Cllr. Andy Gibbons spoke to Wandsworth Councillors about the lessons from Grenfell at July’s Council meeting.
‘The Grenfell tower disaster is a defining tragedy for our times. Loss of life on a catastrophic scale, many families left homeless and a chaotic response to the aftermath have made this terrible event one which resonates though our country and throughout our political system.
We know there is to be an enquiry into how the fire started, spread and killed so many. We know there is to be a police investigation into the companies involved in the refurbishment work on the tower.
We know there were no sprinklers and that the cladding fitted to the building did not meet fire safety standards.
We have committed ourselves to spending £30m because, in Wandsworth, we have cladding that does not meet fire safety standards and we have blocks over 10 storeys high without sprinklers. We know that what happened at Grenfell could have happened in many other blocks: it could have happened here.
But there are many things we do not know, even the exact numbers of the dead. We have yet to ascertain whether cuts to the fire service meant that the right equipment was not available at the right time. We are still finding out more about the materials used at Grenfell.
As councillors we all have a duty to scrutinise, as did the councillors in Kensington and Chelsea. But given the complex web of 60 different companies involved in the Grenfell refurbishment, all answerable to an arms-length Tenant Management Organisation. Could those councillors really know that what was being commissioned with £10.3m of public money was fit for purpose? A fragmented system with so many companies and agencies involved has meant less scrutiny. Paul Fuller, chair of the Fire Sector Federation, a consortium of fire safety professionals says, “We are gravely concerned in particular about the whole design, specification, supply chain, and construction process.”
Now we might understand how the Councillors in Kensington and Chelsea faced a very challenging task in judging whether the tender had met safety relegations. Except that the residents repeatedly warned about fire safety and were ignored, or worse still silenced.
As a council, when we commission we answer to the imperative of the Most Economically Advantageous Tender – the pressure is always on costs. This government has taken many billions of pounds from local authority budgets, putting even greater pressure on financial decisions. Alongside this David Cameron’s regrettable promise to ‘kill off healthy and safety culture’ which has meant that inspection has been increasingly light touch and self-regulatory. So, as councillors charged with scrutiny, we must balance a quick response with a prudent response and ensure that our decisions are made with fire safety at the top of the agenda.
And what is utterly reprehensible is Kensington and Chelsea’s lack of emergency planning. The view seems to have been that people in public housing were not valued. From the miserly allowances meted out to people who had literally the clothes they stood up in, to the idea that they could be shipped to Preston or Sunderland as long as they had a roof over their heads, the attitude was unacceptable.
It was the response of the Grenfell survivors and the community groups who supported them which was inspirational. They organised themselves. They showed righteous anger at their treatment. ‘We will be treated like human beings’ they said, ‘We will decide if we want to leave the area or not. Our voice will be heard. It won’t be business as usual.’
From being a Tory flagship council Kensington and Chelsea became a source of national shame. Its leader has resigned. Sadid Javid has been humbled and has called in a team to take over the running of the council.
To look into Grenfell is to look into the heart of darkness. One woman escaped her flat on the 21st floor with her six children, but when she got down to the bottom of the stairs, she only had four of them with her. Two had been lost in the smoke and the dark and the confusion.
We are compelled, though, to look closely into the many faces of this disaster. The government must hold those responsible to account. It must provide funding to councils to make housing stock safe. It must not use austerity as an excuse to tear up safeguards and cut even further into the fabric of our society.
And we must learn other lessons. We must put public safety paramount over driving down costs. We must review emergency plans. Above all we must listen – and act on what we hear.
The change we need to make will be far reaching and radical. It can’t be business as usual. What we approve here, tonight, is a start – but it should not be the end of that change.’