The Grenfell Fire: Do Black Lives Actually Matter?
On the 3rd anniversary of the Grenfell fire where 72 residents (at least 34 of whom were from a BAME background) lost their lives, is the country in a better position to avoid future cladding related fires?
Grenfell Inquiry Phase 1 Report
The Phase 1 report was released in October 2019 was primarily concerned with how the fire developed and the response of the emergency services. It highlighted (amongst other things) the use of highly flammable cladding on residential properties together with operational failings, inadequate training and communication failures within the emergency services.
Phase 2 of the inquiry will broadly look at how Grenfell Tower came to be in the state that led to the fire. For the survivors of the Grenfell fire (and their families) any such discussion must consider institutional racism.
There are concerns that the scope of the inquiry is far too limited. Leslie Thomas QC, one of the lawyers representing the Grenfell families, contends that institutional racism is the “elephant in the room” and the Grenfell Inquiry panel’s lack of diversity could “affect confidence and affect justice”.
Cladding and Residential Properties
The Phase 1 report linked the spread of the fire in Grenfell to use of highly flammable cladding together with the failure of both compartmentation and fire prevention measures. The report stated that there was “compelling evidence” that building regulations relating to external walls being able to resist the spread of fire had been breached.
The government estimate that there are still 2000 high rise residential buildings using high risk combustible cladding including 307 blocks with same cladding as Grenfell Tower. Housing Minister James Brokenshire MP had previously set a deadline of June 2020 to remove Grenfell style cladding in all high rise residential blocks but this has been missed. It is estimated that 500,000 people are still living in residential accommodation that uses unsafe cladding.
Reforming Tenant Rights
In a report commissioned by Shelter, following the Grenfell disaster, Professor David Cowan stated that “the law regarding the state and condition of a property is in a mess. It doesn’t address modern concerns and its enforcement is piecemeal”. Legal Aid would not have assisted tenants because the legal framework to protect them was wholly inadequate.
To their credit, in response to the Grenfell fire, the government passed the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018 which created an expanded duty for landlords to ensure that residential properties were fit for human habitation. Under the new Act tenants now have an ability to force their landlords to address issues such as excessive cold, damp and more importantly fire hazards.
Whilst the HFHHA provided much needed legal redress for many tenants it does not, and cannot deal, with the reality that replacing cladding is prohibitively expensive with many landlords/freeholders/leaseholders unwilling or unable to address the issue of flammable cladding at the rate required.
Government Response to the Funding Gap
The government has committing £1.6 billion to remove /replacing cladding although this fund is limited in the properties it applies to and is far short of the estimated £15 Billion needed to remedy all cladding issues in residential properties.
Concerns have been raised both about the funding shortfall and the speed of remedial work. Shadow housing minister Thangam Debbonaire MP has commented that “Grenfell-style cladding is just the tip of an iceberg. At the current pace it could take decades to end the cladding scandal”.
Ed Daffarn, a Grenfell survivor, worries that the government “are playing Russian roulette every single day and, as we’ve learnt, it’s not if another fire takes place, it’s when another fire takes place”.
The ongoing scandal of residential properties still being covered in flammable cladding and concerns regarding the ability of the Grenfell Inquiry to secure justice have naturally led to trust and confidence in the government being further damaged.
Understandably Grenfell survivors and their families are urgently demanding action to prevent further cladding related deaths. After the death of George Floyd, Windrush and Grenfell there has never been more urgency for the government to show that black lives actually do matter to them.