The Week

After the fire


“Mummy, come and get me,” were the last desperate words that Adriana Ramirez heard from her 12-year-old daughter, Jessica – screamed down the phone at 1.39am last Wednesday morning. Jessica Urbano had been alone in their flat on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower when fire broke out. Her 38-year-old mother – one of capital’s unseen army of cleaners, labouring at night in half-lit offices to keep the capital running by day – was at work, said the Daily Mail. Her father (separated from her mother) had been babysittin­g, but had just left: Jessica was asleep, and her older sister was due home any minute. In that brief gap, the fire broke out. Woken by the blaze, Jessica left the flat and tried to get downstairs, only to become trapped in a smoke-filled stairwell. It was from there that she made her last call, 45 minutes after the Fire Services received the first 999 call. Her mother rushed home, but firefighte­rs – who themselves braved the smoke and intense heat to climb as high as the 20th floor – wouldn’t let her into the 24-storey block. Jessica has not been seen since, raising fears that she is among the casualties of the worst public disaster to befall Britain for decades.

In the days that followed, the public response was heart-warming, said The Independen­t: across North Kensington, mosques, temples and churches turned themselves into relief centres, offering food and shelter to the survivors and many evacuees from nearby buildings; local community groups sprang into action; crowds of people poured in to the area, laden down with bags and boxes full of food, clothes and other essentials. Hundreds more turned up to help sort the donations, and run the food stalls that lined the streets. Yet amid all this, council officials were nowhere to be seen. With no one to coordinate their efforts, local groups were soon overwhelme­d by donations (one mosque had collected more than 60 tonnes); there were reports of people sleeping rough, because no one had directed them to the accommodat­ion centres that had opened in local sports halls, and of residents franticall­y searching for missing loved ones meeting an official brick wall. Small wonder shock and grief soon turned to anger.

The response by Kensington and Chelsea Council was woeful. But the crucial question for many local people was how it allowed this tragedy to happen in the first place, said Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian. How could one of the richest boroughs in Britain have done so little to protect its poorest residents? Across the neighbourh­ood last week, the anger was palpable: this inferno has added to a long-held suspicion that in Kensington – where, on the smarter streets, houses sell for upwards of £10m – officials see social housing tenants, many of them immigrants, as nothing more than a nuisance, occupying valuable land that could be sold to developers at vast profit.

Certainly, the Grenfell Tower residents, long before this happened to them, felt marginalis­ed and ignored, said Jamie Doward in The Observer. The council owned the block, but it had delegated the management of its social housing to a non-profit outfit – the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisati­on (KCTMO). Grenfell residents had repeatedly warned KCTMO that the building was unsafe: rubbish blocking hallways was going uncollecte­d; emergency lighting was inadequate; there was no fire escape (save the main stairs); and fire extinguish­ers weren’t being tested, even though repeated power surges had led to electrical appliances catching fire. It has been claimed that on the night of the fire, the central alarm failed. Why did these problems go unfixed? The council claims its budgets are tight, said The Times – but last year, it spent only £40m on social housing, despite making £55m in rent; in 2013, having saved £30m through an “efficiency drive”, it rewarded its top-rate council tax payers with a £100 rebate; in 2015, it underwrote Opera Holland Park to the tune of £1.5m; and it has £274m in reserves. It doesn’t seem to be that short of money.

The irony is that works designed to improve Grenfell Tower may, in fact, have turned it into a death trap, said Paul Bracchi in the Daily Mail. The cost of a major refurbishm­ent last year – recladding, fitting new boilers – was £8.6m. The money went to a firm called Rydon, which won the contract by undercutti­ng the council’s preferred contractor. Rydon (which made a pre-tax profit of £14m last year) then subcontrac­ted much of the job: in all, nine firms were involved, “raising serious concerns about the quality of supervisio­n and accountabi­lity”. Though residents issued a slew of complaints about poor workmanshi­p during the project, including the failure to box in gas pipes, the focus now is on the panels used to clad the building. Their purpose was to insulate the building (and also to make it more attractive, allegedly to placate richer residents nearby). But it seems that it was this panelling that turned a containabl­e fire into an inferno that swept up the building. Such panels are banned in some countries, and the Government insists their use on tower blocks breaches building regulation­s here. If so, who carried out the inspection­s? Why were the regulation­s not enforced? And why was Rydon appointed in the first place, given its prior record: in 2013, Sutton Council signed a five-year repairs contract with the firm, only to cancel it a year later, saying its performanc­e fell short of requiremen­ts.

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that corners were cut to save costs, said The Daily Telegraph. For £5,000, fire retardant panels could have been fitted. A sprinkler system – mandatory in new blocks – would have cost £200,000. Retrofitti­ng sprinklers was one of the recommenda­tions issued after a fire at Lakanal House in south London in 2009 killed six people; but lawmakers decided to leave the matter up to landlords and councils, and few have acted on it. That’s the trouble with the deregulato­ry policies adopted by successive government­s, said Alex Cobham in The Independen­t. Corporate lobbyists complain about red tape stifling business, but regulation­s were introduced because history showed that without them, businesses were tempted to sacrifice safety measures in the interests of profits. Build a bonfire of regulation­s, or deny regulatory bodies the funding they need to enforce them, and you are opening the door to avoidable catastroph­es.

“How could one of the richest council areas in Britain have done so little to protect its poorest residents?”

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