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Grenfell: Tragic lessons from the London tower fire

How regulations, and the initial response, fell short for residents of this U.K. housing estate

The remains of Grenfell Tower, a residential tower block in Kensington, west London, is pictured on June 19, following the June 14 fire at the residential building. 

The fire that consumed Grenfell Tower in West London last Wednesday—which has a confirmed death toll of 79 as of Monday morning—has produced justifiable outrage. Now considered the deadliest in mainland Britain since the early 20th century, the fast-moving fire was a tragedy with several causes—causes which, after the fact, were almost universally recognized a preventable.

The fire overwhelmed initial efforts by firefighters and emergency responders due to its flammable cladding, Reynobond, a material made by Arconic (a spin-off of the aluminum conglomerate Alcoa). According to the New York Times, the cladding was banned in the U.S. and other countries after a number of high-profile fires in Dubai highlighted the material’s deficiencies.

According to The Guardian, the material chosen—the more flammable of two types of Reynobond being considered by contractors—was just £2 cheaper per square meter. Since construction regulations in the U.K. hadn’t been renewed for more than a decade, British rules didn’t take into account changing technology and materials. A member of the Fire Brigade said the the new cladding, added during a renovation last year, left the ’70s-era, 24-story building particularly vulnerable to a fire.

“It is like you have got a high-rise building and you are encasing it in kerosene,” Edwin Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, told the New York Times. “It is insanity, pure and simple.”

Meanwhile, residents had complained for years about building fire risks on their own Grenfell Action Group blog. Residents said repeated complaints to management "fell on deaf ears." One entry from last November noted that "the Grenfell Action Group believes that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

The calamity of the fire was compounded by the initial reaction from the Kensington and Chelsea council, which many felt was belated, disorganized, and tone-deaf. Local leaders have been criticized as being so slow to respond that on Sunday, the British government took over the emergency response. Prime Minister Theresa May pledged $6.4 million to help victims of the fire.

Britons have noted that the tragedy highlights the wealth disparities in the nation’s capital. The towers, filled with immigrants from nations including Syria, is in the center of Kensington and Chelsea, one of London’s smallest yet richest boroughs. Ironically, the borough also has the greatest number of unoccupied residences in London: 1,399 homes worth approximately £2 billion, many of which are a result of land banking. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested housing families made homeless by the Grenfell fire in such vacant properties.

Others have pointed to the issues with management of these towers, which by design push for cost savings and value engineering. Financial Times writer Edwin Heathcote noted that a push to prettify the tower, covering up its concrete exterior with cheap cladding to mirror more expensive high-rises in the district, may have contributed to the shoddy and unsafe retrofit. According to writer Owen Hatherley:

In many places, including Kensington, council stock is operated by Arms Length Management Organisations, and Tenant Management Organisations, which are in theory run by residents, but in practice are as often out of touch as any hostile council or Housing Association. When it comes to renovating buildings, councils have essentially been forced to abide by Design and Build contracts, and to use "best value', where they're legally forced into favouring third-rate design and construction. Contractors then sub-contract, causing a race to the bottom that is immediately visible in the cheap and tacky signs, fences, benches and cladding, frequently attached to buildings that were often once of a superior quality than their renovations suggest.

The fire should serve as a momentous wake-up call the regulators and housing authorities across the world. Chronic underfunding of affordable housing programs, failing to heed the warnings of experts like Sam Webb—who’s been advocating for fire safety for nearly five decades in the UK—and ignoring the need to maintain updated regulations: These are all sins for which those in charge of Grenfell should be punished for, and other should learn from and ignore at their own peril. The U.K. government has already launched a formal public inquiry and criminal investigation in regulation, construction practices, and oversight issues.

In the United States, the media has continued to revisit the question of whether it can happen here. According to the New York Times, the cladding, which served as an accelerant for the flame, was legal based on current British regulations. The U.S. and other countries have placed more stringent restrictions on this material.

But, despite a materials ban, the greater question of “can a disaster happen to U.S. public housing and its residents” should be expanded a bit.

Are there competent people in charge of the system, who have experience in housing policy and funding, and one would assume, safety regulations? Ben Carson, the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), who came to the position with no housing experience, attempted to appoint a former events planner to oversee HUD’s region II in New York and New Jersey—the largest affordable housing program in the nation.

Are budgets being slashed? The Trump administration proposed a $6 billion cut in HUD (14 percent of the program’s annual budget), including large cuts to the capital and operating funds that help maintain buildings. This includes a $35 million cut to New York City’s housing authority.

Are regulations being maintained and updated? The president campaigned on the promise of rolling back regulations—one he’s beginning to deliver. (To say nothing of infrastructure plans promised, and stalled.)

None of these isolated actions predicate a devastating building fire, of course. But Grenfell, now a charred tower in the middle of London, suggests that when governments ignore and under-fund housing, it comes at the public’s peril. Akin to the way regulations were put in place after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, politicians and citizens only tend to learn the heavy cost of not taking care of buildings after the fact.