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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Closing the door after the horse has bolted

by New Worker correspondent

IT IS OFTEN SAID that in Britain it takes a major disaster before anything is done about a known problem. It took 66 deaths at Ibrox football ground in 1971 and for the Bradford football fire to claim 56 lives in 1985 for longstanding problems with overcrowded and decrepit sports venues to receive attention.

The 2017 fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington is another case in point. Here it took 72 deaths for authorities to wake up to the fact that it was not a good idea to insulate and improve the appearance of tower blocks with inflammable materials. This seemingly elementary point had been made by similar smaller fires at Southwark in 2009 and at nearby Shepherd’s Bush. The month previous to the Grenfell fire London Fire Brigade officially warned all of London’s 33 councils that they had to review the use of panels and “take appropriate action to mitigate the fire risk”.

Grenfell Tower had, according to residents, long-standing safety problems unrelated to the fire. The main cause of the tragedy, however, was the composition of the external cladding tiles that were put on in the course of a major renovation carried out shortly before the fire, which was started by a small, routine kitchen fire.

These were selected by the Kensington & Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO) on the grounds of economy rather safety, which would have been a more expensive option. The fatal, sub-standard choice was supplied by a firm that donated to the Tory Party. It has come to light that critical reports of the safety of the materials had been supressed and the council’s buildings control inspector was too busy to read reports he signed off.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE), which had been privatised, was another miserable failure for failing to test properly and for accepting false documentation from suppliers.

Three-and-a-half years on, squabbles continue about removing dangerous cladding.

It has been estimated that it will cost £15 billion to remove flammable claddings from all buildings taller than 18 metres, this covers about 4.6 million properties. Only £1.6 billion has been committed by the Government.

Attempts have been made to place the burden of the expense of replacement on to the shoulders of tenants and leaseholders rather than landlords. One minister said people should take out second mortgage to solve a problem caused by dodgy penny-pinching landlords.

Only recently has Housing Minister Christopher Pincher finally conceded that it was “wrong and unjust” that leaseholders should bear the costs of removing combustible cladding. Most of these leaseholders are not in the millionaire category, but former council tenants who bought into Thatcherite dream of a property-owning democracy or were fed up with inefficient council maintenance services.

Even the Vice-chair of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, Bob Blackman, has said that: “Three and a half years after the Grenfell tragedy, we still have leaseholders living in unsaleable, un-mortgageable, uninsurable, unsafe properties, and that is a disgrace that we have to put right.”

This was in response to the Fire Safety Bill presently going through Parliament, which has generally seen the Government vote against amendments designed to improve it.

Emma Dent Coad, the short-lived Labour MP for Kensington at the time of the fire (and a former member of KCTMO), has attacked the Government for still catering to “irresponsible and profit-driven building managers”.

She also points out that there is no provision for “care homes, hospitals, student hostels or schools – perhaps because the government’s developer friends don’t have fingers in those pies” or, she might add, voters with a direct stake in the buildings.

In the long run, buildings regulators need to be owned by the Government and given adequate tools for the job. Tower blocks, which were an improvement on tenements and back-to-back slums, have surely had their day. There is an urgent need for council-led house building programmes, but these must avoid the errors of the 1950s and 1960s