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The Grenfell tragedy exposes a tawdry culture that has held sway for too long

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Rowan Moore
The burnt shell of Grenfell Tower, west London. © PA The burnt shell of Grenfell Tower, west London.

In the aftermath of catastrophe, there are facts and there are symbols. There is the crucial information – who made what mistakes when and for what reasons – to be excavated by reporters, inquiries and criminal investigations. And there is the wider impact, the way a terrible event turns a general unease into anger and the certainty that things can’t go on as they are.

The Grenfell Tower fire makes vivid, in the most horrible way, the fact that nothing embodies more than housing the inequalities and incompetencies of the country Britain has become. There has been a rumble for years that the established, mostly market-led responses are not sufficient. That rumble is now a roar.

It is beyond obvious that atrocities such as this shouldn’t happen. We live in an age of building regulations and safety standards, of the testing and certifying of construction materials, of multiple specialist consultancies and subcontractors, of quality assurance and project managers, of health and safety allegedly gone mad, all in the name of eliminating risk. Yet the death toll of Grenfell Tower, if it is ever known, might make it the worst peacetime fire for very many decades, worse than the fires at Bradford City’s ground in 1985 and the Summerland leisure centre on the Isle of Man in 1973, beyond which you have to look back to the 1920s for anything comparable.

There are multiple factors. Part B of the building regulations states that “the external envelope of a building should not provide a medium for fire spread… The use of combustible materials in the cladding system and extensive cavities may present such a risk in tall buildings”. Any insulation product, it also says, “should be of limited combustibility”. Well, it combusted. The type of insulation, prohibited for use in comparable situations in Germany and the US, and similar to products that have caused serious fires in the UAE, China and Britain, is a prime suspect. It may also be that barriers that are supposed to stop the spread of flames up internal cavities were not properly installed.

Sprinklers would have saved lives. Fire stops that should have protected the internal means of escape may have been faulty or missing. The gas supply lines are under suspicion. The Grenfell Action Group had presciently warned of a lack of fire safety instructions. 999 operators fatally stuck to the official advice that people should stay in their homes, which makes sense when the building regulations are doing their job of containing fires within a single flat, but not when the whole building is engulfed. Compartmentalised thinking – the inability of any one agency to see the whole picture – played a role. It’s likely, as often in major disasters, that it was the cumulative and multiplying effect of several factors that made it so terrible.

A government proud to deregulate is accused of dragging its feet over upgrading regulations in response to changing techniques of cladding tall buildings. In 2000, following the fatal role of cladding in the Garnock Court fire in Irvine, Scotland, a parliamentary inquiry concluded that “we do not believe that it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the risks”. That serious fire has now happened.

What is certain is that the residents of Grenfell Tower were betrayed. They put their trust in a system that treated them with a lethal lack of care. Cost-cutting played a part – it has been reported, for example, that it would have cost only about £5,000 to install a more fire-resistant cladding. And, if the original concrete tower was a creation of the statist, top-down, welfare-state 60s, its current management and recent renovation manifest the tendencies of the last 30-plus years – towards the diffusion of responsibility to multiple agencies, to privatisation, outsourcing, subcontracting and the cutting of public services.

In housing generally, there has been, ever since Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, a faith that the market, albeit one heavily distorted by negative planning restrictions, will provide homes of the numbers and types that people want. There has been a corresponding decline in the belief that local and national government can play a leading role, either by building homes directly or by actively planning where they might go.

It is a faith that has not been borne out by reality. Year after year, the number of homes built falls short of the numbers required, with the result that new British homes are among the smallest and most expensive in Europe. Spectacular gaps have opened up between haves and have-nots, older and younger generations, south and north, with consequences for the quality of people’s lives and the economic functioning of the country.

Reservoirs of wealth are built up from which little trickles down. Even a Conservative government was obliged to admit, in a white paper earlier this year, that the housing market is “broken”. A significant part of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal comes from his recognition of the frustration and anger that the state of housing causes younger voters.

Grenfell Tower happens to stand within easy walking distance of some of the most valuable residential property in the world. The proximity of different social groups is one of London’s strengths, but it does make very plain the extremes of housing. There are kitchen worktops in Kensington and Chelsea that cost more than an upgrade on the insulation specification of the tower.

The borough is famous for the phenomena bred when the idea of a home as an investment runs out of control – “ghost streets” and “lights-out London”, when properties are left empty most of the time, and “iceberg houses”, where high values per square foot motivate owners to multiply their homes with vast basements.

Housing at the lower end of the market is stretched, squeezed and just about managed. Until last week, the residents of Grenfell Tower might have counted themselves relatively lucky, in that they had the secure and affordable homes that are denied to very many. Their tower had even been upgraded. They didn’t know then that it had been done in an appallingly neglectful way.

Fires have a way of making the inexcusable unignorable

There is an indirect and a direct link between Grenfell Tower and the approach to housing as a whole. Indirectly, the laissez-faire, speculative attitude helps to create a shoddy culture in which the mindsets of estate agents take priority over the resourcing of local authority departments that are supposed to plan and regulate construction. It’s also a culture in which, despite the profits of house price inflation, there isn’t enough money to do a good job of running social housing.

The direct connection is the matter of sprinklers, which would not have stopped the rush of flame up the outside of Grenfell Tower, but would have made it easier for residents to escape. In 2014, the then housing minister, Brandon Lewis, ruled against making them compulsory, using the textbook Thatcherite argument that “it is the responsibility of the fire industry to market sprinkler systems effectively”. He also said that “the cost of fitting sprinklers may affect housebuilding – something we want to encourage”.

This is what happens when you keep putting your faith in a dysfunctional market. Like Basil Fawlty flogging his car with a tree branch, you try ever more desperate efforts to make it work.

It was possible to guess that a disaster was coming, although it seemed more likely to happen – and may yet happen – in the hidden favelas that have sprung up in London, in illegal back-garden “beds in sheds” development or in overcrowded dosshouses.

Fires have a way of making the inexcusable unignorable. Historically, it has often taken a fire to change things: when London burned in 1666 (with, as far as is known, fewer deaths than Grenfell Tower), it led to the building acts that would shape the city in the ensuing centuries. Chicago in 1871 provoked the rise in steel-framed skyscrapers.

When Ronan Point, a tower block in east London, partly collapsed in 1968, it led to changes in the building regulations that have applied ever since. It did not in itself end the industrialised, high-rise approach to housing that had grown out of an alliance of big government and large contracting firms, but it crystallised a view that the system was failing. The greater and more lethal monstrosity of Grenfell Tower will change the British attitude to housing forever.

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