything, its covenant with the people demands it stand up to business. The populist message is simple: people before profit. Such a command does not just protect those in social housing, but leaseholders too.
The failure of progressive politicians to fight in the wake of Grenfell will haunt us for a generation. They paid lip service to concessions, while fiercely defending the status quo. Many now call for the retrofitting of insulation as part of the ecological movement to control carbon emissions. “Insulate Britain” as a political command could see further profits for the killer companies. Without simultaneous demands for fire safety, the likes of Kingspan and Celotex - the corporate bodies who doctored the tests and changed their formulas to get their substandard and highly combustible materials to market- will continue to profit from their criminal behaviour.
The scale of the fire safety crisis has led the government to use anti-terror legislation to prevent public knowledge of the number of buildings and their locations. That was not the only anti-terror tool used in the wake of the fire. Fear of public disorder was so high, that police and government used anti-terror methods to sedate and control.
Stay put was not just the policy that killed on the night, it is the command that still is communicated by their state and its agents. Keep calm and carry on while industry and capital ride roughshod over your rights.
Daniel Renwick is a writer and videographer who has worked closely with the Grenfell community in the last five years. He has co-authored the forthcoming book Squalor with Robbie Shilliam, due for release in November and made the documentary Failed By the State - the struggle in the shadow of Grenfell, amongst other publications.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.