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The second Grenfell disaster has already begun

Image: Frank John

If official estimates of fatalities are correct, then the Grenfell fire will be Britain’s fourth worst (non-terror related) disaster in modern times.  If estimates made by residents themselves prove to be correct, it may even be the worst – overtaking the Hillsborough, Piper Alpha and Herald of Free Enterprise disasters.  But even before the death toll has been confirmed, a second disaster is unfolding before our eyes.  This is the disaster that is being inflicted upon the relatives and survivors by the official agencies of the state.

The term “second disaster” was coined by Beverly Raphael to describe the way that state action and inaction in the wake of the Buffalo Creek flood destroyed the surviving communities that built their lives around the Creek and the area’s coal industry.  In particular, the state failed to provide the community and psychosocial services needed to support the communities to rebuild.  Indeed, the one response that the state did make – the provision of emergency “housing” (often no more than uninsulated trailers) – made things worse by breaking up families and spreading friends and neighbours to the winds.

Raphael went on to document disaster after disaster where similar unthinking action/inaction by state agencies served to add to the problems facing victims, survivors and bereaved relatives.  Published in 1986, Raphael’s When Disaster Strikes had considerable impact in Britain, as we began to experience a cluster of austerity-related disasters.  Starting with the two catastrophic fires at Bradford City football ground and Manchester Airport in 1985, Britain became something of a disaster capital as events like the sinking of the Herald and the Kings Cross Fire were followed by Piper Alpha, the Clapham Rail Crash, Locherbie, the Kegworth air crash, Hillsborough and the sinking of the Marchioness.  However, while researchers and policy wonks (myself included) spent the early 1990s trying to work out how to develop civil contingencies policy to incorporate community and psychological support into the official response to disasters, for the most part, the focus has remained with the emergency response.

We do not, for example, have any accepted protocol for investigating disasters.  Some – like Hillsborough and the Marchioness sinking – had coroner’s inquests that added to the tragedy.  Others had official safety agency investigations.  Some, like the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise even had criminal investigations (although the inability to establish a “controlling mind” in such incidents meant that the directors/senior managers of the corporations involved were never brought before the courts).  Nor do we have any central repository for the evidence from these investigations, with the result that all too often the same mistakes are repeated over and over.

The two changes that were achieved were a mixed blessing.  In 1992, Home Secretary Michael Howard produced guidance that was intended to shift Britain’s antiquated Cold War emergency planning system to a focus on civil emergencies rather than war.  However, without legal backing local councils and other state agencies were more or less free to ignore the guidance.  Twelve years later, the legal backing came in the form of the pyrrhic victory that was the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.  Perhaps the only good thing about this Act – which gave the state draconian powers to suspend democracy and the rule of law in the event of an emergency – was that it placed a legal requirement on local authorities to produce emergency plans for responding to civil emergencies.

Which brings us to an obvious observation about the Grenfell fire – there has not been an emergency response from the local authority.  It is only because local faith groups opened up their premises that the survivors of the fire had somewhere sheltered to sleep.  Food and clothing only appeared because first local residents and later donors from further afield brought them.  Indeed, the distribution of food and clothing also fell to local volunteers without any support or coordination from the Council.  Today, following pressure from community groups, central government has been obliged to acknowledge the inadequate local authority response by deploying civil servants (who, presumably, should be working on the Brexit negotiations) to carry out the jobs that the local council was supposed to do.  Either the local council did not have a plan, or they chose not to implement the plan that they had.  In either case, this is gross dereliction of duty.

Nor are the hands of central government clean.  The haste with which Theresa May announced a public inquiry is cause for suspicion.  In most cases, governments resist public pressure to inquire into events like these precisely because they risk shining a spotlight on the dark dealings of the state – consider how long it took to get inquiries into Bloody Sunday, the Iraq War, South Yorkshire Police actions at Orgreave or the child abuse scandal.  The only time the state concedes public inquiries is when it needs to steer the line of inquiry.  Crucially an Inquiry has no power to compel witnesses to attend.  Nor is it a court in which those affected might have legal representation.  Overseen by tame Judges, most inquiries serve to narrow lines of inquiry onto areas considered safe by the establishment.  The one exception was Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry into the Hillsborough disaster.  It is rumoured that government failed to properly check Taylor’s background simply because they could not imagine that a senior judge would also spend his Saturdays standing on the terraces of a football ground.  But that, it turned out, was precisely what Taylor did.  And his first-hand knowledge of football allowed him to cut through much of the nonsense presented by the South Yorkshire and Sheffield authorities as evidence.  It was to take more than two decades for the Hillsborough families to get justice – but many of the things finally established in the new inquests were recorded in the Taylor report.  It is unlikely that government will repeat that mistake again.

There is nothing technical about the Grenfell fire that requires a public inquiry to uncover.  Most of the broad details are already in the public domain.  A faulty kitchen appliance started a fire.  Had the alarms and fire extinguishers worked, far more people might have survived, but they didn’t.  Had the building had a sprinkler system – as recommended time and again after similar fires – more people might have survived, but it didn’t.  Had flammable materials not been stored in walkways and stairwells more people might have survived, but they were.  Had the local authority paid £5,000 more for fireproof external cladding then far more people would have survived, but they didn’t.  The exact details will come out in the Chief Fire Officer’s report into the incident; so there is no need to duplicate the issue.

A public inquiry also threatens to confuse and obstruct any criminal investigations into the tragedy.  David Lammy MP, who lost a friend in the Grenfell fire, has quite correctly called the incident a crime and has called for prosecutions.  However, given the history of corporate manslaughter prosecutions, this will be difficult to achieve.  To have any chance of a prosecution, detectives would already have the offices of the local council, the property management agency, the building contractors and suppliers and the land freeholder locked down while they sifted the documentary and computer records pertaining to the tragedy.  We will never know for sure, of course, but it is easy to imagine that while the world was focusing on the antics of the Prime Minister and her public inquiry, those organisations will have been busy shredding papers and wiping hard drives.

What all of this points to is yet another group of survivors and bereaved relatives who will be put through the wringer of the British (in)justice system for the next decade or so.

Meanwhile, the wider community is about to be further disrupted by what comes next.  It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Grenfell tower is not going to be refurbished.  Nor does one have to be particularly bright to understand that once the fallout from the tragedy has dissipated and the tower demolished, the local council is going to sell the land to a private developer to put up even more high-end property.  If they are particularly cynical, they may even use the disaster as an excuse to tear down the neighbouring towers.  After all, if the public inquiry recommends expensive retrofitting of safety systems, and if government incorporates these into regulations or legislation, it will be far cheaper to rehouse people.  The council may even argue that the income they receive from the sale of the land can be used to rehouse the residents – but that rehousing will not be in Kensington & Chelsea, and may not even be in London.  Either way, we can expect the an extension of the social cleansing that has seen the working class all but disappear from the central districts of London over the last two decades.

If this is allowed to happen, we will see the community destroyed.  All of the informal support networks will be gone.  In their place, people will be relocated into new neighbourhoods where they will most likely be eyed with suspicion by the existing community.  Even if they are not, it can take years to build up the informal networks of family and friends that allow those at the lower end of the class structure to get by.

That is, perhaps, the one thing we can learn by revisiting Beverley Raphael’s 1986 book; because what is about to be done to the victims of Grenfell is more or less what was done to the victims of Buffalo Creek and just about every other community disaster since.  That in turn tells us why we need not bother with inquiries and reports to parliament.  Because the bottom line is – to paraphrase many historians down the years – if we learn anything from disaster inquiries, it is that we learn nothing from disaster inquiries.

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