Searching questions need to be asked about the Grenfell Fire

Dr Howard Davis, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Whether in the form of a public inquiry, as announced by Theresa May on June 15th, or through an inquest, offering the possibilities of a narrative verdict by a jury, questions following the Grenfell Fire need to be searching and wide ranging. Limited inquiries often neglect broader circumstances within which conditions for disaster develop. There are obvious incentives for governments to restrict terms of reference after tragedies like this. Exploration of social, economic and political contexts within which disasters ‘incubate’ may threaten established ways of seeing and doing things. Disasters in this sense often challenge authorities, whose primary task should be to keep us safe.

‘Questions need to be answered’ has, and usually does become, the instant ‘go-to’ mantra. And questions certainly do need to be answered about this fire’s extraordinary spread. It became clear immediately that external cladding was not only flammable but had been attached to the building so as to create a void behind it. It was also quickly confirmed that recent renovation did not include retrofitting sprinklers and that there was no effective alarm.

But we need to know much more than this. We also need to understand what was, or what should have been known or suspected, about the dangerousness of materials, design and practices. As Niall Howson of the Association of Fire Protection told the BBC yesterday, fires involving cladding on high rise buildings are not uncommon worldwide. In light of this, why were regulations not up to date, why did the combination of regulation, renovation, oversight and inspection fail? It will not be enough to suggest that most related cases to date happen to have occurred outside the UK and so were unknown. More urgently than an inquest or public inquiry might be able to address, we need to know the implications of design or material failures for emergency procedures that direct people to stay in their apartments rather than evacuate. We also need to imaginatively project the safety implications of these failures onto many other potential scenarios.

One grave suspicion of course, is that as safe materials, proper practices, resources, training, and oversight systems do not come cheap, years of cost-cutting, ‘business friendly’ regulatory adjustment and less regular inspection have achieved a terrible conjuncture in this conflagration. For this possibility to be examined we also need to know how changes in the control and management of social housing have shifted, dispersed or blurred responsibilities for safety. National and Local Government have long ‘incentivised’ a shift of housing from local authority control. One local resident complained after the disaster of a “whole chain of organisations who have been subcontracted in an attempt at plausible deniability”. Fundamentally, an inquiry or inquest must get to grips with deep political currents. Ultimately, it must force governments to reverse and undo political, financial and economic values and practices that drive safety negligence. Building bonfires of regulations might suit the business classes but their cost, as we see before us, can be devastating.

Any inquest or inquiry should also include the humanitarian response. Serious concerns have already been voiced about the local authority’s performance. To be clear, there will be important aspects of humanitarian work that will not be visible from the outside. Rehousing people and supporting the bereaved will not be going on in full public view. But these concerns are serious and should be addressed. Importantly, questions here should reflect not just on performance during the incident but also on pre-incident preparation and resourcing. Poor or underfunded organisations do not magically improve when crisis strikes. The understandable temptation in austere times is to see preparation for disasters that may never happen as an unaffordable luxury. If this was the case in a borough as wealthy as Kensington and Chelsea it will raise a whole set of wider questions.

Acute disasters are followed by long and painful processes of ‘sense-making’, both individual and social. At the social level it comprises criminal investigations, inquests, inquiries, political and public debate. Whether what will eventually come to pass as ‘justice’ meets public satisfaction remains to be seen. That is a different issue to what I am discussing here, that is, establishing truth. But even for truth, the questions that need to be addressed strike to the heart of Britain today. Recent research estimating a 30,000 annual austerity ‘excess death’ rate, speaks of a society where some lives matter far more than others and where some matter not at all. The very strong suspicion is gathering that the Grenfell Fire will come to be seen in precisely this light.

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