Panoramic view of polythene wrapped Grenfell Tower and surrounding buildings © Guy William / shutterstock

Lessons from Grenfell

Has enough been done by the government on safety since the disaster and if not, why not?
June 2, 2021

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, the question of whether “enough has been done” will likely be played out in the usual rounds of political point scoring. But any reflection about our response needs to start at the base of the tower.

Grenfell revealed systemic issues with building safety. Estimates are that resolving all fire safety issues in Britain that arise from dangerous cladding, missing cavity barriers and non-compliant fire-doors will cost £50bn. The government ordered the removal of the type of cladding found on Grenfell from 469 high-rise residential buildings. There are estimates that a further 1,700 high-rise and 28,000 medium-rise buildings have other types of cladding that also need to be removed. In 2020, 81 high-rise buildings had their ACM cladding work completed. Even at a rate of 100 buildings a year, it will take 17 years to remove and replace the cladding on high-rise buildings alone. 

The government will spin what it has done: the £5.1bn for the removal of cladding; the independent review of building and fire safety regulations, the ban on combustible materials, the building and fire safety bills and the establishment of two new regulators. 

Those living in unsafe buildings will counter with their own lists, including that up to 11m people could be impacted by life-altering insurance and risk mitigation costs; that 23 per cent of these people have reported having had suicidal thoughts; and that 111 high-rise buildings have yet to have ACM cladding removed. 

The atmosphere has not been improved by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s aide’s letter to a leaseholder facing a £40,000 bill and potential bankruptcy. The aide suggested that the leaseholder should contact the Samaritans for help with feelings of distress or despair. It constrasts starkly with the £58,000 spent on the refurbishment  of the prime minister’s flat.

Other critics will question why four years after Grenfell, “estimates” are all we have. They may ask why, in this digital age, all fire risk assessment data (at least for public properties) hasn’t been systematically collated and analysed—why a risk-based approach to prioritising the replacement of dangerous cladding hasn’t been adopted. 

These differing perspectives recently played out in the ping-pong match between the Lords and the House of Commons in a failed attempt to protect leaseholders from liability for the costs of historic building failures. But let’s step back. 

What is enough?

Nasa’s Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred on its 10th launch. The issue with the Shuttle’s defective O-rings had been known about since the second launch. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman led the investigation into the Challenger disaster. He said: “When it comes to risk, though, we have just proved a long-term version of Murphy’s Law—what can go wrong, will go wrong eventually. Just give it time... Nature cannot be fooled.” 

After such a tragedy and with hindsight we inevitably find that we didn’t do enough. If we are serious about preventing catastrophic events, we need to turn hindsight into foresight and governments need to be willing to stand accused of being over-cautious. 

Safety is the outcome of a complex socio-technical system where success is measured by the absence of anything happening. Low probability, high consequence events are difficult to predict, as current performance is not an indicator of future performance. So, preventing disasters demands searching for vulnerabilities and practising chronic unease—imagining and mitigating against the worst thing that could go wrong, genuinely learning from near-misses and other disasters. 

In the case of Grenfell there is no evidence that anyone was searching for vulnerabilities—and signs that multiple opportunities to learn were ignored, most starkly the 2009 Lakanal House fire (also in London) in which six people were killed. The local council had refurbished the building, wrapping it in flammable cladding and installing false ceilings. Rather than containing fire for the required hour, the blaze spread beyond the compartment of origin in four minutes. The coroner, Frances Kirkham, recommended that the fire safety guidance in Approved Document B be reviewed—particularly regarding the spread of fire over external facades—and that the “stay put advice” be reviewed. The recommendations were ignored. 

I have seen no evidence that the culture which led to the Lakanal House fire has changed, or that the lessons were learned. 

The author of the post-Grenfell Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, Judith Hackett, has repeatedly called out the race-to-the-bottom culture and lack of leadership after the Grenfell fire. There has been little systemic change and, as nature cannot be fooled, it is only a matter of time before we experience another fatal catastrophic event that could have been foreseen.

Systemic Change… from “them” to “us”

Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry continues to reveal the systemic failings that led to 72 deaths. We have seen a merry-go-round of buck-passing, a chaotic supply chain, the gaming of testing by product manufacturers, political lobbying and the failure to treat residents with “respect, humanity and empathy” (in the words of Eddie Daffarn, Grenfell survivor). 

“Safety is the outcome of a complex socio-technical system where success is measured by the absence of things happening”

My book Catastrophe and Systemic Change was born of the realisation that, after Grenfell, we will make piecemeal changes to regulations and fix specific issues such as cladding, but we will not deal with systemic issues—the underlying conditions that will incubate the next big problem. 

What progress has been made since Grenfell in moving beyond our obsession with blame? What has been done about the revolving door between government and industry, and the role of lobbying? We have seen these issues play out over and over again with Grenfell, with Covid-19, and now with the Greensill saga.

History tells us that relying solely on government to deal with these issues is a flawed strategy. Change is not up to government alone, it’s up to all of us. It could be said that we deserve the government we get. Have we all done enough? 

Other questions we must confront are:

• Have organisations practiced chronic unease? Do they value the tacit knowledge of those at the frontline, ie residents? 

• Has the media given voice to the voiceless? Has it covered issues systemically, or in a sensationalist, piecemeal fashion? 

• Have the insightful reports by think tanks and academic institutions led to any change?

• Has the government restored trust? 

• Have communities and citizens campaigned and fought
for change? 

If a multi-fatality fire happened tomorrow, would we be able to look in the eyes of the families whose loved ones died and say “I did everything I could to prevent this”? The Grenfell-effected communities and citizens tirelessly campaigning for change can say “yes.” But as for the rest of us—we should hang our heads in shame.