Those images from the early hours of Wednesday – fire shooting up the side of a tower block, with desperate people trapped inside it – were what I have been fearing for seven years.
In 2010, I spent six months working on a BBC investigation into concerns about fire safety in refurbished high rises. Our findings were conclusive. Fire chiefs and safety experts all agreed that the vogue for cladding old concrete blocks with plastic fascia, removing asbestos and replacing steel window frames with ones made of UPvC cancelled out all the fire prevention measures that had been built into the blocks.
In their original form, tower blocks are stacks of concrete boxes, insulated from each other. If a fire breaks out in one flat, it will be contained so long as the fire doors remain closed – that is why the advice for other residents is to stay put in their flats and place wet towels under the doors to stop the smoke.
By the turn of the millennium, the post-war tower blocks that are scattered through Britain’s cities had become rundown and ugly. So in 2000, Tony Blair’s government launched the Decent Homes Programme, a huge scheme to update the social housing stock, making it more environmentally friendly, comfortable and pleasing to the eye. For high-rises there were two options – either refurbish them, or pull them down and build new low-rise housing in their place. The slightly cheaper option was to do them up.
Billions of pounds of public funds were handed out to contractors to carry out the upgrades – £820 million in London alone. In almost all cases, the drab concrete was wrapped in brightly coloured plastic. It may look far nicer, but the material used in most cases is also highly flammable, while the tiny space between the façade and the concrete acts as a chimney in the event of a fire, sucking the flames up the building in seconds. Grenfell Tower had been clad in those plastic fascia during its revamp last year – it is looking increasingly likely that that is the reason why the fire engulfed it within fifteen minutes.
These safety flaws were not a secret. The government knew about them. Local authorities knew. Contractors knew – the tip-off that sparked our investigation came from someone working on a tower block refurb in the West Midlands. A previous blaze in 2009 that killed six people in the Lakanal House block in Camberwell, southeast London, spread because fire regulations had been breached. It now turns out that the government had produced and then sat on a report recommending that building regulations be changed in the wake of that fire.
In 2010, we took our findings to the Birmingham councillor in charge of the tower block refurbishments. He was so clueless about the project in his charge that he didn’t even know how many high-rises were being revamped in the city. When we revealed this in our report, he threatened to sue us.
There seems to be little reason for the government’s inaction other than a desire to save money and a head-in-the-sand hope that disaster would never strike. ‘I don’t feel vindicated, I feel angry’, said my colleague, who I worked on the investigation with. ‘There is a price to pay for cost-cutting and austerity’.
Is it just coincidence that the people who usually live in these blocks are the poorest, often most isolated people in our society, the ones least able to raise a fuss and force change? This morning I opened Facebook to see a post from a Syrian friend – a picture of a smiling young man. Mohammed Alhaj Ali, 23, escaped from the hellhole of the Syrian civil war three years ago. He thought he had found refuge in London, in Grenfell Tower.
‘There were so many refugees in that tower, I think the majority were refugees and migrants’, my friend said, distraught. ‘As Syrians we are used to dying. But we never thought we would be dying in London’.
Hannah Lucinda Smith is Istanbul correspondent with The Times. From 2009 to 2011 she was an investigative journalist at BBC West Midlands, where she worked on a report about fire safety in high rises