LONDON — Hundreds of people took part in a protest walk through west London Dec. 14 to mark 4 1/2 years since the massive fire at Grenfell Tower killed 72 people. The 24-story tower was wrapped in highly flammable cladding that went up in a fast-spreading fire. The building had broken fire alarms and no sprinkler system. A public inquiry that began in 2017 hasn’t been concluded.
“Millions of documents have been uncovered to tell us what we already knew,” Karim Mussilhy from Grenfell United, an organization of survivors and relatives of those who perished in the fire, told protesters. His uncle died in the blaze. “The system isn’t broken, it was built this way.”
The inferno was a disaster waiting to happen — as residents had warned since the refurbishment of the housing block by the council in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 2016.
“Only a catastrophic event,” Grenfell resident Edward Daffarn wrote that year, will “bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” Building management responded by threatening him with legal action.
Bosses at insulation company Kingspan sold the flammable material used in the refurbishment without a relevant fire test, and continued to do so elsewhere for three years after the inferno. When questioned about Kingspan’s approach to sales, technical manager Philip Heath wrote to friends that they had confused him “with someone who gives a damn.”
Grenfell United is calling for charges to be brought against those responsible. Placards carried at the protest highlighted the mountains of evidence about the culpability of successive governments and those involved in the management and refurbishment of the block. The Metropolitan Police have said they will not press any charges until the inquiry is over.
Just a week before the protest, the government apologized for “past failures” in overseeing building safety. The truth is these “failures” span decades.
Over the next five months the inquiry will examine government decisions going back at least to 1997. The Labour Party, when last in government, excluded some “common parts” of tall buildings from inspection rules. These included external walls later blamed for spreading flames at Grenfell.
The inquiry will also probe decisions of the subsequent Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. It rejected a recommendation from a 2009 coroners report to install sprinklers in all tower blocks — saying the cost was “prohibitive.”
The current Conservative government ruled that installation of sprinkler systems be compulsory in new blocks above 11 meters (36 feet) high in 2020. But it did not require they be retrospectively fitted in buildings that millions of people are already living in.
The government says 1,700 residential blocks over 18 meters high have unsafe cladding, but the communities and local government select committee claim the real figure is 11,300. No figures are kept of medium-rise buildings of between 11 and 18 meters.
Describing recent government moves as “too little, too late,” Grenfell United warned that “another Grenfell could happen at any time.”
“The evidence presented at the inquiry fuels the anger of millions of working people,” Communist League member Pamela Holmes told a Militant Labor Forum here Jan. 7. “The fire was the result of the contempt of the government and the building’s owners towards its working-class residents. It shows working people have no values or interests in common with them and their class.
“Relying on our own capacities to organize independently of the bosses and their parties is the way forward. Workers and our unions — working together with tenants around the country — should demand immediate installation nationwide of sprinklers and other protective measures,” she said. “Along this road we should fight to bring building construction and the manufacture of construction materials under workers control — the only way to ensure safety for workers and residents.”
A statement issued by the Communist League just after the fire, Holmes said, explained the catastrophe was part of “the broader carnage working people face — from declining real wages to job insecurity, mounting social crisis and ongoing wars.” It points to what working people can accomplish by “throwing off the image the rulers teach us” of ourselves “and recognizing we are capable of taking power and organizing society.”