Why did Grenfell Happen? It’s probably simple, and complicated.

[Now with very important comment about the privatised Building Research Establishment – see below]

There are two answers to the above question – one simple and one much more complex. We don’t know the full answers to either yet, but we know more or less what the questions and areas of uncertainty are.

The first answer is the simple, proximate, one: what caused the fire, how did it spread so quickly, why were more people not rescued or able to escape?

We don’t know the answers to any of these things fully yet but it seems a single localized incident in one flat started the fire, it spread rapidly mainly because it went outside and up the building, going back in to the flats as it did.

The most likely culprit is the weather-proof cladding. Aluminium covered (which melts at 600C, the temperature of the average house fire) and filled with flammable insulation it clearly burnt and helped spread the fire.

The fact that apparently hundreds of tall buildings in the UK may have the same cladding as Grenfell is obviously a potentially huge danger if it was the cladding that was the main cause of turning a minor fire into a major disaster.

Why it also seemed to spread so ferociously inside the building is not at all clear, nor is it clear if an internal sprinkler system would have made any difference?

Why so many people were trapped is also unknown at this point. Was it because they obeyed the instruction to remain in the flats with the doors shut or were they unable to get out? Did the escape routes, that are supposed to be protected, fail?

All of these are questions of fact. We may never know the answers to all of them – especially the last one – because some of the most important witnesses are dead. But we can know the answers to most, and fairly quickly.

Given both the anger of survivors and others and the limitations of various investigatory authorities I have suggested an independent, expert, and rapid inquiry like an Air Accident Investigation Branch one would be the best option.

The Police are focused, rightly, on criminal liability that will never be the whole story. The Fire Service, despite the heroism and professionalism of its officers has questions to answer about inspection and advice (the ‘stay in your flat’ instruction). The Local Authority is the landlord. It clearly needs something like the AAIB to carry out a fast, expert, investigation into the immediate facts.

Who was responsible?

The second set of issues, and answers, are likely to be far more complex. Far too many people, on all sides of politics and none, are rushing to blame one simple scapegoat.

For some on the left its “neoliberalism” or “the Tories” – as if we hadn’t had both Labour and Tory governments over the five decades since Grenfell Tower was planned and built, long before so-called ‘neo-liberalism was a twinkle in Margaret Thatcher’s eye (it was completed in 1974).

On the left focus has also been on the Tories running Kensington and Chelsea, Tory austerity and deregulation, contracting out, and the arms-length ‘Tenants Management Organisation’ (K&CTMO) – although the latter policy was pushed hard by New Labour.

Some on the left are saying this was a case of the ‘neglected poor’ where standards were relaxed or dodged to save money and it ‘wouldn’t happen in a rich tower block’. We don’t know that yet – it may be true. But it may also be that some very expensive tower blocks harbor just the same risks. That’s another reason not to rush to judgment on the basic facts.

On the right some of the most bizarre ‘explanations’ have been advanced: that the external cladding was due to “EU bureaucracy” (it wasn’t) or the ‘green’ policies of the previous Labour Government (despite the fact the cladding was installed long after Labour had left office).

Now the genuine anger of some survivors and residents is being denounced as “Socialist Worker middle class twats” (Iain Martin, The Times). It is true there were some Socialist Worker placards at the demonstrations, but the SWP always manage to hand some out. There’s no evidence the majority of protestors weren’t local. On the other hand, the parasitic Trots of the SWP are being despicable and harming the genuine cause of the survivors.

The reality is the truth of who was responsible for Grenfell Tower is going to turn out to be complex.

Politically it will almost certainly include decisions by politicians at all levels of government and on all sides.

The system of regulation – building and fire prevention standards – for which politicians are responsible, is a clear focus for attention. The decision of central government to abandon most of its central role is dubious. Local authorities have neither the resources nor expertise to judge things like the safety of materials.

The system of management of social housing – arms-length and often unaccountable – is also suspect. How much has it created an unaccountable system in which neither voters nor tenants are listened to?

Architecturally it will not turn out to be the idea of tower blocks per se – they can stand, not be burnt down and be pleasant places to live or they wouldn’t sell apartments for, in some cases, millions. But it may turn out that there has been false optimism amongst architects about how easy it is to protect them and their occupants from fire.

This may also relate to a greater culture of complacency about fire in general? We have seen a dramatic reduction in house fires in recent decades, mainly due to preventative regulations (especially on materials), fire inspections and public awareness campaigns (e.g. TV adverts about the need for smoke alarms).

Has this created a social-cultural ‘group think’ mentality? Like all too many disasters in the past it may turn out that a major contributing factor was simply too many people thinking across the public and private spheres thinking “that couldn’t happen any more”?

All of the above suggests a two stage investigation: the first to establish the immediate facts (and what implications that might have for safety of other tower blocks) and the second to find out who was responsible for allowing these circumstances to happen?

5 thoughts on “Why did Grenfell Happen? It’s probably simple, and complicated.

  1. On the issue of complacency about fire, one of the emerging narratives is that government has been ignoring experts and commentators warning of the risk, However the role of experts is more equivocal, and in my view also very worrying.
    The privatised Building Research Establishment (BRE) has an ongoing contract with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to investigate ‘Real Fires’. Just last year in 2016 BRE published two reports on External Fire Spread.
    Part 1 was Background research. Here’s their conclusion at that stage. “As mentioned, BRE Global, through the contract with DCLG, investigate fires that may have implications for Building Regulations. With the exception of one or two unfortunate but rare cases, there is currently no evidence from these investigations to suggest that the current recommendations, to limit vertical fire spread up the exterior of high-rise buildings, are failing in their purpose.”
    Part 2 was on Experimental research. The aim of this research was to carry out three experiments to assess the performance of different external façades including non-fire rated double glazing, when exposed to a fire from below, representative of the external face of some buildings to inform DCLG Building Regulations and Standards Division.
    The three experiments used different cladding materials.The report noted that BRE Global was not able to source an off-the-shelf fire resisting external board. The question in my mind is why no-one twigged that if there were no off the shelf fire resisting boards then the chances are that most cladding wouldn’t have been fire resisting.
    None of the three experiments used cladding with any insulation, let alone combustible polymer foam. So the experiments were chosen to avoid the most combustible materials.
    In all three experiments the double-glazing panels failed, with both panes of glass (i.e. full thickness of a double-glazed panel) falling out of the frame allowing flames through to the back of the test rig. This is equivalent to the windows melting and letting the flames in. As they put it “Failures in glazing, such as those which occurred during these experiments, provide a potential route for external fire spread from one flat to another regardless of the design of the external façade.”
    Did they recognise that there was a problem? No! They concluded “Overall, the findings from this research show that there is a clear and demonstrable need to ensure that buildings are designed and constructed so that the fire spread across the external surface and within the external façade is inhibited, as required by the Building Regulations. There is adequate guidance available in the public domain to allow this to be achieved.”
    It is obvious now that the BRE experts advising the government got it badly wrong. They systematically downplayed the extent of the risk and failed to test the highly combustible insulating materials that were being used in cladding systems. Their final observation – that there is adequate guidance available in the public domain – is extraordinarily complacent.

    The BRE reports are here.
    https://www.bre.co.uk/…/FI—External-Fire-Spread-Part-1.pdf
    https://www.bre.co.uk/…/FI—External-Fire-Spread-Part-2.pdf

  2. Hi Colin

    Great article but on a governance related matter- the role of officers and Councillors in the growing numbers of arms length delivery instruments is an intrinsic conflict and needs a full review.

    Councillors and Officers are getting multiple directorships even paid, but as Directors they cannot represent the Council, yet the assumption is they do. It is a significant dilemma.

    City of York Council has had a Public interest report held against them because it’s S151 Director Floyd took performance related pay as Director of a Council owned company. He didn’t put this on his declaration of interests, nor did he put it in the accounts (as he was required by law) nor did he declare in any meetings that he was a Director, in effect wearing two hats.

    This public interest report was barely mentioned if at all in local government or national media, which was very disappointing considering many local authorities are likely to have similar governance conflicts

    Those involved with governance will see the significant failings of the S151- but beyond that there are multiple broader governance issues that have yet to be addressed by the broader local government community. Some of theses issues will I expect be seen in this tragedy.

    http://www.psaa.co.uk/2016/02/16247/

    Gwen Swinburn

  3. Grenfell’s Reynobond PE cladding does not contain insulation. The PE core is for structural strength. The insulation was in the Celotex RS5000 boards. Both pass surface tests, and are Class 0 re 12.6 of Approved Document B. Both fail ‘limited combustibilty’ tests and so are EN 13501-1 Class B and not the Class A2 required for Option 1 in the BCA Guidance. Looks it is this which the BRE is testing for quite rightly. All plastic products will fail these tests. One is a 750° C furnace test, and one is a calorific test. Explained to the best of my limited ability at http://theriveroflife.com/2017/06/23/grenfell-tower-was-the-cladding-legal-or-not-part-1/

    Andrew

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