THE GRENFELL TOWER fire took place in the early hours of 14th June. By tea-time the following day, Prime Minister Theresa May had announced there would be a full public inquiry. On the morning of 16th June, John Biggs, Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets, announced that safety in council homes is his Administration’s top priority. It’s come to something when a Tory Prime Minister gets the news out more quickly than a Labour Mayor.
The latest news from Grenfell is very slightly positive, for such a devastating incident. The official death toll has risen to 30 this morning. There are reports that there are around 400 residents in shelters and being looked after by Kensington & Chelsea Council. Twenty-four people remain in hospital, of whom twelve are critically ill. Seventy people are on official lists as missing. The death toll may yet rise to around 100 – but today it looks like it will not be several hundred, as had once been feared.
The residents of Grenfell Tower are making their voices heard, demanding answers about how this could have happened given that they had warned this was a major accident waiting to happen for four years. Others involved in lobbying government over the need to revise building and safety regulations, or who represented residents in previous, smaller scale, fires, are now being heard. What is being said is so staggering that it is no surprise that the Prime Minister has called a public inquiry. What she will say when her new Chief of Staff, Gavin Barwell, is questioned, remains to be seen. He was the housing minister in the last government who looked at the calls for better regulations – including from an All-Party Parliamentary Group of MPs – and didn’t get round to doing anything about it.
Was the response in Tower Hamlets up to scratch?
The first official statement came in a press release from the Council circulated just before 4pm. This said that many Grenfell Tower residents were homeless and would welcome donations, which the public could drop off at the Town Hall, Ideas Stores or Leisure Centres. This statement came some 24 hours after Muslim charities had begun collecting and distributing goods. The Council was asked to consider opening public drop off points for donations which would support Syrian refugees – including ones coming to live in Tower Hamlets, but the Council took no action on that suggestion.
The second statement, on Friday, focussed on reassuring Tower Hamlets residents that we are safe. Apparently the mayor convened a meeting of senior housing and safety officials to look at fire safety in the borough: it would have been nice, and given us a greater sense of reassurance, if he had made that clear yesterday.
Following this meeting, the Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets Homes (THH) has written to all residents to reassure residents that safety is the Council’s number one priority. The Mayor was asked to write to all residents in Council properties when the last Government introduced its Housing Act – to warn residents what was in the Act and advise them what the Council was doing to help them – but he refused to do so, for vague and unspecified reasons. Campaigners will be heartened to learn that someone has now found a way to send such a letter out.
As the Grenfell Tower residents are now pointing out, actions speak very much louder than words. Unfortunately, the words sent out by THH are hardly reassuring: statements like “our buildings comply with the required standards” is very similar to what Grenfell residents were told. Having reassured residents that safety is the Council’s top priority, the letter from the THH Chief Executive does indeed propose action: it tells residents what practical steps they can take to protect themselves from risk. This all amounts to a letter saying “we’ve done our bit; please do yours” – which is some way from being reassuring.
At least some pressure can be put on councillors and the Executive Mayor to take action concerning their own homes. A previous Labour Administration sold great swathes of the Council’s housing stock to housing associations, which are operating their properties on a business model. The Council is seeking reassurance from these landlords that they are reviewing their fire safety advice. It would be even nicer to see the Council not seeking but insisting that these landlords disclose information about their buildings and their own procedures – not just the advice they give out – to the Council for independent review.
The Council has a duty of care towards its residents and visitors to the borough. We need it to contact the owners and/or managers of private blocks and examine their standards too. It should also review its own planning policies, including whether allowing tower blocks to be built so close to the road and so close to each other is actually safe.
As the Executive Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs speaks out on behalf of all of us. It took him 48 hours to express his sympathy with the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster and to reassure residents about local fire safety (including the advice about do it yourself). Few residents in Tower Hamlets will feel that is an adequate response.
•Press reports say that the company which provided the cladding to Grenfell Tower has not supplied cladding for any blocks in Tower Hamlets.
•Read more about it:
Tragedy tower: could it happen here?
Human Aid Ramadan volunteers collect aid for Grenfell residents
Why Muslims were the backbone of Grenfell rescues