World

Assigning Blame for London’s Tower Inferno

Fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower apartment block, June 14, 2017. (Reuters photo: Toby Melville)
Was it corporate greed or bungling bureaucracy that made the building into a fire trap?

I was in London last week and woke up to horrifying pictures of the inferno that engulfed the Grenfell Tower public housing project in London. They were among the most unsettling images I’ve seen since I watched the World Trade Center collapse from my office building just across the street on 9/11.

The fact that the dozens of victims were among the most vulnerable members of society has supercharged the politicization of the tragedy. “I’ve never seen people and politicians move from shock to anger so quickly,” former UKIP leader Nigel Farage told me Friday night before he gave a speech in North Carolina.

Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour-party leader, quickly blamed budget cuts by Conservative governments, saying that they contributed to the tragedy.

The Daily Mirror newspaper ran the one-word headline “Criminal” and said that the tragedy is a “diabolical failing” that “shames our nation.”

Other critics are thundering about “corporate greed,” noting that for only about $6,400 more, a 2016 refurbishment of the building could have been completed using fire-resistant cladding rather than a cheaper kind that, according to fire-safety expert Arnold Turling, acted as a “wind tunnel” fanning the flames and allowing them to spread to upper floors.

There is certainly enough blame to go around. But before Grenfell Tower becomes etched in the public consciousness as the 21st-century equivalent of New York City’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, let’s highlight some facts that don’t fit into the “corporate greed” narrative.

Grenfell Tower was owned by the local council, which in turn had turned over management to the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Company, a not-for-profit that is managed by a board of directors consisting of eight elected tenants, four council members, and three independent members.

“Social housing” in Britain — what we call public housing in the U.S. — has turned into areas of deprivation and neglect. Although many tenants have bought their units under plans initiated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, many current tenants are poor, recent immigrants without the wherewithal to buy their units.

It was the council that made the key decisions about the controversial retrofit of the building.

It was the council that made the key decisions about the controversial retrofit of the building.

The contract to improve insulation and replace heating and water systems in the tower was supposed to be carried out by building firm Leadbitter, but the contractor said it could not do the work for less than £11.27 million ($14.4 million), £1.6 million ($2 million) above the council’s budget. So the management company decided to put the contract out for bid again. A firm called Rydon proved willing to do the same work that Leadbitter had been asked to do, for 22 percent less money. Nicholas Paget-Brown, a Conservative member of the local council, said no thought had been given to retrofitting the apartments with sprinklers:

There was not a collective view that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers because that would have delayed and made the refurbishment of the block more disruptive. . . . Many residents felt that we needed to get on with the installation of new hot water systems, new boilers and that trying to retrofit more would delay the building and that sprinklers aren’t the answer.

The eventual work was done by eight contractors and subcontractors, making oversight difficult. Residents complained about poor workmanship and boilers installed near to fuse boxes. A survey of tenants found 90 percent dissatisfied with the way the retrofit was done.

The retrofit of Grenfell Tower may have included the controversial cladding in part to meet dubious new environmental standards.

Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper had an article Friday that asked “three lethal questions” about the fire. Among them was “Were green targets to blame for the fire tragedy?” The article noted:

Stringent government targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions were behind the decision to clad the Grenfell Tower, official documents show.

The local council, Kensington and Chelsea, said “the energy efficiency refurbishment” of the tower last year was a key part of plans to cut carbon emissions.

And the document outlining the rationale for overhauling the building, drawn up in 2012, said that “improving the insulation levels of the walls, roof, and windows is the top priority of this refurbishment.”

Kensington and Chelsea, in common with all local councils in the UK, has been under huge pressure to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced in the borough.

Regardless of who or what is to blame for the tragedy, the political repercussions of the tragedy will be enormous. As Nelson Fraser writes in the Daily Telegraph:

The Grenfell Tower disaster is a powerful metaphor for the inequality that Mr Corbyn talks about so regularly and it would be tragic if Labour asks the questions while the Tories — panicked and effectively leaderless — hide behind an inquiry.

It was only a decade ago that then–Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said that his party was the natural ally of the poor, and it should help them battle unresponsive bureaucracy. It was only two years ago that then–education secretary Michael Gove demanded that the Conservative party become “warriors for the dispossessed.” That either hasn’t happened, or, if it has, it’s invisible to the public. Theresa May and the Tories got the shock of their political lives just this month when they barely were returned to power as a minority government. None of this suggests that they should buckle under to the Labour party’s class warfare. But they are going to have to move quickly to show they have plans to clean up the bureaucracy that led to the Grenfell Tower inferno or they risk being cast as the ultimate villain of the tragedy.

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