By William K. Black
June 26, 2017 Bloomington, MN
There are many people culpable for the mass loss of life in the Grenfell fire in London. At this time, we know enough about the fire and its causes to be able to discuss these matters with sufficient confidence to draw preliminary conclusions. As always, we should also keep in mind that we do not have all the facts so some of our conclusions must be tentative.
I do not focus on Tony Blair and Gordon Brown because they are uniquely culpable for the mass deaths in the fire. Their failures are important to explaining several points that are often unclear to Americans. First, Blair and Brown, as leaders of the Labor Party, were supposed to protect poorer citizens like those living in the tower blocks through effective health and safety regulation. Historically, that would have been a top priority of the Labor Party. Second, the reality is that Blair and Brown were aggressively hostile to health and safety regulation and that hostility exemplifies the radical transformation that “New Labor’s” leaders made to the party. Third, Blair and Brown modeled New Labor on Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore’s transformative policies when they led the New Democrats. The New Democrats’ most radical political change was their hostility to the white working class, but their most radical policy change was their unholy war against effective health and safety regulation through the infamous “Reinventing Government” campaign. Fourth, the revulsion of much of the Labor Party’s base and the New Democrats’ base to these twin radical changes in political identification and policy in which the historical parties of the workers turned against the workers led to initial electoral success followed by severe defeats.
Jeremy Corbyn’s success as the darkest of dark horse candidates to become Labor’s leader and Labor’s gains in the most recent election have stunned British elite commentators (and the far smaller number of Americans who follow UK political events closely). To say that Corbyn is to the left of Blair and Brown is to mislead by inadequacy. Corbyn is vastly to the left of Blair and Brown. Corbyn is very far to the left of Bernie Sanders and Corbyn favors policies and alliances that would be instantly fatal for an American elected official’s political career. Until the recent election results, dissent rules the Labor Party, with the great bulk of its leadership eager to knife Corbyn. Corbyn’s sharp break with Blair and Brown’s unholy war against regulation explains why so much of his Party’s leadership is eager to remove him from leadership. It also explains why his policies have led large numbers of younger voters to join the Labor Party and support Corbyn. Similarly, Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s popularity, particularly with younger voters, has repeatedly stunned the New Democrats’ leaders. The easily avoidable loss of so many in the Grenfell fire illustrates why Corbyn’s supporters have rallied passionately to what they see as the antithesis of New Labor leaders like Blair and Brown.
Here are the key facts that we know relevant to this article. The Telegraph described them in a June 16, 2017 article entitled: “Eight failures that left people of Grenfell Tower at mercy of the inferno.” The building was inherently unsafe with regard to fire danger. The article begins with this damning introduction.
A litany of failings in building regulation and safety rules have left residents in tower blocks vulnerable for decades. Despite constant warnings from fire experts, nothing was done to improve fire-proofing standards, or even review the current situation.
Grenfell was a multi-story residential tower with no sprinkler system and only one stairway allowing escape from a fire. In British parlance, it was a “tower block.” In reality, it was a death trap.
Margaret Thatcher’s government removed a building standard requiring that the exterior be fire resistant. That removal was obscene and indefensible, but it also begs this question of the “councils” in charge of the many tower blocks in the UK – what could possibly lead you to fail to make the building exterior highly fire resistant? Many of the building measures that provide a building long life expectancy also produce strong fire resistance, so it is a horrific to choose to fail to make a large housing structure strongly fire resistant. The same manufacturer that sold the Grenfell council flammable cladding sells non-flammable cladding – at a tiny price differential. Grenfell could have installed the non-flammable cladding for 5000 pounds in additional expense.
After Thatcher removed the essential safety regulations, the councils actively made things far worse – in the face of repeated warnings that they were putting the tenants’ lives at grave peril. The councils did not simply install exteriors with inadequate fire resistance – they installed exteriors that greatly increased the risk of the rapid expansion of a fire. They did so by adding insulating “cladding” in order to reduce heating and cooling operating costs. They chose to add flammable insulation rather than the non-flammable alternative.
There were multiple problems with the cladding. The metal was thin, to reduce costs, which meant it would burn through very quickly in an intense fire. The insulating material was flammable and it produced toxic smoke when it burned. The cladding accelerated and spread the fire by acting like a chimney and allowing droplets of the burning insulating materials to fall and ignite secondary fires.
Public officials, particularly fire fighters, and independent experts repeatedly warned the councils and senior government officials that the cladding would spread intense fires rapidly rather than retarding them.
For the past three decades fire safety experts have warned that the ‘Class O’ designation was based on small-scale tests conducted in laboratory conditions and did not properly evaluate cladding in a live fire.
A recent London Fire Brigade investigation into the fire at a tower block fire at Shepherd Court in West London in August 2016 found that external cladding had helped the fire to spread.
They found that when exposed to high flames the metal sheet of the cladding had melted away, setting the inner polystyrene foam on fire and allowing ‘flaming droplets’ to fall onto lower floors while helping flames to spread higher up. Fire chiefs wrote to every council in London to warn them of the dangers but no action was taken.
A leading fire safety expert warned Government advisors three years ago that a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower inferno would happen unless they changed rules to ban cheap, flammable insulation used on the outside of buildings.
The experts sounded their warnings in plain English in graphic terms to ensure that the officials understood that they were warning of dangers that could kill hundreds of people in a single fire.
Arnold Turling said the Grenfell blaze was “entirely avoidable” and that a gap between the panels acted as a ‘wind tunnel’, fanning the flames, and allowing the fire to spread to upper levels.
Mr Turling, a member of the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, said: “Any burning material falls down the gaps and the fire spreads up very rapidly – it acts as its own chimney.”
As weak as the building requirements were for cladding once Thatcher emasculated them, initial testing results are that the cladding at Grenfell and many of its counterpart tower blocks failed to meet even the UK’s rudimentary standards. The United States, for example, banned cladding with combustible materials for any taller residential building.
At the time of the June 16 Telegraph story the media assumed that the Grenfell cladding complied with the far weaker UK standard. Inspectors have now examined Grenfell’s cladding and reported that it did not even meet the UK’s inadequate standards. Worse, Prime Minister May’s government has reported that the first cladding samples tested from 75 tower blocks had a 100% failure rate. We should take that report with caution, for experts are questioning whether the government’s (unknown) test methods are reliable.
The lack of a sprinkler system and a single stairwell for evacuation again show the inadequacy of UK building standards compared to other modern nations. Those deficiencies were made worse by a lack of fire breaks, (reportedly) missing fire-resistant doors, and the failure to conduct required inspections.
Every UK leader from Thatcher to May is a part of this problem. The fact that the Tories emasculated vital building safety rules is consistent with their Party’s ideology. Blair came to power after Thatcher and was the leader of the Labor Party. His Party’s ideology had long supported effective safety rules. Blair, however, proudly led what he called “New Labor” – a Party that embraced Thatcher’s anti-regulatory zeal with its own special passion. In 2005, Blair infamously gave two minor variants of a major speech condemning regulation and what he claimed was a developing refusal of the British to risk their health and lives – and the health and lives of their children. Blair was particularly belligerent at the British who felt that they should receive compensation when others injured them. Blair warned that it was essential that the government stop reacting to people being maimed and killed by trying to prevent future injuries from the same defects. Blair – the head of the Labor Party – demanded that laborers put up quietly with unsafe workplaces so that not-so-Great Britain could compete with dangerous sweatshops in places like Bangladesh.
I have written before about Blair’s speech attacking regulation, risk aversion, and victims of torts daring to seek compensation because Blairj’s speech also contained a delusional passage in which Blair claims that the UK financial regulators are vicious and harming UK’s ability to win the financial regulatory race to the bottom. I also wrote to explain how the UK’s top financial regulator’s response to Blair’s speech proved that UK financial regulation was a non sequitur. It consisted of “light touch” regulation, which meant non-regulation. The City of London was as he spoke engaged in an epidemic of “control fraud” and predation of unprecedented scale. Blair went on to decry a fictional war by the regulators against honest bankers.
My first article focusing on Blair’s speech explained and criticized his broader attack on health and safety regulation. I will not repeat those points here. I write simply to note that the victims of Grenfell were condemned to death by an ideology and a rejection of science and the value of human life that captured the Tories, Lib-Dems, and “New Labor.” Corbyn is famously flawed, but tens of millions of the British are coming to understand that Blair and Gordon represented a betrayal of the Labor Party and laborers – where they work and sleep. They see that the Tories and the Lib-Dems are unreconstructed and that the Labor Party leaders eager to replace Corbyn are primarily unreconstructed Blairites. In these circumstances, it is no wonder that Corbyn has gained so much support from younger voters.
“Corbyn is famously flawed”…..shouldn’t there be an explanation here? Flawed compared to who? Evidence? The criticisms against the Tories and New Labour at least had supporting evidence. Yet, the criticism of Corbyn is just assertion with no explanation. No one is perfect, but it would have been nice to see an analysis of Corbyn’s flawed political positions.
Warnings about this danger do not carry with them the actual responsibility for deciding that the cladding materials are acceptable or not. Yet somebody had to make this decision, sign a letter or form acknowledging that it was OK, and I reckon it was the fire chiefs’ department. Who so ever did accept this material as being safe and had the responsibility for its use is guilty and should be tried for manslaughter if not genocide of the poor!
Thank you for this prof Black. One has to wonder how many other lives have been lost less conspicuously but just as certainly due to the obsession with neo liberal ideology.
This has been happening long before neo-liberals arrived. It’s called the profit motive. Capitalism distorts everything – how many coal-miners’ lives, or factory workers’ limbs were lost because of poor working conditions? When the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred, there was double-hulled technology available, but it was cheaper/more profitable not to use it. One would think that those who continually try to reform capitalism by making it more “humane” would make the “leap” and consider socialism as the alternative? Capitalism and “humane” are mutually exclusive – unless one can accept exploitation as humane.
Latest news is that throughout the UK there are at least 68 similar blocks having non-fire resistant cladding similar to Grenfell! The implication is not that so many more at risk, but the the question is why have so few occasions of fires resulted in similar terrible losses to human life? The cladding may be unsafe but the risks involved are very small and not able to provide news-worthy stories! So lets have less panic and blame and a bit more sense in better regulations and gradual investment in the right cladding change-over.
I was born in Britain but am not English. I have been at the receiving end most of my life of the consequences of the division between the born-to-rule and the born-to-be-ruled classes in the UK, a division that started 1,000 years ago with the Norman conquest. And still pervades all of English social and political life.
Today, finally, after 28 years of a determined rear-guard holding action by the born-to-rule classes, members of the born-to-be-ruled class managed to nail down those responsible for the Hillsborough disaster. I don’t know (and I won’t live long enough to know if it takes 28 years) whether some of the people who survived the fire in the Grenfell tower block will be able to nail down those who couldn’t care a monkey for what happens to the plebs.
It won’t help those who died in that fire, but it might – just – make those people who were responsible for that pyre hesitate before making more of these “we don’t care what happens to them” decisions. It wasn’t just Blair, or Thatcher – these were just part of the English born-to-rule class that makes all such decisions. And now that the UK has severed its connection with the EU, can continue to make.
Revise that last number to 120 buildings! Sorry about this misinformation. The authorities should bear in mind that whilst the cladding on these structures may not meet the fire-proof regulations, all of them are unlikely to go up in flames as quickly as did the Grenfell block. In other words, instead of a hurried attempt to replace these coverings on all of the buildings and to do this after the inhabitants have been temporarily moved, an assessment of which buildings are the most risky should be made first, and a steady planned process of replacement and re-dedication to fire retardation (easily opened and closed fire-proof doors, warning buttons and bells, emergency lights, cleared stairwells, etc) should be enacted.
A letter in the Daily Telegraph on 16 June from a former Greater London Council district surveyor describes how, after the Great Fire of London, construction was controlled by the London Building Acts of 1667 and associated bylaws. These were enforced with statutory powers by a team of surveyors and officers independent of national and local government. Owners of defective buildings were rigorously prosecuted. This service was replaced in 1985 by the Thatcher government with a system controlled by “politicians and accountants”. The letter states that the Grenfell Tower fire could not have happened under the GLC. Successive governments, Labour and Conservative, have dumped their responsibility to plan for public safety, instead deregulating so that profiteers can flourish.
The Blair government showed contempt for professional and technical experts, scrapping fire certificates and handing over the responsibility for building safety to landlords and owners. The story since is of decreasing safety enforcement by successive governments. Fire brigades have been cut, and services to the private sector. Contracts have gone to the cheapest responsibility bidders. In 2014 the housing minister said that the installation of sprinklers was “the responsibility of the fire industry rather than the government”.
The latest figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that 294 people died in fires in England during 2015. That’s an increase of 21 per cent over the 242 deaths recorded in 2014, and the largest increase since figures were published in 2001-02.
Several factors contributed to that rise – but the amount of poor housing with increased occupancy at a time of reduction in the fire services and deregulation is a lethal combination.
It was a terrifying incident, comparable with an airliner crash. In case of a plane crash with identified reason, that reason is eliminated, even is most other planes with the same flaw fly without accident.
In this case three flaws worked in deadly concert: flammable cladding, exploding refrigerator that broke the cladding from inside and ignited it, and the evacuation procedure — none. I am not sure if two staircases are needed, but the evacuation staircase should be a fireproof and smoke-resistant bunker for the inhabitants. With five flats per floor, all inhabitants would fit on the stairs, and they could evacuate even if the ground floor were in flames, since the firemen could protect them with water and escort them out.
By the way, I made a web search for “exploding refrigerator”, and all hits about spontaneous explosions 9not caused by hazardous materials that were stored etc.) were from Britain.
The practice of Inflammable Insulation was also applied to Houses. “Thermal Efficiency Certificates” for Housing Sale Particulars. Cavity Wall Insulation with Polyeurothane Foam ; which if ablaze produces HydroCyanide Gas and Thick Black Smoke. Green Energy Saving Policies were twisted into Wealth Creation. Diesel over Petrol. Less CO2 Emissions, But vastly more Free Carbon Particulates producing Lung Cancer. Since 2009 , US/ UK Austerity Banking Milton Friedman “Shock Treatment” Economics have been used to Strangle Council and Health Budgets. Sucking National Wealth Upwards. Fire and Health and Safety Inspectorates and Regulations have had their Teeth pulled.