Grenfell: this was an atrocity
14th June 2017 will forever be marked as a nightmare date of death and destruction.
The accounts of the Grenfell victims are painful to read and listen to. Loved ones speaking to their families for the last time knowing that they could not escape the flames. The terror of people not knowing whether their friends and family made it out of the building in time.
The 21st Floor, a powerful film featured on BBC Newsnight, captured these absolutely heart-breaking stories. It makes difficult viewing but I would urge you to watch it nevertheless.
The scale of the fire at Grenfell Tower was unprecedented. In more than 30 years working within the fire and rescue service, I have never seen firefighters respond to a fire with such a huge threat to life. The professional procedures that the fire service have developed over the years to minimise the risks of firefighting were, frankly, redundant that night.
Firefighting is based on planning for risks but at Grenfell, a fire which should never have happened, fire crews simply could not apply the standard practices and procedures that enable them to do their job effectively as well as minimise the risks to themselves. If they had followed standard procedures, the London Fire Brigade would not have been able to send firefighters into the tower and save so many people.
It is a miracle that no firefighters were killed at Grenfell. We had reports of firefighters becoming lost in the smokefilled tower after being split from their teams, and instances where their breathing apparatus ran out of oxygen as they searched for survivors. We also know that fire crews entered the building again and again, which is against normal safe practice as their bodies had no time to recover from the intense heat of the blaze. They did all this because there were lives to save and they were determined to do everything within their power to rescue them.
But this disaster should never have happened. Grenfell has become a terrible symbol of a class divided Britain – a country where the voices of the tenants were ignored. They were ignored just as those of us who argue for public safety on a national level are ignored.
We have seen an assault on public safety since 1980 under the first Thatcher government. It is dressed up as an attack on ‘red tape’. It is actually about giving free rein to big business and to developers. It is about privatising public space.
Grenfell is the monument to this agenda. It was this process which undermined and privatised local authority building control and which saw the number of fire safety inspector posts cut by half. Public research into fire safety issues has been virtually eliminated in the UK.
When he was Prime Minister, David Cameron talked of health and safety laws as a ‘monster’ that had to be slain. The ‘red tape’ that they talk about is what you and I would describe as public protections.
When challenged over his record as Mayor of London (ten fire stations closed, 1,000 firefighter posts cut), Boris Johnson’s response was to tell his questioner to “get stuffed”. He thought it was all a big joke
It is the ideology of deregulation, the assault on all of our public services, and a dismissal of the expert view of firefighters as well as the concerns of housing campaigners - and of tenants - that have helped to create the perfect storm for a disaster such as Grenfell to happen. The war on public safety has to end. The best tribute we can pay for the at least 80 people who lost their lives is to fight for justice and for a change of direction that ensures a disaster like this never happens again.