Few would disagree that the reasons for the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 need to be identified in full and fine detail. Without first discovering the truth about why the fire occurred, it will not be possible to take the most effective steps to prevent such a cruel and avoidable event happening again.
That is a statement of the very obvious. So with Phase 2 the Grenfell Inquiry resuming today, it seems timely to note, once again, that influential individuals and organisations have been promoting their own views about the truth, including who is to blame for it, since even before the flames were out. Those views have formed the basis of large theories about the wider significance of the fire, including what it revealed about London as city. Some of them enjoy wide currency, conspicuous support and, at least in some circles, great moral authority. But how much merit do they actually have?
It is important to ask that question, because some of those views and theories have become so ubiquitous and gone so unchallenged for so long, that they have taken on the character of received wisdoms – apparent common knowledge widely perceived to be true, but may in fact not be. And the danger of such “truths” become firmly embedded in the public mind is that they increase risk that the eventual findings of the Grenfell Inquiry will be attacked, dismissed or even go ignored no matter how rigorous, exhaustive and precise they are. Such an outcome could contribute to obscuring the real truth about Grenfell rather than establishing it – the very opposite of what must happen if a repeat of the fire is to be prevented.
Below are some of the more prominent “truths” about Grenfell that should be handled with care
One: Grenfell exposed a damning “Tale of Two Cities”
An early and continuing theme of much of the journalism about the fire was its portrayal as a symbol of wealth inequalities within London. Shaming contrasts were starkly drawn between what had happened to some of the “the poor” in their council homes in the north of Kensington & Chelsea and the expensive homes of “the rich” in other parts of what was termed the country’s “richest borough”. And the more those contrasts were drawn, the more the fire became depicted as a symptom and even an outcome of them, almost as if the very existence of wealthy neighbourhoods without the same local authority area as the tower somehow explained why the fire had occurred.
Kensington & Chelsea Council was depicted as complicit in the “segregation” of the borough and continues to be so. To nourish this depiction, in successions of films, articles and social media exchanges, certain facts and bits of correspondence are cherry-picked from their context and assembled into a story which purports to show that the fire happened because the Conservative politicians who ran the borough decided for callous reasons not to spend as much as they could have on the cladding. A figure for the borough’s financial reserves is juxtaposed with selected snippets from email correspondence that mention a politician, and the two misrepresented items are presented side by side as if they are an indictment of that politician. Is that truth or is it spin?
It has been interesting to observe the difference between the “two cities” strand of self-perpetuating Grenfell “truth” and how the physical closeness of affluent and lower-income neighbourhoods so characteristic of London – which often span borough boundaries – was regarded before the fire. Pre-fire, it was seen as a source of pride that in London rich and poor neighbourhoods form patchwork patterns that overlap (unlike in Paris where the have-nots are concentrated in undesirable suburbs). But since the fire this type of mix, at least in North Kensington, has been re-cast as an indictment.
Two: Grenfell’s victims died because they were poor
One of the crudest statements of this “truth” was made by Jeremy Corbyn when he was leader of the Labour Party in his preface to a Labour housing discussion document published in April 2018. “The image of people burning in their homes in the richest borough in the UK, for the simple reason that they were poor, will haunt a generation,” he wrote.
Does the claim that Grenfell residents died “for the simple reason that they were poor” bear scrutiny? To make Corbyn’s charge stick it would have to be shown that decisions were taken in relation to the refurbishment of the tower that contributed to the fire occurring that would not have been taken had the tower been inhabited by more affluent people. It is a very grave charge indeed, and if substantiated would be a disgrace. But is there evidence for it? Will any be unearthed?
It has already emerged at the Inquiry that the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), which managed Grenfell tower on behalf of the council but was separate from it, succeeded in reducing the cost of the refurbishment, which involved a change in the type of cladding to be used to a cheaper variety. However, the KCTMO’s case is that looking for reasonable reductions in costs is entirely normal when public sector bodies are commissioning services of that kind.
The rights and wrongs of this issue are clearly going to be very important. It raises the possibility that corners were cut by some of the many parties involved in the refurbishment that should not have been. But it also raises the possibility that catastrophic decisions were made entirely legally and in perfectly good faith. And the fact that “value engineering savings” – an unattractive term – took place does not, of itself, substantiate an allegation that the choice of contractor and cladding meant Grenfell residents were put at greater risk than better-off people would have been.
Moreover, the Corbyn accusation, though brandished by some like a tablet of stone, is not in line with the national picture. Over 450 housing blocks across the country were found to have “Grenfell-style” aluminium composite cladding (ACM) and many of their homes are for private sale or rent, not for social rent. They are therefore not likely to be primarily inhabited by people on low incomes. And recent government figures show that more than twice as many private blocks as social ones have had no work done to remove the cladding.
Three: The cladding was chosen in order to please rich people living nearby
This claim began to circulate on the day of the fire, based on a paragraph in a planning officers’ report about the Grenfell refurbishment. It referred to councillors’ need to consider the effect of the work on two nearby conservation areas:
“Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east. The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area. Therefore views into and out of the conservation areas will be improved by the proposals in accordance with ‘saved’ policy CD63 of the UDP [unitary development plan]”
But conservation areas are designated precisely in order that such considerations are made when planning applications that affect them are considered. The fact that council officers advised councillors that the cladding made the tower look more attractive when viewed from the conservation areas does not add up to evidence that the decision about the choice of cladding was determined by the goal of pleasing “rich” people who live nearby. And should the goal of the refurbishment have been to make the towers look worse?
The main purpose of the refurbishment was to improve insulation for the tower’s residents as part of enhancing its sustainability. The cladding was intended to assist this. Yet insinuations that the choice of cladding was unduly influenced by cosmetic considerations for nearby rich people rather than the benefit of Grenfell residents in mind continue. A recent Guardian editorial pointedly highlighted an email from an officer saying that the cladding would prevent Grenfell “looking like a poor cousin”. You wonder if the editorial’s author even considered the possibility that Grenfell residents too might have preferred the building they lived in to look more attractive.
Four: Local people foresaw the fire but were ignored
One of the first people interviewed from the scene of the blaze, live on the BBC, was a woman who if she is not a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party has certainly spent time in its company. She was not identified as a political activist, simply as a local person, and it was she who introduced to a mass television audience the idea that residents of the tower and others living nearby had warned of the terrible fire yet been ignored by the authorities. (The BBC footage is no longer available, but I have an audio recording).
She referred to a post published on 20 November 2016 on the website of the Grenfell Action Group (GAG). In its light, a damning explanation for the tragedy was framed. You are probably familiar with it: “the community” had warned of, indeed “predicted”, the fire, but the authorities had failed to listen to them. Yet although the GAG article made large fire-related claims, none of them referred to the tower’s cladding.
The blogpost did say this:
“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!”
Maybe that will turn out to be true. But those words don’t predict a fire that would spread through cladding attached to Grenfell Tower’s exterior (indeed, they don’t actually predict a fire of any kind, only what the consequences of a serious one for the KCTMO would be). Neither does the rest of the blogpost. And while the GAG’s extensive archive includes other claims about fire safety measures being inadequate, such as where vehicles were parked and about alleged ongoing “criminal negligence“, I have yet to uncover any pre-fire mention of cladding at all.
Despite this, the author of the blogpost, Edward Daffarn, who lived in the tower, has been described by large media organisations as “the man who predicted the Grenfell Tower fire” and hailed as “the prophet of Grenfell”. Even the BBC has joined in. Daffarn has had a terrible experience, for which he deserves every sympathy. But his blogpost did not predict the Grenfell fire, with all its particular and deadly characteristics. That has not stopped him being elevated by to the status of a great sage, and not only about Grenfell. (Incidentally, according to its About page, Daffarn has “had no involvement” with the GAG blog since the night of the fire and “is considered persona non grata round here”.).
The fact that the GAG never actually warned about the tower’s cladding being the potential source of lethal danger it turned out to be renders void any contention that warnings about the fire went ignored. But even the charge that more general concerns expressed about the refurbishment “weren’t listened to” has been challenged.
Andrew O’Hagan’s epic piece for the London Review of Books, which skillfully dismantles some of the most tendentious assertions and conspiracy theories about Grenfell, quotes a council worker: “We tried to answer every issue raised by the action group, but it was never enough; they bombarded us with round-robin emails and to my knowledge we tried to keep on top of them. It’s not easy when the TMO had 6,500 other social tenants and 2,500 leaseholders to help in the borough. But this Grenfell group was political. They hated everything the council and the TMO did, no matter what.”
The Inquiry may or may not find that the council or the KCTMO were at fault in certain ways. But how likely is to it conclude that the fire would have been avoided had those organisations heeded warnings from Edward Daffarn and the GAG about the danger posed by cladding when, in fact, no such warnings were ever given?
Five: Grenfell happened because of racism
This is another Grenfell “truth” that has been around from the beginning. Its premise is that because many Grenfell residents and victims were black or Asian or from other non-white ethnic groups they were treated less well than a group of residents that was predominantly or entirely white would have been. The Inquiry has said that its chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, had concluded that the Inquiry panel was not the best body to look into such claims, but that if in the course of its investigations it found “factors of that kind played a part in any of the decisions under consideration”, these would be made clear in the Inquiry’s report.
However, the high public profile of the Black Lives Matter movement has enabled some to revive pressure for the Inquiry to explore whether structural or individual racism contributed to the dangerous condition of the tower. The Guardian, for example, has provided Edward Daffarn with a platform for his view that Grenfell “fits in the heart of Black Lives Matter”. And in its recent Grenfell editorial, mentioned above, the Guardian said: “It is a mark of the wider importance of their campaign for justice that, two weeks ago, Black Lives Matter protesters ended their march at the foot of the North Kensington ruin.”
Plenty of people express the opinion that racial prejudice was a causal element behind the fire. But what would demonstrate that racism contributed to the tower’s catastrophic lack of resilience to fire? Perhaps a history of racist attitudes and behaviours on the part of key decision-makers involved. Perhaps evidence will be found that decisions taken about the choice and fitting of the cladding were influenced by beliefs that the more BAME residents a housing block contains, the worse its protection against fire should be. Things could change, of course. But nothing along such lines has come up so far.
A thought: Emotion and truth can be different things
Soon after the fire, a friend whose line of work led him to pay close attention to all that had gone on told me that three things were becoming clear to him: one was that the government of Theresa May had subtly but remorselessly ensured that the political focus was on the council, not on itself; the second was that the London Fire Brigade had had a pretty bad night; the third was that when the Inquiry eventually produces its findings, they will be complex, technical, focused on the detail of contracts and regulations, attribute failings widely and proportionately, and be not at all conducive to heaping easy blame on a few individuals that protest groups and certain media entities do not like.
The first of these was pretty evident at the time. The second has been borne out by the report of the first phase of the Inquiry. The accuracy of the third will emerge when the report of the second phase of the Inquiry is published. It is asking a lot of the survivors and bereaved to wait such a long a time. And it is easy to understand why anybody truly moved and angering by what happened, even if they have no close connection with Grenfell or its neighbourhood, might leap to conclusions driven by emotions, prejudices, suspicions and predispositions to believe certain people were to blame. We all do that kind of thing. It is less easy to forgive powerful media organisations and political activists for doing the same. At times, their approach to Grenfell has had more in common with looters than with truth-seekers. And the truth is what we need to know. Isn’t it?