The Fifth Anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Fire, Aesthetics, and Social Murder

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Last week was the fifth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, which NC has regularly covered, for all those five years (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (the latter two being on the “cladding crisis” revealed when Grenfell Towers cladding burned). I was lucky enough to be attending an NC London Meetup a few days afterwards, and here’s a photo from the photo essay I did then:

Nowadays, people wear green for remembrance, and the decayed stump of the tower is covered with banners:

“Forever in our hearts.” Well, perhaps. In this post, I will look superficially at the Inquiry set in motion the day after the fire by then-Prime Minister Theresa May. Then I’ll look at the willingness of some to reframe the Grenfell fire not as a technical matter of poor fire engineering, but in broader social terms. Finally, it seems that those broader terms include — of all things — aesthetics (a topic that seems to have dropped out of mainstream coverage, although it had currency in 2017.

Here is the roadmap of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry:

The Inquiry is investigating a List of Issues that has been separated into two phases. Phase 1 focuses on the factual narrative of the events on the night of 14 June 2017. Hearings for Phase 1 began on 21 May 2018 and concluded on 12 December 2018. The Chairman published his Phase 1 report on 30 October 2019, the contents of which can be found here.

Phase 2 of the Inquiry examines the causes of these events, including how Grenfell Tower came to be in a condition which allowed the fire to spread in the way identified by Phase 1.

(Here is a post on Phase 1 from NC. Covid slowed down Phase 2; evidence taking will conclude, it is hoped, in July.) The Inquiry issued a Fifth Anniversary Statement:

The fifth anniversary of the fire on 14 June provides an occasion to mourn with renewed intensity the tragedy in which so many people suffered a terrifying ordeal as well as losing not only their homes and possessions but in many cases their dearest relatives and friends. The Panel, together with the whole of the Inquiry team, remains acutely conscious of the effect of the disaster on those who were directly involved and on the wider community in North Kensington.

We continue to offer them our deepest sympathy and we repeat our determination to ensure that the Inquiry uncovers [defines?] the full story behind the causes of the tragedy and provides answers to the many questions [but not all?] that continue to trouble them.

The excellent Peter Apps of Inside Housing provides a thread on Phase 2:

(There’s plenty more where that came; I suggest you click through for plenty of grisly detail on the construction and real estate industries in what is still Thatcher’s Britain, and of course the regulators and the vendors).

Now let’s turn to those “broader social terms.” I think a lot of the coverage — even my own — has been sucked into disentangling the technical complexities of cladding, the business and political complexities of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), and so forth. There certainly are a lot of opportunities for rent-seeking, from whatever it is that one does for the price of a dinner, to whatever it is that one does in London real estate. But I do think we need to dolly back from the complexity — which, as usual, is constructed for no good purpose — to take a broader, less nuanced view. For example-

From Unherd, “How Grenfell exposed Britain“:

The inquiry turned out to be much more than a simple examination of a botched refurbishment on a West London estate. Instead it has given the public a rare glimpse of the various structures whose failures contributed to the fire. None of them ought to escape with reputation intact. Not the housing sector, not the construction industry, nor the fire service or central government.

What has emerged is a profoundly depressing portrait of a private sector with , and a public sector which exists to do little more than serve or imitate it.

It seems to me that “psychopathic” (and “sociopathic”) are coming up on the charts; once seen as hyberbolic, they now approach mere description:

One of the most shocking moments of the inquiry was within the third area of its investigation. This looked broadly at the many failures in the tower’s management. Grenfell housed 37 residents who had disabilities that hindered their ability to escape in an emergency. On the night of the fire, 15 of them died, several alongside friends and relatives who would not leave them in the burning building.

The inquiry heard that the management company had done nothing to identify these residents, or plan for their escape. In fact, .

KCTMO staff defended not producing plans for the evacuation on the basis that they were following government guidance from 2011 which said doing so was “usually unrealistic”. This went against other legal provisions, but does appear to have become standard practice in the housing sector — with thousands of disabled people living in high rises with a similar lack of protection.

Startlingly, the Home Office recently announced it would not implement the inquiry’s recommendation that housing providers should be legally obliged to provide such plans.

No doubt the bulidng’s risk assessor was gifted a nice meal afterwards. So it goes.

From Inside Housing, Grenfell Tower Inquiry diary week 79: ‘You could argue that the system was created specifically to enable people to circumvent the rules’:

[Professor [Luke] Bisby’s] conclusions were damning. Describing the move to a ‘performance-based’ system in the 1980s, as part of a flagship deregulation package delivered by Margaret Thatcher, he wrote: “In an effort to increase the ‘freedom’ of industry, the regulatory system became more permissive. No regulatory mechanism was put in place to ensure that those dispensing fire safety advice had the requisite competencies.”

he told the inquiry.

The new regulatory system, which persists to this day, made it a legal requirement for builders to achieve standards such as that external walls “adequately resist” the spread of fire, but ultimately left it to their judgement as to how this should be done.

“At what point would you know, to a reasonable degree of certainty, whether or not you had met the functional requirement?” asked Richard Millett QC, lead counsel to the inquiry.

“In practical terms?” replied Professor Bisby. “If you had a big fire and everything went horribly wrong.”

One imagines Bisby’s dawning horror at what he was found, and his efforts to come to grips with it by choosing appropriate language.

Red Pepper, Five years of inaction after Grenfell:

We now know just how much the government knew about the risks of cladding – and how governments, both Labour and Conservative, and the civil servants who served them aided and abetted industry to shirk responsibilities and threaten life. This is what happens in a market state, when services are tendered for lucrative contracts and duties dismissed as ‘not economically viable’.

As Brian Martin, the expert without qualifications who had such a profound impact on regulation in Britain, put it, he did not wish to ‘distort the market’ by designating what was safe and unsafe. Mass death followed. The government was warned at various times. It chose to censor core information and protect the interests of cladding and insulation manufacturers, whose economic interests trumped the right to life for the British public. Grenfell as it stands is not followed by a full stop, but a comma. .

“Charlatans” is too kind. WSWS, in The Grenfell fire and fight for justice five years on, recalls to our memory the appropriate name for all this:

In his 1845 study The Condition of the Working Class in England. Engels wrote that the ruling elite of the day, in forcing the working class to live in deprivation and squalor, committed “social murder, that it has placed the workers under conditions in which they can neither retain health nor live long; that it undermines the vital force of these workers gradually, little by little, and so hurries them to the grave before their time.”

(Note that this undermining of the “vital source” is exactly what is happening to the Grenfell survivors.)

The “social murder” framing seems to be slowly catching on. From Social Science & Medicine, The reemergence of Engels’ concept of social murder in response to growing social and health inequalities:

Our analysis of the presence in academic journals from 1900 to the present of the social murder concept as conceptualized by Friedrich Engels revealed 1) that it was seldomly used; 2) but when used, it usually contained the key elements of Engels’ concept; and 3) the concept is now reemerging in academic journals. Raphael et al. (2021) suggest that considering the limited success in placing health inequalities and their sources on the Canadian and USA agenda, and the problematic developments in the UK, use of anger arousal and polemic may be means of arousing the public to resist health threatening public policy directions being taken by governing authorities….

In any case of murder, there must be a motived:

Investigations into the 2017 disaster, which killed 72 residents of the London tower block, are continuing. Now analysis of accounts and records shows Kingspan, Arconic, Rydon and Saint-Gobain executives have kept banking millions in salaries, bonuses, shares and dividends. The Times found that since the fire, the four construction giants have collectively posted profits of £4.9 billion – and among them is US industrial conglomerate Arconic. It has paid its three different chief executives at least £17million since 2017. The inquiry was told last year that Arconic knew in 2011 that its cladding panels were “not suitable for use on façades” and performed worse in fire tests than declared on safety certificates.

Of course, a nice meal for signing off on a piece of paper is a motive, too.

Finally, let’s turn to the issue of aesthetics. We ask ourselves: Why was this particular style of cladding used for the Grenfell facade? Interestingly, today’s coverage of the aesthetics issue is a little hazy. From the Financial Times:

Grenfell Tower was being refurbished in part to improve its energy performance. Hence behind the cladding, the walls were fitted with insulation boards. These too fuelled the fire.

No mention of aesthetics whatever. The New York Times mentions aesthetics, but glancingly:

Residents have said that the facade was installed to make their housing project more aesthetically pleasing since it stands close to high-end areas in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

“Residents have said,” eh? This may be true, but it’s also just bad reporting. There’s plenty of contemporaneous discussion of aesthetics and the Grenfell Tower cladding. For example:

Of the Grenfell disaster, [philosopher Sir Roger] Scruton told last night’s audience: “If it hadn’t been so ugly to begin with, the whole problem would never have happened.”

By “ugly,” Scrutom means Brutalist, the then popular style adopted by Grenfell’s architects. Popular once more, Brutalism did not appeal to Grenfells neighbors, as planning documents unearthed by the Independent in 2017 showed:

“Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east,” a planning document for the regeneration work reads. “The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.”

The document, published in 2014 and providing a full report on the works, makes repeated reference to the “appearance of the area”. That is the justification for the material used on the outside of the building, which has since been claimed to have contributed to the horror.

That statement included a quote from Nick Paget-Brown, the leader of the council, who remarked on how happy he was to see “first-hand how the cladding has lifted the external appearance of the tower”.

(Despite the confusing “Conservation Area” terminology, Avondale and Ladbroke seem to be rather like Homeowner Associations in the United States; correction welcomed from those who understand British real estate.) From architecture critic Edwin Heathcote:

The cladding [was] “a typical response to gentrification” and argued that “prettification” was partly to blame.

Heathcote also noted:

London is one of the most expensive cities in the world and one of the most rapidly gentrifying.

Far be it from me to translate “aesthetics” and “prettification” to “real estate values.” And there is no reporting that I can find that shows how the Avondale Conservation Area or the Ladbroke Conservation Area influenced the creation of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s planning document from which the requirements for the construction of the new facade were derived. Nevertheless. But somehow, I doubt that the Grenfell Tower Inquiry will look into these matters. A pity.

* * *

There’s something quite apt about a structure that conceals a brutal reality behind a smooth and shiny but lethal facade, isn’t there? A facade that turns a place of refuge and comfort into a death trap? However, it does not seem to me that the property owners of the Avondale and Ladbroke Conservation Areas are themselves guilty of the social murder that turned out to be a consequence of their aesthetic preferences; the causal chain is too tenuous. We might, however, look at the process that actualized their choices (as the Inquiry is doing), and perhaps at property ownership itself, and the effects of Thatcherism.

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