Corporate greed, deregulation, and state neglect

Show Me The Bodies: how we let Grenfell happen

By Peter Apps, One World, 2022, £10.99

Reviewed by Paul Kershaw

This important book starts with a description of a council block where a faulty electrical appliance set fire to panels recently installed on the external walls, turning what should have been a minor incident into a tragedy. Mothers and children, staying put in their homes on the advice of the fire brigade, died. I thought he was describing Grenfell. But in fact, this is Lakanal House in Southwark. The lessons of this 2009 fire were not learned.

The title ‘Show me the bodies’ comes from the response of Brian Martin, the civil servant responsible for fire safety guidance at the privatised national research laboratory, the BRE. Six people died at Lakanal, and it was just one of a series of fires. But not enough bodies apparently to justify tightening regulations.

As a journalist, Pete Apps covered almost every day of the Grenfell inquiry. His reports were essential reading, and this powerful and lucid book will be the key reference.

His initial response to news of the Grenfell fire was much the same as mine and, I’m sure, as that of many housing workers and campaigners. “On the morning of the 14 June 2017”, he writes, “when I woke up to the images of Grenfell Tower on fire, my first thought was ‘it’s happened’.” This was no bolt from the blue.

Alternating chapters trace the events of the night of the fire hour by hour, and the story of the years leading up to the fire. It is a harrowing read. The fate of individual residents is described along with their life stories. The ‘stay put’ policy left some Grenfell residents trapped in burning homes they could have easily escaped from.

A picture of a community emerges – the deaths are not just numbers. Of course, former Tory cabinet minister Eric Pickles could not remember the number when giving evidence to the Grenfell inquiry and complained about the time questioning took. He had other business to attend to which seemingly was more important than giving evidence.

The picture that emerges from the chapters dealing with the decades before Grenfell is one of politicians working to support corporate greed. The watering down of safety regulations began in earnest under Margaret Thatcher’s government decades before. Her environment secretary, Michael Heseltine, said he was responding to builders’ complaints of “delays and costs”, and made “radical changes” to the building regulations.

This was unwaveringly continued during Tony Blair’s New Labour administration and accelerated during the Conservative-LibDem coalition. Conservative prime minister David Cameron brazenly vowed to “wage war against the excessive health and safety culture for good” on behalf of “UK plc” in a new year speech in 2010.

The civil servant who gave the book its title was one of the witnesses at the inquiry who expressed regret. But the corporations continued to duck responsibility. The book traces revealing internal memos of the corporations which were uncovered by the inquiry. Gerard Sonntag, marketing manager of Arconic, supplier of the aluminium composite cladding used on Grenfell, wrote that the use of 5,000 square metres of polyethylene-cored ACM “would have the same fuel power as attaching a 19,000 litre oil truck to its walls”, before deliberating on the potential liability if a fire involving the product claimed 60 or 70 lives. The company denies misleading the regulator and argues that it was the responsibility of those using the product to assess “the fire performance of the chosen fabrication”.

Another supplier, Kingspan, comes out no better. “I think [they] are getting me confused with someone who gives a damn”, said Philip Heath of Kingspan, when a building contractor asked about the fire risks of their insulation. “Fucking happy days”, said another Kingspan representative, after it managed to get a product to pass a safety test on the third attempt.

The impact of poor underfunded maintenance and housing management are shown to contribute to the story. Social housing residents will recognise that the problems faced by Grenfell residents are far from unusual.

The impact of cuts on the ability of the London Fire Brigade to respond are painfully clear. Cuts and outsourcing as well as deregulation are a crucial part of the story. The results of successive cutbacks in the fire service, culminating in the closure of ten fire stations by Boris Johnson in 2010 when he was mayor of London to save £100 million, are clear. Residents complained about poor quality maintenance and warned of the danger of a catastrophic fire. Rather than any democratic accountability they were actually subject to legal threats for speaking out.

The book details the failure of the council response in the immediate aftermath of the fire. The state seemed almost absent apart from reports of armed police patrolling. Internal discussions read as if the authorities thought they were dealing with an insurrection rather than support for victims of a disaster.

Responding to criticism prime minister Theresa May pledged to rehouse the 201 families made homeless by the fire within three weeks. By the first anniversary 60 households remained homeless.

While many hoped that Grenfell would mark a watershed leading to a change of policies and attitudes to housing, the book makes clear there has been no sign of this. The scandal of the cladding of other blocks, which has blighted countless lives, continues.

Subsequent events are a continuation of the narrative in the book. Despite a commitment to implement Grenfell inquiry recommendations it has emerged from High Court proceedings that the Tory government secretly ruled out implementing the inquiry’s recommendation on plans for the evacuation of disabled residents before its consultation concluded. Forty-one per cent of the residents who died in the fire had disabilities. A minimum response would be to mandate landlords to prepare Personal Evacuation Egress Plans (PEEP) for disabled residents, but this has not been implemented.

Similarly, recommendations supported by the FBU fire fighters’ union and fire chiefs to mandate two fire escapes in new high-rise blocks has not been implemented. Developers don’t like the extra cost. Despite the lack of a clear ruling from government there are ample grounds for local planning authorities to refuse permission for unsafe single staircase blocks, but they continue to get approval. In Enfield, campaigners protesting at approval for single staircase high rises which have been approved by the right-wing Labour-led council presented senior planners with copies of this book.

As Peter shows, “Grenfell was the result of a series of choices, the sum of state neglect and corporate wrongdoing across a variety of areas, the epicentre of myriad defects in our social fabric”.  The narrative makes a damning condemnation of profit-hungry business and neo-liberal politicians of both big parties. He writes that the world that delivered Grenfell looks “irredeemably dishonest”, a place where corporate greed, institutional negligence, and a government “infatuation with cutting red tape” trumped concern for human life.

But the book also describes the inspiring courage shown by fire fighters on the night and the efforts of ordinary Londoners to support the survivors. As he writes, “there is another vision of humanity available from the Grenfell Tower tragedy”. Peter concludes that “the consequences of the same deregulated economy that gave us Grenfell threaten to set the whole world on fire”. His book will aid the fight for a better alternative.