Words cannot express the sheer horror of the disaster which befell the Grenfell Tower and its inhabitants. People needlessly burned to death. The fire poses a host of questions about how it could happen. Fire experts have already raised issues in relation to the type of cladding that was used and whether that helped the fire to spread. Clearly instead of containing the fire something acted as an accelerant. The fire spread very quickly throughout the whole building. Fire-fighters with decades of experience on the job said that they have never seen anything like it.

There are some other questions which are not so obvious which also need addressing. Firstly, there should be complete transparency in relation to the tendering process for the refurbishment work on the block. Was the cheapest tender the one that was chosen. Did this mean that cheaper materials were used?

Tenant Management Organisations

There is also a question over the nature and role of so-called tenant management organisation. These are supposed provide tenants with the power to ‘manage their own homes’. Nominally residents make up a majority of the members of the board (tenants and leaseholders). The KCTMO Board is made up of 15 Members comprising of eight residents, four Council appointed members and three independent members (their website indicates only two currently). In reality what happened with the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation is that it became a private company managing nearly 10,000 properties. It was responsible for the capital works which included the refurbishment. In reality it is a private company controlled by housing professionals. According to our good friends at the Daily Mail the top four employees were paid £650,000 between them last year.

In the Guardian today a member of the Board of the TMO, local councillor Judith Blakeman, said that she raised residents fears in relation to the installation of gas pipes in the main stairwells. She was told they would be boxed in with “fire rated” protection but it was not done. She also requested an independent safety adjudication of the building but this was declined.

These tragic events should certainly lead to an investigation of how they have behaved and may raise wider questions about the degree to which tenant management organisations are actually controlled, or not, by the tenants.

Grenfell Action Group

The Grenfell Action Group (https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/ ) has raised questions of safety management for a number of years. Four years ago there were power surges which destroyed tenants’ electrical equipment. In November of last year the Action Group wrote these now chilling words:

It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.

Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterise the malign governance of this non-functioning organisation. We believe that the KCTMO have ensured their ongoing survival by the use of proxy votes at their Annual General Meeting that see them returned with a mandate of 98% in favour of the continuation of their inept and highly dangerous management of our homes. It is no coincidence that the 98% is the same figure that is returned by the infamous Kim Jong-un of North Korea who claims mass popularity while reputedly enslaving the general population and starving the majority of his people to death.

It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice! The Grenfell Action Group believe that the KCTMO narrowly averted a major fire disaster at Grenfell Tower in 2013 when residents experienced a period of terrifying power surges that were subsequently found to have been caused by faulty wiring. We believe that our attempts to highlight the seriousness of this event were covered up by the KCTMO with the help of the RBKC Scrutiny Committee who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders.”

Lakenhal house fire

In 2009 a fire in Lakenhal house in Camberwell killed six people. In that case exterior cladding panels burnt through in just four and a half minutes. Southwark Council was fined £570,000 though it wasn’t charged with corporate manslaughter despite the fact that they had done no fire inspection of the property in the three years prior to the fire. The Council pleaded guilty to four breaches of fire safety regulations. The coroner, Frances Kirkham, wrote to the Community Secretary Eric Pickles as well as Southwark Council and the Fire Brigade, with a number of recommendations including updating fire regulations in relation to cladding and whether or not residents caught in a fire should stay put or try to escape. She called for retro-fitting of sprinklers. Eric Pickles response to Kirkham’s letter said:

…on balance, we consider that a regulatory requirement in unnecessary and disproportionate.”

In the light of this experience there was talk of a review of fire regulations for high rise. In October of last year (seven years after the Lakenhall fire) Housing Minister Gavin Barwell said the government was committed to review Part B of Fire regulations following the Lakanal House fire. But nothing was done. Obviously it was not a matter of urgency. Mr Barwell and his predecessors in the Housing Minister post have to answer the question of why nothing was done since 2009.

Dr Jim Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, complained that his organisation had been pushing for a review of fire-related building regulations for years.

While we have lobbied long and hard for changes to building regulations, the groups responsible have remained resolutely intransigent to opening a review. Various ministers have said over the years there will be an imminent review, but it kept being put on hold, in spite of organisations like ourselves campaigning very hard.”

Under-funding of council housing

The government has declared that there will be an inquiry. Whilst this will obviously centre on the cause of the fire it should be wider in scope, taking in the question of under-funding of council housing. Local authority housing revenue accounts, the separate accounts for council housing, are increasingly under-funded as a result of government policies since 2010 and the new finance system designed by New Labour and introduced by the coalition government in 2012. A key question in relation to this unprecedented fire is whether or not the financial circumstances faced by the council’s housing revenue account led to cheap and shoddy work being responsible for the fire.

Martin Wicks

June 15th 2017