CHRISTO­PHER BOOKER THE LAST WORD

Pour­ing scorn on those who made a Gren­fell ef­figy ig­nores the true scan­dal of the tragedy

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Back Page -

Ear­lier this month, quite a scan­dal erupted over those six men who were ar­rested for want­ing to put a card­board ef­figy of Gren­fell Tower on a Guy Fawkes bon­fire. Their ac­tions were de­scribed by Theresa May as “to­tally un­ac­cept­able”. But per­haps they might have turned our at­ten­tion back to the real scan­dal of the Gren­fell In­quiry, now in its sixth month.

The chief pur­pose of this in­quiry should have been to pin­point the root cause of the blaze, to en­sure that such a dread­ful tragedy never hap­pens again. In fact, scarcely had the dis­as­ter oc­curred in June 2017 than some of us were al­ready try­ing to ex­plain that the real rea­son that flames raced up the build­ing with such ter­ri­fy­ing speed lay not with its ex­ter­nal alu­minium “cladding”, as many were sug­gest­ing, but with the highly flammable plas­tic foam in­su­la­tion be­hind it.

As tech­ni­cal tests af­ter pre­vi­ous sim­i­lar fires had shown, once the in­su­la­tion had ig­nited, a gap between it and the walls of the build­ing would cre­ate a “chim­ney ef­fect”, send­ing the flames roar­ing up the tower within min­utes.

This had been noted by a com­mit­tee of MPS as far back as 1999, when they were look­ing into an ear­lier tower block tragedy. They rec­om­mended that the Build­ings Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory should de­vise a proper fire safety test, based not on test­ing all the ma­te­ri­als used in re­fur­bish­ing tower blocks in­di­vid­u­ally, but on how they would be­have when com­bined in situ. What emerged was a new British Stan­dard: BS8414.

But, in 2002, the EU passed new laws that, thanks to its ob­ses­sion with the need to com­bat cli­mate change, made the bet­ter in­su­la­tion of build­ings, con­sid­ered re­spon­si­ble for 40 per cent of all CO emis­sions, the top pri­or­ity.

2 Th­ese over­ruled the use of the new UK safety stan­dard, leav­ing BS8414 as a vol­un­tary op­tion – hence the in­tro­duc­tion of new forms of cheaper plas­tic foam in­su­la­tion, which were to be used in thou­sands of tower blocks, in­clud­ing, in 2014, Gren­fell Tower.

When the Gren­fell in­quiry even­tu­ally got un­der way, how­ever, it de­cided that its first few months of hear­ings last sum­mer should be ded­i­cated not to look­ing at the cause of the fire but to in­ter­view­ing a long suc­ces­sion of wit­nesses on what had hap­pened af­ter the blaze had taken hold.

It heard lengthy tes­ti­mony from res­i­dents of the build­ing, ex­plain­ing how ter­ri­fy­ing it had been to live through the fire, a point al­ready not en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar, fol­lowed by more from the emer­gency ser­vices, such as the fire brigade and the po­lice, dis­cussing such is­sues as whether Gren­fell was suf­fi­ciently sup­plied with wa­ter sprin­klers that might have de­layed the fire’s spread af­ter it was lit. Only in No­vem­ber was it planned that the in­quiry would fi­nally fo­cus on what caused the spread of the fire in the first place – which should, all along, have been its cen­tral pur­pose.

Even now, af­ter months of hear­ings that have al­ready cost un­told mil­lions of pounds, with an army of lawyers on any­thing up to thou­sands of pounds a day, there is lit­tle sign of this hap­pen­ing. Might not this be con­sid­ered rather more wor­ry­ing than the an­tics of those idiots who wanted to put a card­board cut-out of the tower on their bon­fire?

De­spite the best ef­forts of gover­nor Jerry Brown of Cal­i­for­nia, and a gag­gle of Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties claim­ing that the state’s dis­as­trous wild­fires were caused by cli­mate change, the facts, as usual, show oth­er­wise.

Ex­perts have pointed out that the num­ber of homes the west­ern US built in places at risk of fire has risen from 6,700 in 1940 to 6.7 mil­lion to­day. Mil­lions more homes have been built in fire­vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas than were there in the days when peo­ple were more sen­si­ble about where they chose to live.

In ad­di­tion, new “green” reg­u­la­tions have out­lawed the cre­ation of fire­breaks, re­mov­ing un­der­brush and all the old man­age­ment prac­tices de­signed to stop fires spread­ing. A graph from the neigh­bour­ing Ore­gon fire de­part­ment shows that there has been no over­all up­ward trend in for­est fires, which reached their peak back in the Thir­ties, then fell dra­mat­i­cally. Only this year, as in Cal­i­for­nia, have they again risen to record lev­els.

In Lon­don, mean­while, a bunch of fa­nat­i­cal gree­nies can close Thames bridges to traf­fic to protest against cli­mate change, while all over France traf­fic is brought to a halt by driv­ers an­grily protest­ing against Pres­i­dent Macron’s new “car­bon taxes”. What­ever we like to think, the Ros­b­ifs are not al­ways more sen­si­ble than our French neigh­bours.

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