Shock and grief remain the dominant public emotions after the Grenfell Tower fire in London this week. It can hardly be otherwise when we read accounts such as that of Gloria Trevisan and Marco Gottardi, an Italian couple trapped in their 23rd floor flat. In her final moments Gloria rang her mother to say: “Thank you for what you have done for me.”
But there is also anger. There is a tension after such a catastrophe with the righteous indignation of the public and media demanding urgent answers and the experts insisting on being allowed time for due deliberation as they investigate the grim technicalities.
Even before the dead have been buried, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has taken to the airwaves to blame spending cuts for the tragedy. “If you deny local authorities the funding they need then there is a price that’s paid,” he says.
But if the initial assumptions are remotely proved accurate then to blame spending in any general sense is nonsense. There has been high spending, for many years, under the Decent Homes programme which may well have had the impact of increasing risk.
Hannah Lucinda Smith spent six months investigating fire safety in tower blocks for a BBC documentary in 2010. She says:
“Our findings were conclusive. Fire chiefs and safety experts all agreed that the vogue for cladding old concrete blocks with plastic fascia, removing asbestos and replacing steel window frames with ones made of UPvC cancelled out all the fire prevention measures that had been built into the blocks.”
This was the “Decent Homes programme” launched in 2000 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. She adds: “Billions of pounds of public funds were handed out to contractors to carry out the upgrades – £820 million ($1.047 billion) in London alone. In almost all cases, the drab concrete was wrapped in brightly coloured plastic. It may look far nicer, but the material used in most cases is also highly flammable, while the tiny space between the façade and the concrete acts as a chimney in the event of a fire, sucking the flames up the building in seconds. Grenfell Tower had been clad in those plastic fascia during its revamp last year – it is looking increasingly likely that that is the reason why the fire engulfed it within fifteen minutes.”
About £3 million ($3.83 million) was spent on the external cladding for Grenfell Tower. That is a substantial sum for 120 flats. Fitting a sprinkling system for a tower block that size would have cost £200,000 ($255,460).
Does it not seem apparent that far from a lack of public spending, there has been massive spending but on disastrously mistaken projects?
It is certainly vital to ask if safety was compromised by pressure to hit climate change targets by achieving eco-friendly changes. There have been warnings about this. But to try a make partisan point scoring over warnings being ignored is crude.
In 1999 a Parliamentary committee said of the external cladding programme: “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.”
There was a Labour Government for 11 years after that.
While we await the specific findings from this latest tragedy the evidence more generally is that fire risk is yet another reason that council tower blocks are an architectural disaster. There are about 14 million homes in England – with only around one per cent on them in council tower blocks.
More research is needed on this but it is pretty clear that a disproportionate number of fires take place in tower blocks. A report from the Local Government Association says 10 per cent of the population lives in a purpose-built flat (of all tenure and height) and around 25 per cent of dwelling fires occurred within purpose-built blocks of flats. Within those the figures the relative risk for council tower blocks is likely to be much greater.
Regeneration of estates should aim to demolish the high rises and replace them with beautiful, traditional, terraced streets and mansion squares. That can achieve higher density than replacing them with shiny new tower blocks.
Even before the tragedy this week few of the residents of council tower blocks regarded them as “decent” places to live despite all the grand spending schemes. Now they will not even feel safe. The ambitious response must to accept that politicians of all parties have made a terrible mistake in allowing these eyesores to appear. These impersonal “housing units” should be replaced by attractive homes that people want to live in and can do so in safety.