Sharon Hartles is a MA Postgraduate Crime and Justice student with the Open University. She has an interest in crimes of the powerful, including state and state-corporate crime. In an explicit attempt to move beyond criminology, she draws upon a zemiological approach to evidence the social, political and economic context in which crime is produced and interwoven into society via socio-economic inequalities.
The Grenfell Tragedy is an account that needs to be chronologically told to uncover the state and corporate subterfuge which orchestrated untold harms. Cutting corners, unresponsive local authority bodies and capitalist/aesthetic concerns will reveal the contempt to which this community was shown, elevating the scale of injustice. Drawing upon a counter hegemony approach, are there any lessons that can be learned to prevent such negligent disasters from re-occurring?
Wednesday 14th June 2017, is a date which is etched into the memory and hearts of thousands. A date which resonates loss and grief so painful that no amount of selected words will ever be able to offer any more than a symbolic gesture of empathetic comfort to the Grenfell community affected by the events which took place on that day have since unfolded and are still unravelling.
The 14th June 2017, was not going to be another ordinary day for the residents of Grenfell Tower, a twenty-three storey residential block of flats in West London, Kensington, or for the wider Grenfell community. Instead, the 14th June 2017 was going to be the day in which one of the UK’s worst, modern, avoidable disasters was going to take place. Just before 1:00am, a fire broke out in the kitchen of flat 16 which was situated on the fourth floor. An inferno soon took hold and Grenfell Tower burned. Despite the heroic efforts of the fire-fighters, the untenable situation meant that the Grenfell Tower burned for 24 hours before the blaze burnt itself out.
What was known as ‘home’ to approximately 350 people, had been engulfed in flames and smouldered until all that remained was a devoured, burnt-out carcass. In the immediate aftermath, the range of readily visible harms such as the loss of homes and possessions was apparent. However, this became interlaced with the realisation that along with the physical harms in the forms of injuries to approximately 107 individuals, this preventable tragedy had claimed the lives of 72 people. Seventy-two human beings had their lives stolen away from them in a horrific and inhumane traumatic event.
The realm of academia challenges the ball and chain approach (gate-keeping of knowledge) dares to defy the status quo imposed and governed by the powerful elite, such as state and corporations. By adopting a resistance perspective, this articulates how these ‘uncomfortable truths’ can be brought into the mainstream public domain. In remembrance of the Grenfell 72, in solidarity for the fight for the living, and through counter hegemony the truth will continue to be revealed.
In November 2018, at a public inquiry, Dr Glover, an electrical fire expert, concluded that a probable cause of the Grenfell Tower fire was a poor crimp connection. This led to an overheating within the compressor relay compartment of a Hotpoint fridge-freezer (Model FF176BP). What is startling is that plastic back casings which are combustible, contributing to the fire, comply with safety requirements in the UK. In contrast, the same appliances made in the US are required by Underwriters Laboratory Standards to be fitted with metallic steel casings as a preventative measure because they are non-combustible and they also help to contain internal fires for a longer amount of time.
The Grenfell Tragedy was certainly an event which caused and is still provoking great suffering, destruction and distress, but it was so much more than just a situated event. The Grenfell Tragedy was avoidable, preventable and foreseeable, it was not an accident and there was nothing natural about the systematic layering of failures which led to the catalyst moment that sparked the fire. The 72 residents of Grenfell Tower who had their lives snatched away should not be passed off as ‘fire-related fatalities’. The faulty malfunctioning appliance (that posed a so called ‘low risk’ – which might have posed an even ‘lower risk’ had it been fitted with a metallic steel casing instead of a plastic casing) was merely the tip of an iceberg in relation to the series of political and economic facilitated failures which led to the Grenfell Tragedy. The 72 deaths were a direct result of crimes of the powerful, and as such form part of the ever-increasing death toll of state-corporate-related fatalities.
To the detriment of the residents of the Grenfell Tower, like the vast majority of high-rise buildings in the UK, it was not fitted with a sprinkler system. Nick Paget-Brown, the Tory leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council, stated “There was not a collective view that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers because that would have delayed and made the refurbishment of the block more disruptive”. The British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association estimated the cost of installing a sprinkler system in Grenfell Tower to be £200,000.
Summerland (1973), Knowsley Heights (1991), Garnock Court (1999), Harrow Court (2005) and Lakenal House (2009) were the locations where five fire disasters took place, all of which preceded Grenfell. The Fires That Foretold Grenfell as they are now referred to, predicted a Grenfell-type inferno happening in Britain. More harrowingly, in November 2016, seven months prior to the Grenfell fire, the Grenfell Action Group predicted that a fire would take place in one of the tower blocks managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) due to what it referred to as the poor safety record encompassing dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation. “We have blogged many times on the subject of fire safety at Grenfell Tower” “showing the poor safety record of the KCTMO should a fire affect any other of their properties and cause the loss of life that we are predicting.”
In July 2016, KCTMO’s capitalist fuelled mindset, absolute disregard for health and safety legislation and therefore contempt for the Grenfell Tower residents, (their tenants and leaseholders) was captured “We need good costs for Cllr Feilding-Mellen and the planner tomorrow at 8.45am!“. The ‘good costs’ referred to was a saving of £293,368. KCTMO allegedly gave in to pressure from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council (RBKCC) to save money and cost cutting measures led to Rydon (instead of D+B Facades) securing the Grenfell Tower cladding contract. In addition to this, subsequent haggling of a £293,368 saving reflected a further downgrade of the cladding selected for installation. In order to make this saving, the zinc cladding approved by residents was replaced, after tender, with cheaper aluminium. Despite this alleged ‘pressure’ KCTMO designed and delivered the Grenfell Tower refurbishment with consent and blessing from the RBKCC via their shared common interests, taking the form of health and safety regulation breaches. In this regard it is clearer to see how the capitalist modus operandi approach was championed – instead of a safety driven decision-making strategy – which inevitably led to the Grenfell Towering Inferno.
Life is priceless and no price should ever be put on the value of a life, yet it can be claimed that the RBKCC and KCTMO profit interests came before health and safety considerations, illustrating how the value each of the 72 residents who lost their life based on the £293,368 saving to be worth £4,074. Furthermore, in retrospect this equates to a valued life worth £838 when calculated between the approximate 350 residents who resided in Grenfell Tower at the time these cost cutting savings were agreed.
The cladding signed off for use by the RBKCC (suspected of fuelling the deadly conflagration), failed to meet the governments ‘A’ rating safety standards. By the time the cladding had been installed and due to the panel type (cassette system) fitted, the cladding panel rating varied from a ‘B’ and ‘E’ classification. An industry source discerned that “you wouldn’t put E on a dog kennel“. If KCTMO or the RBKCC had spent a little time looking into the cladding from a health and safety perspective, instead of a capitalist standpoint they would have been aware of this information.
In an interim report commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government, (published on December 2017) Dame Judith Hackitt advised “the whole system of regulation, covering what is written down and the way in which it is enacted in practice, is not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so.” Therefore, it is contemptible to know that the building control managers at RBKCC approved the Grenfell cladding system, proposed by Rydon, without being in receipt of proof that relevant and up-to-date testing (BS 8414) had been carried out. Moreover, they were never going to get confirmation because it would have failed the standards process. In a nutshell, what this meant is that the responsibility for compliance (duty of care) with the Building Regulations rested with those carrying out work and building control bodies. Consequently, the complex chain of companies involved in the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project should not be used as a “problem of many hands” excuse resulting in a defence of “diffusion of responsibility” for health and safety negligence. Within the process of outsourcing a chain of companies, who share a common goal, such as refurbishing Grenfell Tower, in effect, were authorised to act as a single entity, ultimately on behalf of the RBKCC. With that said, any and all attempts made by RBKCC to deny responsibility for the group of companies authorised in law to act as a ‘corporation of sorts’ through their signed contracts, only adds insult to injury.
What is even more senseless, is the fact that cladding was never part of the original refurbishment plans for Grenfell Tower. The cladding company D+B Facades provided a quote of £3.3 million, a figure based on “A1 non-combustible” cladding system, solid aluminium sheets, backed with mineral wool insulation which does not burn. It is ironic that KCTMO put the cladding contract out to tender and yet ended up “agreeing to an overall budget that put the cost for the cladding and insulation at £3.5 million – £200,000 more than D+B Facades’ quote for the noncombustible materials.” So, had the KCTMO not deviated from the original refurbishment planning for Grenfell Tower, it could have saved the RBKCC £3.5 million because the cladding was not mandatory.
With this in mind, it begs the question, why was the cladding included at a later date as part of the Grenfell Tower refurbishment? The answer and reason why cladding was added to the external faces of the Grenfell Tower, only adds to the disbelief and fuelled anger shared with the bereaved families and the Grenfell survivors. 72 Grenfell residents lost their lives, notwithstanding the subsequent multitude of harms that have followed, so that the “character and appearance of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected.” So the ‘uncomfortable truth’ of the matter is that the home of the Grenfell Tower residents was insulated in cladding, that was not fit for purpose, by RBKCC, (which is the wealthiest constituency in England) to improve its appearance when viewed by the conservation areas and luxury flats that surround north Kensington. Clearly, this is distressing to know that the lives and health and safety of the residents who resided in the Grenfell Tower was of no concern to KCTMO and RBKCC, while ensuring it looked aesthetically pleasing was paramount.
Whether RBKCC is recognised as a representative of the state or as a corporate entity in its own right, its relationship with KCTMO facilitated the Grenfell Tower tragedy, of which there can be little doubt. As such, this event can be re-labelled as a state-corporate crime, which can be understood through the acts or omissions which resulted from deliberate decision-making committed in pursuit of its common goals such as profitability. Alternative labelling includes harms of capitalism, which have been socially mediated within harmful societies, or social murder, resulting in unnatural death as an inevitable consequence of conditions imposed by state and corporations. Regardless of the critical criminological framing lens, the focus remains on the visible and invisible, known and unknown harms which have manifested, and other harms which may not become clear for decades to come.
If this preventable loss of lives was not appalling enough, the bereaved families, survivors and the wider Grenfell community battle through daily barriers of contempt in their pursuit for Truth, Justice and Accountability for the Grenfell 72. The promise of a swift inquiry is broken and replaced with delays possibly extending to 2022, as detectives continue the investigation into a range of offences from corporate manslaughter to health and safety breaches. We can only hold out hope that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, is able to bring some form of accountability for the Grenfell community. Sadly, the reality is that no large organisation such as RBKCC or KCTMO has been successfully convicted of deaths resulting from gross breaches of a duty of care, it seems very unlikely that the bereaved families will get justice for the Grenfell 72.
This is merely the latest unfolding harm, to be added to a series of failings, broken promises and contempt that have manifested and have been inflicted upon the survivors, bereaved families and immediate Grenfell community since Wednesday 14th June 2017. These harms extend beyond the physical to include social, economic, psychological and environmental harms as the following five examples demonstrate:
- Grenfell Tower survivors could be deported in 12 months despite government immigration amnesty
- Grenfell Tower: Almost 100 families still without own home this Christmas, 18 months after fire
- Most Grenfell Tower survivors show signs of PTSD – council study
- Grenfell: toxic contamination found in nearby homes and soil
- Grenfell families urge government to ‘listen to their voices’
In the wake of the cladding scandal and the knowledge that this cladding was the popular choice selected in cost-conscious council refurbishment schemes, Theresa May pledged £400 million towards the removal of flammable cladding, in particular Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding, (aluminium cladding panels containing a plastic filling) from social housing such as councils and housing association properties. In November 2018, Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, gave authorities power to remove panels from private blocks of flats and bill landlords, but these “are proving largely useless”. In May 2019, a welcomed allocation of £200 million has been confirmed by Theresa May to remove combustible cladding from privately owned tower blocks. However, this small step will not cover all the costs.
According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s Building Safety Programme (as at 31st March 2019), only 89 buildings in England (comprising of both social and private sector) have had remediation work to remove Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding systems out of 434 identified. The remedial work on buildings has been laboriously slow. The 345 buildings, yet to be remediated (this number does not include 15 private sector buildings where the cladding status is still to be confirmed) are unlikely to meet Building Regulations. Therefore, the residents occupying these properties are living in fear, as the latest fire in Vallea Court, a private block in Manchester with Grenfell style cladding on the 4th May 2019 has proven.
Despite losing their loved ones, neighbours and homes in the Grenfell Tower fire, and facing a daily battle against contempt, Grenfell United, a registered family association, made up exclusively of Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved families, have drawn upon their grief and experiences and channelled this into a campaign which actively calls for the Government to create a new housing regulator that works for tenants. The aim of their campaign is to send a clear message to the government that all “people living in social housing deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” Two years on from 14th June 2017, the Grenfell survivors, bereaved families and community stand united in solidarity to ensure that Grenfell will not be forgotten and will remain forever in our hearts; as they work together for their community and campaign for safe homes, justice and real change for people across the country.
For those who want to show their support you are warmly invited to attend an evening of remembrance, entailing: Wreath Laying at the Tower, Multi Faith Vigil and a Silent Walk. Alternatively, why not take action by holding a Green 4 Grenfell Day between 14 June and 28 June 2019 and do something good for your community by supporting a local cause? Or simply wear green as a mark of respect for the bereaved families, survivors, the Grenfell community and in remembrance of the Grenfell 72 who lost their lives:
Tony Disson, Ali Yawar Jafari, Abdeslam Sebbar, Denis Murphy, Zainab Deen, Jeremiah Deen, Mohammad Alhajali, Steve Power, Hamid Kani, Debbie Lamprell, Majorie Vital, Ernie Vital, Joseph Daniels, Sheila Smith, Kamru Miah, Rabeya Begum, Husna Begum, Mohammed Hanif, Mohammed Hamid, Khadija Khaloufi, Vincent Chiejina, Isaac Paulos, Birkti Haftom, Biruk Haftom, Sakina Afrasehabi, Fatemeh Afrasiabi, Mohamednur Tuccu, Amal Ahmedin, Amaya Tuccu-Ahmedin, Eslah Elgwahry, Mariem Elgwahry, Mary Mendy, Khadija M Saye, Jessica Urbano Ramirez, Farah Hamdan, Omar Belkadi, Leena Belkadi, Malak Belkadi, Abdulaziz El Wahabi, Faouzia El Wahabi, Yasin El Wahabi, Nur Huda El Wahabi, Medhi El Wahabi, Logan Gomes, Raymond ‘Moses’ Bernard, Ligaya Moore, Nura Jemal, Hashim Kedir, Yahya Hashim, Firdaws Hashim, Yaqub Hashim, Sirria Choucair, Bassem Choukair, Nadia Choukair, Fatima Choukair, Mierna Choukair, Zainab Choucair, Marco Gottardi, Gloria Trevisan, Hesham Rahman, Mohamed Neda, Gary Maunders, Abufars Mohamed Ibrahim, Isra Ibrahim, Rania Ibrahim, Fethia Hassan, Hania Hassan, Victoria King, Alexandra Atala, Maria Del Pilar Burton, Fathia Ali Ahmed Elsanosi, Amna Mahmud Idris.
Sharon Hartles, MA Postgraduate Crime and Justice student with the Open University
Images: courtesy of the author