When flames engulfed the Grenfell Tower in west London in the early hours of 14 June 2017, and voices screamed out in terror, few could believe the horror of what was happening. Firefighters rushing to the scene initially thought the incident would be isolated to one flat and could not understand how the whole building had caught fire. That night, 72 lives including those of at least 18 children, were lost in one of the worst preventable disasters in the UK’s modern history.
In her tearful resignation speech, the outgoing UK prime minister Theresa May cited the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower as one of her government’s greatest achievements. Her words were received with widespread disbelief: two years on from the fire, some of the families affected are still waiting to be housed; the inquiry into the tragedy is frustratingly slow; the cladding that exacerbated the spread of the fire can still be found on hundreds of high rises across the country; and the police criminal investigation is at a standstill as a consequence of the stalled inquiry, with no arrests having been made.
The Fire Brigades Union’s general secretary, Matt Wrack, slammed May as “disgraceful” for even suggesting, “that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy”. In a separate statement issued by the FBU Wrack said that “many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council [the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea] for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy”.
Nabil Choucair, who lost his mother Sirria, his sister Nadia, her husband Bassem, and their children Mierna (13), Fatima (11) and Zainab (three) in the fire, told Equal Times: “She [Theresa May] could have definitely done more. Two years is a long time. I think she could have started the inquiry quicker…it took two years for her to announce the £200m (approximately US$252 million) funding pot for private landlords to replace the cladding [last month]. They should have done that straightaway.”
Yvette Williams MBE, an activist from the Justice for Grenfell campaign group, says the way that affected families have been treated is “appalling” with no basic sensitivity shown to their needs. “We have not been treated like decent human beings, let alone how traumatised human beings should be treated,” she tells Equal Times.
Compensation is being distributed, but it is largely controlled by the government. There have been several sticking points, particularly around the issue of next of kin, which currently only extends to spouses, children and parents. As the victims were not only British but also came from 18 other countries such as Morocco, Syria, Ethiopia, Italy, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, campaigners are calling for cultural sensitivity and an openness to extend the definition of ‘next of kin’ beyond the framework of English law. “Many of our families don’t operate like that,” says Williams. “We are global families. What we are trying to say is how can we look at alternative models of next of kin? Can relationships be defined in other ways?”
Failings in the aftermath, and in the inquiry
A public inquiry into the fire, which killed 72 of the 293 people who were believed to be in the 129-flat tower that night, began in September 2017. The inquiry’s phase one report was supposed to come out this spring, but it has been delayed until October, with no recommendations yet given.
From the perspective of Choucair and the other bereaved relatives, as well as survivors, the inquiry has been a painful experience. Choucair says it has failed to properly include the families affected and has been too tightly controlled. “They pick and choose who they want in the inquiry and you can’t do that,” says Choucair. “If this inquiry is about the bereaved and the survivors then they need to be a big part of it and have our say.”
A report based on interviews with bereaved families and survivors of the fire published last month by legal justice charity Inquest, echoes Choucair’s experience. It recounts the many ways families have been left feeling “disappointed”, “angry” and “frustrated” in the aftermath of the tragedy.
On the night of the fire and in the immediate aftermath, families said the emergency response was poorly co-ordinated and there were too few “figures in authority who could answer questions”. Families sought news of missing relatives, waiting days, weeks, and in some cases months, for confirmation of a death, the report notes.
One interviewee said: “There seems to have been serious inequality in the aftermath. The loudest were heard and the quietest were ignored.” Another recounted: “There was no support in the immediate aftermath. It was absolutely crazy. Three days of wandering around hospitals trying to find some answers.”
Choucair’s family waited an agonising two and a half months for confirmation of the deaths of their six relatives. “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we went through,” he tells Equal Times. “It was beyond painful, not knowing but having hope they could still be alive.”
Deborah Coles, the executive director of Inquest, said there had been “systemic failings before, during and after the disaster” and as a result bereaved and survivors “are in a state of limbo with no clear time frames, which exacerbates mental and physical ill health”.
Better support services needed
According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG, the UK government department for housing, communities and local government in England) over £80 million (approximately US$101 million) of national government funds has been committed to support the recovery of Grenfell fire victims including rehousing costs and investment in the Lancaster West Estate, on which Grenfell Tower is located.
However, critics say that much of this funding, particularly mental health support, has not been effectively targeted. The Inquest report says that while families welcomed the chance to work with counsellors, the offers of support were “patchy, often offered during working hours and this proved a barrier to take up”. Accounts from families also suggest that there was a lack of trauma counselling expertise brought in when it should have been one of the first things offered.
There was often no guarantee of long-term support and there was a dearth of services for children and young people who seemed to “have been totally forgotten”. In addition, some of the counselling was not culturally sensitive. “For example,” Choucair explains, “we asked for a female counsellor so my wife could feel comfortable and take off her hijab. But they sent a man.”
He said the whole process had left him feeling like the emotional devastation and trauma of the bereaved and survivors had not been understood by the authorities.
Housing remains an issue
One of the main promises by Prime Minister May was that everyone would be housed within three weeks of the fire, but there are still survivors that are living in temporary accommodation today. According to information from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, as of 6 June 2019, 184 households from Grenfell Tower and neighbouring Grenfell Walk have moved into new permanent housing, but 14 households are still living in temporary housing and three households remain in emergency accommodation.
Conservative councillor Kim Taylor-Smith, deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, said housing was being sought for families “in incredibly complex circumstances” and they were “nearly there, but we will not be rushing the last few families”.
As Equal Times went to press the government announced a consultation into building safety following the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, which concluded that the current system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise buildings was not fit for purpose and recommended a full overhaul. The Government has accepted all 53 recommendations.
The MHCLG also said that it was looking at “how best to rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords” by reforming the social housing system. It is currently analysing the responses from a consultation on its ‘new deal for social housing’ but critics say the proposals do not go far enough.
Housing charities Shelter and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have said the policies are meaningless without funding to build extra housing. There are around 1.2 million people on the waiting list for social housing in the UK but nowhere near this amount is being built.
A report by Shelter called for an overhaul of social tenants’ rights after a year-long investigation showed the system had failed the residents of Grenfell Tower. YouGov polling revealed that many of the challenges described by Grenfell residents in the aftermath of the tragic fire are faced by social housing communities across England.
Also, while many have welcomed MHCLG’s £200 million (approximately US$254.50 million) fund to replace cladding on privately owned high-rise buildings specialists warned that the focus on cladding distracts from other problematic lighting and electrical features in old housing blocks such as Grenfell.
In response to the government’s announcement of the £200 million cladding fund, emergency lighting company Tamlite said the emergency building regulations, which are almost 50 years old, require “a major overhaul”. The lighting company pointed out that “there has been insufficient attention on the need to address all aspects of fire safety including auto fire detection, emergency and escape lighting” since the tragedy.