To conceive of the time that has passed since the Grenfell fire is utterly nauseating. The last half-decade has been spent in a daze. For the community affected, which is of national proportions due to the scale of the fire safety scandal, the nightmare is ongoing. The government is fighting a war of attrition. It is banking on the militants of change burning out. But the fire is theirs and its consequences they must bear. So the embers still burn.
Summerhouse, Knowsley Heights, Garnock Court, Lakanal House – these were the fires that foretold the disaster. We now know just how much the government knew about the risks of cladding – and how governments, both Labour and Conservative, and the civil servants who served them aided and abetted industry to shirk responsibilities and threaten life. This is what happens in a market state, when services are tendered for lucrative contracts and duties dismissed as ‘not economically viable’.
As Brian Martin, the expert without qualifications who had such a profound impact on regulation in Britain, put it, he did not wish to ‘distort the market’ by designating what was safe and unsafe. Mass death followed. The government was warned at various times. It chose to censor core information and protect the interests of cladding and insulation manufacturers, whose economic interests trumped the right to life for the British public.
Grenfell as it stands is not followed by a full stop, but a comma. The other criminal disasters are coming. Covid was one, but as the bereaved campaigning for justice for their lost loved ones know only too well, the other disasters are in the post because we are being governed by charlatans.
They mockingly represent us, donning high-vis jackets and eating fish and chips, while serving the highest bidder. Such ‘politics’ only opens us all up for another catastrophe.
Gambling with lives
We need a government willing to regulate and stand up to these fraudsters, who Sam Stein QC reminded the public inquiry are little more than ‘crooks and killers’. But in order to do this we need a politics that is not servile to industry and finance, which is to say we need root and branch change.
On the second anniversary of the fire, rapper and activist Lowkey poignantly told the government, ‘Regulate them, or we will regulate you.’ Yet the killers walk free and continue to gamble with lives for tidy profits. So we must begin the difficult task of regulating the government and industry from the ground up.
We now have a state that acts as a conduit for international capital and finance
It is not hyperbolic to call those responsible for the fire killers. Arconic predicted the death toll, knowing it was risking 70-plus deaths in high-rises by selling its combustible ACM cladding, with its polyethylene core that became a fuel to the fire almost immediately.
In 2001, the privatised BRE research and standards group tested the various cladding systems presenting risk to life. The most catastrophic failure was of the ACM panelling, which within six minutes of a fire test starting had reached temperatures off the scale and the test had to be ended for the safety of those in the room.
Remarkably, this did not stop the material being used on high-rises. The BRE failed to report the scale of the failure, and its privatised role meant it ring-fenced industry’s interests, not the public’s. ACM was still to be used in Britain because regulating it would have severely restricted the market.
The same logic lets HPL cladding remain an option for developers even after Lakanal House, where it contributed to the rapid spread of fire.
This was not the only regulatory failure in support of killer companies. Both Kingspan and Celotex, whose insulation lay behind Arconic’s cladding cassettes, which also accelerated the fire at Grenfell, falsified their tests, using materials to achieve a higher status in the testing regime, or changing the formula after testing. An open market meant Britain became a dumping ground for materials deemed too dangerous by European standards.
Ambiguities and elastic language were stretched to breaking point. The New Labour government had the chance to harmonise with the EU’s regulations but didn’t. Its leading lights can cry about leaving the EU, but their logic mirrors Rees-Mogg and his chums, who have severed ties with the EU to protect their offshore empire.
Grenfell happened because of deregulation, yet five years after the disaster, robust regulation remains ethereal. After the Marchioness pleasure cruise disaster, lifeguardstations were created on the Thames; the stations account for every time they go out and can say with certainty that their actions have saved lives. After Hillsborough, standing terraces and internal ‘cage fencing’ at football grounds came to an end. British football changed because of that fateful day, but unfortunately the country didn’t.
What should have been learned from the disasters of yesteryear has been lost. In place of the state as a watchkeeper, maintaining the conditions for social reproduction in a social contract, we now have a state that acts as a conduit for international capital and finance to make a profit from every facet of everyday life.
Such conditions mean exorbitant costs are paid by leaseholders on waking watches, security guards employed to spot and act to prevent fires. Various fires have attested to the uselessness of such policies, but it’s either that or change the ‘stay put’ policies, which remain an article of faith for government, the building industry and fire service.
In place of the state as a watchkeeper, we have the state as a conduit for international capital
The performance-based system is failing, yet it also remains in place, as do the conditions that bred disaster. The structural conditions have, in fact, worsened. Those vulnerable to death because of organised abandonment and negligence has widened in scope to include the people who bought into the property markets, who remain vulnerable to crippling costs and live with the ever-present threat of an inferno that defies the stay put policy, which remains in the vast majority of high rises, even with severe fire safety issues.
The fear we all live with is that more people will have to pay with their lives as we battle for rights in a market state. The recent overtures made by Michael Gove to ‘polluter pays’ politics strike a populist tone, but the proof is in the pudding. Far too many live in penury, and with the threat of death, to be used as a political football.
In this game, there are no easy victories, and in the spirit of Amilcar Cabral, we should not claim any. The best we can do is maintain the hypervigilance of the traumatised. Any basic measure of recovery would tell you that true recovery can only begin when the threats have diminished. The fallacy of recovery to a time-scale, while the killers continue to take exorbitant profits and form policy, is a sick joke.
A dream deferred
Across the country, we are still building upwards, with colossal towers being erected in many an urban landscape. Yet many of these buildings lack basic fire safety features and very few have second means of escape. The unfortunate reality is that in this deregulated mess, houses are being jerry-built, thrown up with substandard materials and craftsmanship. Such logic bred Grenfell.
It’s high time regulating the building industry became a political priority. If this all reads as a bleak national picture, maybe we look to the local for hope. Unfortunately, despite the decisions that bred the fire, the callous indifference in the wake of the fire and the failure of the state at a national and local level, the status quo remains in place.
The change that felt imminent is now a dream deferred. A dream of a fairer Britain, of radical change to nail down a ‘never again’ moment has faded and died. But as Langston Hughes asked us all, what happens to the dream that doesn’t come to fruition?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?