Bells tolled, prayers were intoned and buildings (including the Houses of Parliament) were lit up in ‘Grenfell green’, but two years after Britain’s worst post-war residential fire killed 72 people, have any lessons been learned from the Grenfell Tower fire? And how has life changed for the survivors and the relatives of those who lost their lives?
BBC News reported recently that more than 200 high-rise buildings are still covered in the same type of lethal cladding that caught fire at 1am on 14 June 2017, and there seems to be no urgency to replace it. Nor do we see councils and private landlords rushing to fit sprinklers to their tower blocks. Experts agree that our building regulations are inadequate, yet many residential blocks don’t even comply with current standards. A lax inspection regime means that in high-rises across the country, fire exits are blocked, fire doors don’t close, emergency exit signs are missing, and hazardous work and other violations put residents’ safety at risk every day. A week before the second anniversary of the Grenfell fire, the wooden balconies of a modern block in De Pass Gardens, Barking, went up in flames; residents were lucky to escape with their lives.
As for Grenfell itself, researchers have found worrying levels of toxins in the soil around the building, but residents’ concerns have been dismissed by the council and the government. Shockingly, after more than two years, some former Grenfell residents are still living in temporary accommodation.
There is a sense that everything has been put on hold until the Grenfell Fire Inquiry, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, is concluded. That is unlikely to happen until 2021 at the earliest. Like all such inquiries, its purpose is to establish what happened and why, not to apportion blame. The Metropolitan Police is carrying out its own investigation, but, despite having a team of 180 officers working on the case, the force appears to be overwhelmed by the scale of the task. Quoted by the BBC on 10 June, Commander Stuart Cundy said: “There is no guarantee that we can give that there will be criminal charges.”
Even if criminal charges are laid against some of those involved, the cases would take years to come to court and would be most unlikely to trouble anyone truly deserving of punishment. Twenty years ago, and about 400 metres away from Grenfell Tower, the Ladbroke Grove rail crash (5 October 1999) proved that people who run powerful but negligent organisations have nothing to fear from a charge of corporate manslaughter.
Perhaps sensing that the English criminal justice system won’t help to them, more than 100 Grenfell survivors and relatives have started a civil action in the USA against cladding manufacturer Arconic, insulation maker Celotex, and Whirlpool, which made the refrigerator that is believed to have burst into flames and started the fire.
Soca News makes no apology for returning to this subject again. The fire directly affected many people in our community. The tragedy is a dark scar across the area that, more than any other in Britain, is associated with Caribbean culture, music and carnival. The council’s shabby treatment of Grenfell’s residents before and after the disaster has all too many parallels with recent events and also the more distant past.
At 3pm on both days of Carnival in Notting Hill we will, once again, remember Grenfell. When we stop and fall silent in the midst of the masquerade we are sending a powerful message to those who wield power without humanity: our lives matter and we hold you responsible for those we have lost.