SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 211 September 2017

Grenfell’s inbuilt disaster

In the aftermath of the Grenfell tower disaster the right-wing press unbelievably linked the fire to the issue of climate change. The Daily Mail led the charge, asking whether cladding was installed simply to meet environmental targets, in particular that official documents showed that ‘stringent’ government climate targets were behind the decision to clad the tower. The Murdoch press in Australia went further, saying that "the coroner may as well scribble ‘cause of death: climate change alarmism’ on his report" (Courier-Mail, 19 June). This paper also linked the ‘environmentally friendly’ coolant in a refrigerator, saying this caused the disaster when it allegedly caught fire.

The official planning application for Grenfell by Kensington and Chelsea council actually stated that the aim of the refurbishment was to reduce heat loss (although there are claims that it was also a cosmetic exercise to prettify a poor working-class neighbourhood in this predominantly wealthy, Tory-led London borough). The claim that the refrigerator coolant was linked to the fire also has no evidence to back it up. There are hundreds of millions of these fridges and incidents involving them are extremely rare.

Even if the cladding had been installed to address climate change, there is no technical reason why this could not have been done safely. In fact, insulating buildings to cut heat loss is vital to tackle global warming. According to Greenpeace, 83% of domestic energy is used for heating and there is huge scope to reduce this. The aim must be to achieve zero emissions for new buildings and to drastically reduce heat loss from existing stock by retrofitting insulation. The first thing David Cameron’s Tory government did in 2015 was to slash subsidies in this area, fulfilling his stated wish to "cut the green crap".

Rapid action to improve energy efficiency is necessary to have a chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Recent work by the Potsdam Institute of Climate Research has shown that even if immediate and stringent action is taken to cut the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming, temperatures could still rise by nearly 2C above pre-industrial levels. It is possible that this will lead to runaway climate effects. To reduce this chance urgent measures are needed to improve energy efficiency, particularly in buildings.

The inquiry into the causes of the Grenfell disaster has yet to take place but an article in the Architects Journal (AJ) has posed the key questions that need answering. AJ does not put forward any premature conclusions. However, just raising the various possibilities reveals that, whatever the specific and immediate reasons for the fire, there must have been system-wide, underlying causes, rooted in austerity and 30 years of deregulation and privatisation.

AJ asked: What cladding product was specified and was it legal for tall buildings? If the material breached regulations, why was it used? Could the declining role of architects have played a role? Are any other buildings at risk?

First, the cladding specified was a Celotex FR 5000 insulation board attached to a timber backing. Also specified was an aluminium rain-screen panel to be installed 50mm in front of the insulation. These panels come in two types: those with a polyethylene core, or a mineral one that has greater heat resistance but is more expensive. A report in the Guardian said that the installers used the cheaper option. According to the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG), these panels are in breach of the 2010 UK building regulations which restrict their use on buildings over 18 metres tall. This leads directly to the question why were those panels used? This will be discussed later.

The third question focuses on the declining role of architects: that there was not a single competent professional, architect or engineer, responsible for specifying materials, with sufficient knowledge to judge what was safe and with the authority to impose a safe choice. Architect Deon Lombard, with considerable experience in this field, is quoted in AJ: "With architects now seldom having the authority to insist on specific products being used, there is a tendency to go for cheaper materials…" George Oldham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne city architect 1979-90, told AJ: "There has been a shift from public sector control of the design and building process to something that is more or less a free for all".

In relation to the final question, the DCLG says that there are 4,000 similar residential towers, many of them owned by local authorities or social housing organisations, over 200 of which have similar cladding to Grenfell. The cladding from all these blocks has so far failed fire safety tests. The significance of this is that it will be very difficult for the inquiry to put the blame only on individuals in Kensington and Chelsea council or the contractors it used because there clearly has been widespread use of potentially dangerous practices throughout the country.

If the inquiry finds that the report in the Guardian was wrong, and that the more fireproof cladding was used, this would mean that the regulations are totally inadequate. Both in terms of the real flammability of the panel material and in the way it was tested, which should have been in conjunction with the insulation board. After a series of tower block fires in the Middle East the regulations were changed there to specify that all components must be fire tested together. Fire experts have long been warning that Part B of the UK building regulations is inadequate and open to exploitation. In 2015 a survey by the Fire Sector Federation, representing fire and rescue organisations, found that 92% of their members believed that the regulations were "long overdue an overhaul" (quoted in AJ).

If, however, it turns out that the cheaper, dangerous cladding material was used – breaking building regulations – the question is why? One possibility is that it was done wilfully, under the pressures put on local authorities by the government’s austerity programme. This could not have been just the work of one or more ‘bad eggs’ in Kensington and Chelsea, because it was done nationwide.

In 2005, under Tony Blair’s New Labour government, responsibility for fire safety was passed from the Fire Brigade to local authorities – to bodies that also had an interest in promoting homebuilding, and even then were under huge pressures to cut costs. When confronted with this fact on Channel 4 News, John Healy, Labour’s present shadow housing minister, refused to apologise.

Another possibility is that local authorities were simply unaware or had not checked that the regulations had been breached. Again, this would not necessarily have been due to negligence on the part of individuals in a particular council because it happened across the country. The cause would have to be systematic and linked to years of cut-backs in the technical and administrative capacity of councils to handle fire safety. This has been worsened by the extensive outsourcing of council functions to private contractors, confusing lines of responsibility, and further introduction of commercial, profit-driven considerations into safety critical areas.

All the various possibilities for the cause of the fire point in the same direction: that the pressures created by the capitalist system itself, by austerity, deregulation, outsourcing and privatisation, were responsible. Therefore, shadow chancellor John McDonnell was quite right to call Grenfell institutionalised murder. While this situation continues, similar disasters in the future are a certainty.

The alternative is a democratic system of planning that will provide the homes that are desperately needed as well as guaranteeing that they are safe. The disgraceful accusation by the right-wing press that there is a choice between fire safety in buildings and tackling global warming is completely bogus. With socialist planning it would be possible to address all the vital issues facing society, including climate change.

Pete Dickenson

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