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Smothered by regeneration: the Grenfell Tower fire

Grenfell Tower fire

Tenants at Grenfell Tower repeatedly warned the council and its management organisation about fire safety risks before a deadly blaze engulfed the 24-storey residential tower block.

£10m of external cladding had been fitted to the tower block last year as part of a regeneration scheme for the estate. Residents said the external cladding was fitted to make the block more aesthetically pleasing for residents of luxury developments nearby, while lifts in neighbouring blocks had been left broken for years despite costing approximately £60,000 to repair.

Analysis of the fire spread and the design for the regeneration scheme suggests the cladding may have accelerated the spread of the fire by allowing it to travel around the outside of the block between sections that were supposed to be isolated for fire safety before the cladding was fitted. Similar cladding has been implicated in large tower block fires in Melbourne and Dubai.

This followed previous warnings from tenants about fire safety dating back to at least 2013, which they say were repeatedly dismissedby Kensington and Chelsea council, which owns the tower, and the local tenant management organisation [KCTMO], which manages the property.

Residents had fought the council, TMO and contractor Rydon's over the implementation of the regeneration project, raising concerns both in advance of the project and while it was completed.

In a blog posted in 2016, the Grenfell Action Group said: "Only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders."

In 2013, Kensington and Chelsea council's legal department sent the owner of a blog a letter telling them to remove "direct accusations of unfounded criminal actions".

Residents had an emergency public meeting in March 2015 to organise a response to intimidation and lack of consultation over the regeneration work:

Quote:
WE ARE MEETING TO DISCUSS THE LACK OF CONSULTATION FROM THE TMO/RYDON’S REGARDING THE GRENFELL TOWER IMPROVEMENT WORKS AND TO DECIDE HOW WE CAN UNITE AS A COMMUNITY TO ENSURE THAT WE ARE TREATED WITH RESPECT AND THAT THE TMO/RYDON’S CARRY OUT THE INTERNAL WORKS TO OUR HOMES IN A PROFESSIONAL MANNER AND TO A HIGH STANDARD.

In 2013, a series of power surges led residents to collectively descend on the estate office to demand emergency work. Shah Ahmed, Chair of the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association, wrote to Robert Black TMO and various RBKC councillors and TMO officers at the time:

Quote:
There have been two weeks of power surges in the building, most notably in the early hours of the morning and throughout the evening and night time. Electronic apparatus are seriously affected by these surges. Computers are turned on and off, lights continually flicker becoming very dim and extremely bright in the space of a few seconds.

On 11th May 2013 at 9:05pm we had numerous power surges in the space of a minute, and in that process my computer and monitor literally exploded with smoke seeping out from the back and the smell of burnt electronics filled our entire computer. My monitor also fused at the same time. When I called the TMO out of hours service the standard textbook response was given to us that I was the first one to report such a problem and I was made to feel like a fool reporting such an issue, which resulted in years of data being lost forever.

Please note if the power surges continue at Grenfell Tower, it would be very dangerous and costly because it is interfering with electric and electronic items in the household, including the telephone line, television, fridge, washing machine, computer etc”.

This year, Southwark Council pleaded guilty to four counts of breaking fire safety regulations over a blaze in a 14-storey tower block that killed six people at Lakanal House in 2009.

Basil Street fire station in Knightsbridge and Greycoat Place fire station in Westminster were both closed as part of a series of fire station closures in 2014.

Six deaths had been confirmed by 11:40 am on Wednesday with police saying the death toll is expected to rise.

In January 2016, parliament voted down legislation requiring privately rented housing to be fit for human habitation.

The current police and fire minister Nick Hurd - himself a landlord - was one of those who voted against the measure. The then local government minister Marcus Jones said it "would result in unnecessary regulation and cost to landlords".

For social housing, The Mirror is reporting that former housing minister Gavin Barwell - Prime Minister May's new Chief of Staff - "sat on" a report warning that tower blocks like Grenfell were at risk of fire.

Update 12:10pm June 15th 2017
24 hours after the start of the fire, Grenfell Tower was still burning internally across eleven floors with more than seventeen people confirmed dead and over one hundred residents still unaccounted for.

The community response to the fire has been overwhelming. People have been traveling to the area from all over London with donations, filling community centres to capacity with food, water, hygiene products and clothes. Displays of social solidarity like this are common after disasters. Disaster communities develop both due to the absence of intervention by the state beyond "keeping order" as has been seen most brutally in large scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina, as well as the tendency of people towards self-organisation when faced with horrific loss of life and displacement.

Residents in another (unnamed) dilapidated tower block had called an emergency mass meeting and organised a night watch last night.

Tragedies like the Grenfell Tower are not 'accidents' nor 'natural disasters' but the all to frequent consequence of property relations and their enforcement, whether the social cleansing of public housing in London or the public subsidy of 'regenerating' housing by cladding it in a fire hazard primarily to increase its visual appeal to wealthy neighbours.

While we must ruthlessly analyse the political and economic causes of the fire, we must also unhesitatingly politicise the response.

A demonstration has been called for 6pm tomorrow at the Department for Communities and Local Government, 2 Marsham Street, SW1P 4DF.

In addition to the immediate mobilisation, there must be a concerted campaign to permanently rehouse the residents of Grenfell Tower who have survived the fire. There has been a decade of estate demolitions in London resulting in new housing far beyond the means of the original occupants, and there is no indication that Kensington and Chelsea council will do anything different in this case.

Residents groups and solidarity networks should be strengthened and linked together so that the repeated warnings and resistance to the negligent maintenance of blocks like Grenfell Tower can be successfully resisted. These are not hypothetical issues for the future but real potential disasters latent in housing across the UK and internationally now.

Posted By

libcom
Jun 14 2017 10:48

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fingers malone
Jun 22 2017 11:57

Camden Council say that some of their blocks now when tested are coming up as combustible cladding (it's polyethylene core that was used in Grenfell but polystyrene is also unsafe) when the specifications say a better, non combustible cladding. So cheaper materials have been substituted when the work is actually being carried out.

This is going to be very stressful for high rise residents as there will be reports saying work passed fire safety inspections but based on dishonest paperwork so everything will need to be checked and tested. Also the dangerous cladding looks the same as the safer one.

Mike Harman
Jun 22 2017 12:43

The reporting of the 'luxury flats' has been disgusting everywhere. Also the reporting today that residents will be 'banned' from the shared facilities like the pool/gym as if that doesn't already happen in every social housing component via poor doors and similar.

There's a protest on Monday called by Barnet Housing Action since a large tower block there has the same cladding: https://www.facebook.com/events/1462279980496914/

Cooked
Jun 22 2017 14:11

[edit] news is saying 600 blocks affected

Quote:
Do the people need to move out while they take off the cladding? Where the fuck will that many people go? Who will pay for the work, the councils can't pay, it would bankrupt them. What the fuck is going to happen now. This is a massive infrastructure crisis.

Also I had a letter through the door today, it still tells me to stay put if the block is on fire.

Most likely people can stay during the works. It depends on the specific details used in the construction. If it's just the cladding panels that are unsafe they should be fairly straightforward to replace as they are the outer layer and fixed on place by simple means. The panels are most often not even critical to the waterproofing of the building so it can be left naked for a while.

The bigger problem is people staying until the works starts imho.

The stay put info should be correct if you live in a towerblock without combustible facade. IE not reclad but brick or concrete. There are fires in towerblocks all the time but they rarely spread beyond the flat. If the vertical distance between windows is enough the flames won't jump to the next floor. So unless you have windows that go down to the floor (without balcony) or a plastic facade you should be fine.

I'm not an expert on these things but I know a fair bit through work and have been in the UK construction industry (never worked on tower blocks)

fingers malone
Jun 22 2017 14:16

Thanks

Spikymike
Jun 22 2017 14:22

Maybe too much detail for some and I cannot vouch for the accuracy of everything there but this wikipedia site is useful in summarising the various issues:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grenfell_Tower_fire

A small point but in relation to overcladding - the type of rainscreen product or other weather finish, type of insulation material as well as the installation specification and correct application of that are all in combination what is most relevant in terms of preventing rapid fire spread. Some combined systems are better than others and there have been a variety of different systems used on high rise housing over the last decade or so. Presumably all will be subject to review now with priority given to those most similar to the Grenfell Tower system.

Khawaga
Jun 22 2017 15:42
Mike Harman wrote:
The reporting of the 'luxury flats' has been disgusting everywhere.

Yeah, after days of not really writing about Greenfell, one of the "front page" headlines on a Norwegian tabloid was about the upset residents of the luxury flats that had worked really hard to get to live there and it's unfair that this poor people can now live there. Fucking sickening.

Spikymike
Jun 22 2017 16:33

Also this dramatic 'first hand account' from a Firefighter;
http://rankandfile.ca/2017/06/22/from-a-firefighter-at-grenfell-tower/

fingers malone
Jun 22 2017 16:50

One of the reasons this has happened is a deliberate encouragement of a distain for council tenants in this country. This might sound strong but it's a real factor. Think of the counsellor who when asked if tenants had raised fears about fire safety replied 'people in tower blocks always complain'. I know there were people in the block who didn't have council tenancies, but they have also been victims of that distain. People from council estates are part of that massive section of the population who are seen as having no right to speak and nothing to say worth listening to.

fingers malone
Jun 23 2017 07:54

I reckon we need to start orgsnising right now against the threat that they knock all the towers down and use this opportunity to expel us from the city, or else that they do the safety work, say they need some kind of PFI money to do it, increase the rents and put us on insecure tenancies.

Ed
Jun 23 2017 11:46

Fingers, do you know if the the Radical Housing Network (or someone similar) are doing something like that?

fingers malone
Jun 23 2017 12:52

I'm going to a meeting Monday, will report back.

There are 600 tower blocks with cladding, they are all being tested. So far 11 blocks have been found to have dangerous cladding. Some block s may need to be evacuated.

While people are busy frothing at the mouth at photos of luxury flats that are not even the flats people will be rehoused in, Grenfell tenants are still being treated like shit. Reports of people being told to sign papers that relinquished their rights and private tenants not being offered rehousing.

Mike Harman
Jun 23 2017 13:56
fingers malone wrote:
I reckon we need to start organising right now against the threat that they knock all the towers down and use this opportunity to expel us from the city, or else that they do the safety work, say they need some kind of PFI money to do it, increase the rents and put us on insecure tenancies.

David Lammy, who's been very angry about the fire (and lost a friend in it), has nevertheless re-inforced this approach by situating 'high rises' as the central problem rather than the years of ignoring tenants and the many, many refurbishment failures, so this does seem like a real threat and it's one that could be re-inforced even by people with good intentions if things keep getting framed that way.

There was a meeting last night about this - was anyone able to attend it? https://twitter.com/ASH_housing/status/876749585363984384

Red Marriott
Jun 23 2017 14:12

Tenants in tower blocks with dodgy cladding or other issues need to be ready to demand from landlords legal guarantees on right to return, quality of future tenancies and temporary relocation before agreeing to move out for repairs or any other reason. They also need to demand guarantees on how it will affect their future service charge costs if things like sprinklers are fitted (tenants & leaseholders have often been ripped off by social landlords via extortionate service charges.) Fortunately a lot of free legal advice has been offered in the fire's aftermath, hopefully that will be ongoing to all affected.

fingers malone
Jun 23 2017 16:27

Yeah if anyone can do a report back from that meeting that would really help.

I don't think we are gonna get free legal advice unfortunately. Law centres and progressive law firms have been offering free help to Grenfell residents and will probably do so for years and years as those cases will be very complicated. The rest of us will be in the same boat as all the other thousands of people who are in very serious situations and really need help but now don't have access to the law. Our need is great but so is everybody else's and I don't think the law centres can take on thousands of displaced council tenants without some funding.

fingers malone
Jun 23 2017 16:30
Mike Harman wrote:

David Lammy, who's been very angry about the fire (and lost a friend in it), has nevertheless re-inforced this approach by situating 'high rises' as the central problem rather than the years of ignoring tenants and the many, many refurbishment failures, so this does seem like a real threat and it's one that could be re-inforced even by people with good intentions if things keep getting framed that way

That's right, that's exactly why I'm worried, Lammy said it, Saddique Khan said it and now May is saying social housing has been 'neglected' I mean yes obviously it has but she won't have anything good in store for us. Development opportunities on prime brownfield sites is what our homes mean to them.

Red Marriott
Jun 23 2017 17:28
fingers wrote:
Our need is great but so is everybody else's and I don't think the law centres can take on thousands of displaced council tenants without some funding.

True, but in most cases it would probably be better anyway for the tenants/residents association to put demands on behalf of the whole block/estate long before displacement and demand a general agreement applying to all residents. Someone like the Radical Housing Network or other sympathetic legal eagles could put together an info pack for tenants groups. The struggle for guarantees would probably often be at a borough-wide level from the council landlord in the case of council housing.

fingers malone
Jun 23 2017 17:34

Thanks that's useful.

fingers malone
Jun 23 2017 23:53

21 storey tower blocks evacuated tonight in Camden as the cladding is not safe. The cladding will be taken off, people will be out of the block for about 4 weeks.

Grenfell residents have been evicted from their accommodation with less than a day's warning and told to go to different temp accommodation scattered all over London. Legal observers intervened and most people have now been moved to one place so they can at least stay together.

Spikymike
Jun 24 2017 11:00

fingers, not sure but it looks as though a series of other fire safety matters, besides the cladding, were at the base of the reasons for the immediate evacuation of those Camden blocks. Many of the problems seem to relate precisely to the sort of past (and present?) management and maintenance failures that the Grenfell tenants complained of and something other Social housing managements and tenants groups in all multi-storey blocks will now be top of their priority list of actions.

baboon
Jun 24 2017 18:20
Steven.
Jun 24 2017 18:48
Cooked wrote:
[edit] news is saying 600 blocks affected

Quote:
Do the people need to move out while they take off the cladding? Where the fuck will that many people go? Who will pay for the work, the councils can't pay, it would bankrupt them. What the fuck is going to happen now. This is a massive infrastructure crisis.

Most likely people can stay during the works. It depends on the specific details used in the construction. If it's just the cladding panels that are unsafe they should be fairly straightforward to replace as they are the outer layer and fixed on place by simple means. The panels are most often not even critical to the waterproofing of the building so it can be left naked for a while.

The bigger problem is people staying until the works starts imho.

yeah this is basically why Camden Council decided to evacuate several tower blocks covered in the same cladding. They had started to take them down with residents inside, but after an assessment they determined that actually it wasn't safe for residents to be there at all with them up, hence moving them all.

Camden says that testing showed the cladding/insulation panels were not what they agreed/paid for in the contract. If this is the case, then the plan will be to sue the contractor to get them to pay for the cost of the works. And I imagine the contractor may try to place the blame on their subcontractor, so they may try to sue them in turn…

Cooked
Jun 24 2017 20:10
Steven. wrote:
Camden says that testing showed the cladding/insulation panels were not what they agreed/paid for in the contract. If this is the case, then the plan will be to sue the contractor to get them to pay for the cost of the works. And I imagine the contractor may try to place the blame on their subcontractor, so they may try to sue them in turn…

Contractors/subcontractors can make quite a bit of money installing alternative products, whether this is allowed in the contract or not. So they try to get away with it and unless there is someone *really* keeping an eye out it will slip through. There are thousands of opportunities for this kind of thing on a construction site.

The contractor or subcontractor will likely go bust and the cost of the re-cladding will fail to be recovered. Not an uncommon thing. Hopefully they can't get away with it this time!

Red Marriott
Jun 24 2017 22:11
Cooked wrote:
Contractors/subcontractors can make quite a bit of money installing alternative products, whether this is allowed in the contract or not. So they try to get away with it and unless there is someone *really* keeping an eye out it will slip through. There are thousands of opportunities for this kind of thing on a construction site.

The contractor or subcontractor will likely go bust and the cost of the re-cladding will fail to be recovered. Not an uncommon thing. Hopefully they can't get away with it this time!

You'd expect criminal charges against some contractors. Unfortunately they'll likely take the full rap while the arrogant local politicians and bureaucrats whose regimes failed to inspect and monitor adequately, the govt. politicians who failed to legislate adequately and the landlords and regulators who ignored the safety concerns repeatedly raised by tenants will probably all get away with it, though they too have blood on their hands.

fingers malone
Jun 25 2017 07:09
Spikymike wrote:
fingers, not sure but it looks as though a series of other fire safety matters, besides the cladding, were at the base of the reasons for the immediate evacuation of those Camden blocks. Many of the problems seem to relate precisely to the sort of past (and present?) management and maintenance failures that the Grenfell tenants complained of and something other Social housing managements and tenants groups in all multi-storey blocks will now be top of their priority list of actions.

I've heard exposed gas pipes was one issue, apparently they are supposed to be boxed in with a protective material.

Red Marriott
Jun 26 2017 00:38

Leading Tory councillor starts to not feel so untouchable; the property he's left is the same one the Grenfell Action Group accused him of buying due to his prior inside Council knowledge of proposed 'regeneration' (ie, gentrification) projects that would eventually greatly increase the property's value. https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/will-rbkc-investiga...

Quote:
The wealthy Tory councillor who oversaw the Grenfell Tower refurbishment has fled his home after threats from angry residents.

Rock Feilding-Mellen, Cabinet Member for Housing and deputy leader of Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, moved his family out of his luxury £1.2million three-storey townhouse amid concerns for their safety.

Police have now been called in to investigate the threats and allegations of vandalism at the property. ...
During the refurbishment of the 24-storey council block, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation reported directly to him, it is understood. ...
His involvement in the project has made him a target for locals’ outrage since the tragedy 11 days ago, feared to have claimed the lives of 79 people. However the redevelopment was ­actually initiated by his predecessor.

Yesterday a council spokesman said: “Following threats and vandalism outside his house, which has been reported to the police, he had to ­relocate his family – at his own expense – during the course of last weekend. ...
The councillor, who was first elected in 2006, bought his property close to Grenfell Tower in 2010 for £750,000.

A police spokesman said: “Police were alerted on Saturday, 17 June, to reports of posters with allegedly abusive content displayed outside a residential address in the borough of Kensington. ...
Council chief executive Nicholas Holgate was forced to quit on Thursday over the bungled handling of the crisis.

On the Friday after the blaze, Mr Feilding-Mellen had been expected to attend the 30th birthday of his step-sister Mary Charteris at Stanway House in Gloucestershire, home of his stepfather James Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss and March. ...
But he apparently told friends he felt it would be inappropriate to attend the bash with the boho set, including Cara Delevingne and Jaime Winstone, on the 5,000-acre estate.

Accusations levelled at the council continue, including a theory that they put the appearance over fire safety to appease locals.

An online profile on the council’s website quotes Mr Feilding-Mellen listing “attractiveness” before “safety” in his priorities for housing. ...

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/tory-councillor-behind-grenfell-tow...

Spikymike
Jun 27 2017 11:41

People may have noticed a reference to warnings apparently ignored in the UK following an earlier fire in the Lacrosse building in Melbourne Australia but those warnings haven't been taken on board there either with the suspect cladding on that block still in place today it seems!
A reasonable report on that at this trot site here:
https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/27/aust-j27.html
Of course fire safety isn't just a matter of the cladding materials and note the reference to the role of sprinklers in the Lacrosse case.

wojtek
Jul 1 2017 18:15

They're evidently going to do a mau mau job or at least a hillsborough one on this.

Spikymike
Mar 9 2018 12:49

And just to keep this up-to-date as report of a recent Parliamentary debate plus some local news updates here:
www.salfordstar.com/article.asp?id=4393

R Totale
Mar 9 2018 13:16

A lovely illustration of the state's priorities here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-43305379