After Grenfell, the UK government faces urgent demands for more regulation and fewer fire service cuts

More than 80 people died when a fire engulfed the high-rise apartment block in west London. Cuts to fire services and lax regulation are blamed in part for the disaster. Pic from
London, United Kingdom

More than two months since one of the worst disasters in modern British history and the fallout from London’s Grenfell Tower fire continues to have a devastating impact on the friends, families and neighbours of the victims, the firefighters and rescuers who risked their lives trying to save trapped residents, and British society at large. Not only has the disaster shone a light on the staggering wealth gap between London’s haves and have-nots, but it’s also revealed the way in which the austerity measures and lax regulation behind the disaster could endanger even more lives in the future.

On 14 June 2017 shortly before 01.00, a fire raced through a 24-storey block of council (public) housing in North Kensington in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, killing at least 80 people and injuring over 70 people. Despite comprising 120 apartments, the building wasn’t fitted with sprinklers and only a single staircase served as a fire escape. Scores of people are still missing and with temperatures reaching more than 1000°C, forensic teams may never identify all of those who died.

With ongoing criminal investigations and a forthcoming inquiry due to take place in September, the more than 250 firefighters involved in the 60-hour operation to rescue residents and extinguish the fire are restricted from speaking publicly about disaster.

“You cannot blow the whistle on anything, unless you have absolute proof or you’ll be disciplined,’’ says Steve James, a retired senior fire officer with London Fire Brigade. “That creates a force field of fear.” He says that the firefighters’ concerns range from the safety of social housing across the country to the impact of austerity on the fire service.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is calling for a full and open inquiry into the fire, one that will include tenants, affected families and the fire brigade, as well as one that will put monitoring mechanisms for recommendations in place.

“Disasters don’t happen from one incident; they happen from a catalogue of errors,” says James.

Impact and neglect

The causes of the Grenfell Tower fire have been widely discussed but the focal point has been the cladding. In 2016, the tower block underwent a £8.7 million (US$11.3 million) renovation project in which an aluminium composite cladding was added to improve the building’s appearance. However, it is thought to have included an accelerant which caused the fire to spread rapidly. Since Grenfell, fire safety tests on the cladding on other social housing tower blocks in the UK have produced a 100 per cent failure rate.

Hugh Robertson, a senior policy officer for health and safety from the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC), tells Equal Times that the root of the problem goes back decades.

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“Up until the Thatcher government [1979-1990], the law said that any cladding had to comply with the 60 minutes rule, where residents had 60 minutes to escape before the fire led to any serious incident,’’ he says.

Robertson points out how the devolved Scottish government have strengthened regulation after a fire in North Ayrshire killed six people in 1999. Unlike England, no buildings tested in Scotland after Grenfell have been found to use unsafe cladding.

The UK government did not follow up on the recommendation from the Lakanal House fire in south-east London back in 2009, where six people were killed and at least 20 people were injured. After Lakanal, the coroner recommended that the government should retro-fit all high-rise buildings with sprinkler systems but ministers from successive governments have repeated failed to make this a legal requirement.

“The only comment on sprinkler systems by the government is from the former Fire Minister who said leave it ‘up to markets’ to deal with it,’’ says Robertson. “It sums up the Conservative government’s approach. The whole Victorian ethos of regulation is sickening.”

Robertson also says that while politicians are likely to do something after Grenfell, due to the shocking nature of the disaster and the media attention it has received, it continues to ignore issues such as asbestos, which kills around 5000 workers every year.

“Every single time a politician anywhere in the world talks about the idea that red tape burdens business, we have to remember the human cost. Grenfell shows us that,’’ says Robertson. “I hope the derogative language that politicians have hidden behind for years to try to promote their deregulatory, anti-worker agenda will now be challenged.”

Austerity, duty and death

Even before Grenfell had revealed how vulnerable 21st century Britain is to fires, the FBU had been campaigning against intense cuts to fire services, particularly against reductions in the number of firefighters and specialist equipment.

Since 2010 there are 11,000 fewer firefighters, and there has been at least a 17 per cent reduction in the funding that the fire brigade receives. Over the next four years a further 20 per cent reduction in funding is expected.

Matt Wrack, head of the FBU, has written to Prime Minister Theresa May suggesting that residents in tower blocks face a “postcode lottery” in initial emergency responses.

One reason is because 71 per cent of aerial ladders platforms (ALPs) – fire engines with platforms to tackle fires in tall buildings – are not constantly manned. Before austerity, ALPs were sent directly to every high-rise fire, or other serious incidents. At Grenfell, it took over 30 minutes for a high ladder to arrive because the nearest one available had to come from another county.

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“It is dangerous,” says a fire crew manager who asked to remain anonymous. “The victims of fire need a timely response or they are going to die. That is what austerity can mean.”

This is just one example of how austerity cuts impact on fire brigades. Other cuts have been made to the number of emergency call responders, the closure of stations and a reduction in the number of fire engines per station.

The fire crew manager says that the fire service is under immense pressure. “The attitude is that we have to be prepared for the worst thing you can think of; [They have] cut our infrastructure and workforce to such a level [that we must] keep our fingers crossed that nothing else happens, or else people will die.”

Worryingly, in the context of these cuts, deaths from fires have increased significantly in recent years, contrary to the downward trend over the last 20 years. A single factor, such as a heatwave or bank holiday, can lead to many fires at the same time.

James predicts the cuts will also make dealing with a future Grenfell-style blaze even harder for those on the front line.

“When they ask for a piece of equipment that needs replacing, they’re told ‘we haven’t got the money for that’. That is when austerity bites. Or people cannot take leave, as there is a block on recruiting. It tells people that budgets come first,” he says.

In addition to the pressure of austerity resulting in fewer firefighters and less specialised equipment, the FBU is also challenging the government for a real pay rise, above the rate of inflation. The government has offered firefighters the possibility of a 2 per cent rise, which is below inflation, but only if they agree to take on even more responsibilities. The starting salary for a firefighter is around £22,000 (approximately US$28,500).

This creates a great deal of anger, says the anonymous firefighter.

“When I started, I used to love this work,’’ he says. “I looked forward to coming in. But since 2010, people are frustrated and feel undervalued.” But while the government’s commitment to firefighters appears to have diminished, he says the fire services commitment to the public hasn’t. “Regardless of what cuts are thrown at you, or the more work for no money, when that 999 [emergency services number in the UK] call comes, every one of us is prepared to give our lives to save others.”

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