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30 October 2019

The failures exposed by the Grenfell Inquiry should be a priority for all parties

Preventing a repeat of the tragedy is vital for whoever wins the election.

By Stephen Bush

Phase one of Martin Moore-Bick’s inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire has been published. The major findings? That the tragedy started with an ordinary kitchen fire caused by an everyday electric fault, and that “the principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up, down and around the building was the presence of the aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen panels with polyethylene cores, which acted as a source of fuel”. 

The arms-length management organisation over the block is criticised for its fire safety plans, which were 15 years out of date, while the emergency services all come in for criticism too: the London Fire Brigade, the Metropolitan Police and the London Ambulance Service all separately, at different points in the night, declared a major incident without informing one another, or the local authority, a clear breach of best practice, while senior firefighters had failed to train and equip junior firefighters with the lessons of the Lakanal Tower fire in 2009, and had no evacuation plan for Grenfell Tower. Inadequate signage also contributed to the problem, as did the failure of the mechanism to give firefighters control of the lifts – both of which could have saved lives.

The report comes with a slew of recommendations: to national government, to the emergency services and to the landlords of tower blocks. Much will require new legislation and others will require greater vigour from central government – many blocks, whether built for the private rented sector, as social housing or for homeowners still have dangerous cladding and the work of retrofitting has been criticised by the Communities and Local Government select committee. 

But the major finding in this phase of the inquiry is this: that Grenfell Tower, as built in 1974, was not the deadly firetrap it became due to its cladding, including the decorative crown-like structure on its top, which caused the fire to spread to the roof of the tower. That was further worsened by inadequate fire doors which meant that the fire safety procedures designed to protect residents – the stay put advice – caused more deaths. 

The next phase will investigate further when and how that came to be the case, and whether the warnings from residents that refurbishment had left the block open to a serious fire were taken seriously – or listened to at all. But what is clear already is that major failures of regulation – of fire safety inspections, of combustibility standards, by the emergency services and by the tenant management organisation in charge of the block – contributed to the tragedy. And learning those lessons and implementing Moore-Bick’s recommendations ought to be priority one, whoever wins the election on 12 December. 

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