West London’s Grenfell Tower fire of 14 June 2017 is just the latest in a string of building disasters which should never have happened.

Most significantly, this ‘towering inferno’ has exposed the big, the bad and the ugly. The fire unbelievably ‘big’, the construction of unsafe buildings blatantly ‘bad’, and the underbelly of governance the very ‘ugly’.

The ‘big’ Fire

Consider waking up as a resident of Grenfell in the early hours of the morning, finding yourself encased in the burning building, feeling flushes of horror, seeing the flaming flight of the cladding-fuelled fire, and hearing the fire fighters shrieking: “Stay in the building!”

Imagine being on the 23rd level of this 24-storey building. No central fire alarm system, no external fire escape, no lifts working and the only exit one internal smoke-filled staircase. Imagine the terror of being trapped inside the furnace, screaming frantically, desperately banging on the windows for help and realizing there was no way out of this ferocious fire. Then, in the face of imminent death, deciding that against the odds of survival you would jump, or as one woman did throw your baby out the window from the 10th floor in the faint hope of saving the precious life.

London’s fire fighters were at the scene quickly, but unprepared for this extraordinary fire. Like other fires where the highly flammable cladding has caused a firestorm, such as the Lacrosse building fire in Melbourne, 2014, this blaze was unstoppable and super destructive. As one fire fighter cried, “In my 29 years of being a firefighter, I have never ever seen anything of this scale.”

The immediate response

The community watched the building ablaze like a matchstick, and united into a grief-stricken collective to support the victims and their families. Without experience in emergency services, volunteers arrived in droves to provide food, clothes and the human touch. They wanted to comfort those whose loved ones were dead or unaccounted for, and to care for the traumatized, homeless survivors.

By contrast, the government’s response was deplorable. It was disorganized, lacked resources and failed to provide basic emergency services. It elected not to provide precise details on the dead and missing. It pronounced that the cause of the fire was ‘unknown’, spinning multifarious suggestions to dissuade from ‘cladding’ as the cause. Prime Minister Theresa May chose to visit the fire fighters but not the victims!

The government’s gambit

Official statements initially confirmed six people dead, with 70 in hospital and 20 in critical care. Soon after, some realism materialized, with the public informed that the death toll had risen to seven, by Friday to 30 (with a warning that the number of deaths could escalate to 70) and by the Sunday it was 58. Now the official number dead and missing is supposedly 80.

Survivors’ accounts contradicted the ‘official’ assertions. One woman, Hanan Wahibi woke at 1 am on the ninth floor and although her family of four managed to escape, her brother and his family did not. Hanan called her brother on 21st floor (at the time the fire had not reached top of building), but the overwhelming smoke entombed the family. The last time Hanan saw her brother was at 2 am when he, his wife and their children were banging on the window.

Another woman had an aunt, uncle and four cousins living on the 17th floor. She had spoken to them until 2:45 am, but with the uncle disabled and in a wheelchair they stayed with him hoping fire fighters would rescue them. This woman looked at the building and said: “there is no way they survived!” The ‘stay put’ advice was wrong and countless people waiting to be ‘saved’ were instructed a death sentence.

One survivor who managed to flee told the Guardian on 14 June, “I’m lucky to be alive – lots of people have not got out.” Another survivor said he knew “loads of people” did not escape and asked “Where are they?” The volunteers were asking this same question; few people were declared dead but “where were the survivors?”

Singer Lily Allen, who lives nearby, was sceptical of government spin. When the death toll was declared as 17, she was livid.

“I’ve never in my life seen an event like this where the death count has been downplayed by the mainstream media. Seventeen? I’m sorry, but I’m hearing from people (policemen and firemen) the figure is much closer to 150”, and many of those children,” she was quoted as saying on

Fury after the fire

Allen’s words echoed community suspicions. Locals were distressed, not knowing how many bodies were still inside the tower. Londoners heard the personal accounts, saw the ferocity of the fire on TV, reckoned this was no accident and realized media reports did not ring true.

Two weeks on, the police said a visual search of every flat on every floor had been conducted but that “utter devastation” was making a full forensic search difficult. Worse, the search and recovery would take “at least until the end of the year, and the identification process even longer.” Out of 129 flats, the Police presumed everyone in 23 flats perished. But with one person per flat, and allowing for families, children, visitors and anyone subletting, the death count simply did not compute. The government’s credibility was shot.

It seemed that the ‘damage control’ stratagem of minimizing fatalities was devised to deflect the growing uproar; an attempt to mitigate the backlash against those responsible for ‘building control’ – the government! Further, the failure to provide an indication of culpability until ‘inquiries’ were completed manifested as contempt, and this manoeuvre sparked calls of a calculated ‘cover up’. Raw emotion turned to communal fury.

The ‘bad’ building industry is uncontrolled

Grenfell was built in the 1970s, and refurbished to be ‘modern’ with ‘rain screen’ cladding on the exterior in May 2016.

However, from the moment refurbishment was completed, residents tried to get authorities to listen to their fears, all to no avail! After the fire, the Grenfell Action Group blog posted that “only a catastrophic event” would act as a wakeup call and “this was inevitable and just a matter of time.” They were right!

Upon hearing the news of the Grenfell Tower fire, the company responsible for refurbishment went into hiding, removing all references to its involvement in the building from its website. Then it had a change of mind, perhaps realizing that hiding long-term might be problematic given the magnitude of this disaster and the horrific human  carnage.  Hence soon thereafter, the company released a statement. It said it had “met all required building control, fire regulation and health and safety standards” according to a report in the Indian Express on 14 June 2017. This ‘claim’ is significant because survivors and others blamed the cladding for the bonfire.

Cladding the likely culprit

Once substantive evidence emerged that cladding was the culprit, industry sources surfaced to divert attention from cladding as the major cause of the fire.

An architect responsible for several recladding projects told the UK Guardian that “the tower’s cladding was designed to include fire breaks at every floor and around every window,” and if installed correctly “flames should not have been able to sweep through the cavities.” Maybe ‘cavities’ and not cladding are to blame!

Another suggestion was that if the cladding was breached by bathroom vents or pipes, it was possible for the fire to spread rapidly – more to confuse!

Just to throw another causal factor into the mix, concerns about gas pipes or risers in the main stairwell of Grenfell Tower were raised in March 2017 and a local councillor assured these would be boxed in with ‘fire-rated’ protection. Evidently this was not done.

The company proclaimed it had met the required building controls. Although baffling, in relation to fire resilience of external cladding, no regulations exist. Bad building is officially sanctioned and regarding cladding, this company can argue its actions were lawful!

The ‘ugly’ underbelly: government policy protects business

The Grenfell fire demonstrates fatally flawed building policy and highlights the Government’s principal role of protecting business!

Firstly, there is no legal requirement to mitigate external fire spread, so fire hazards result in fires, the Telegraph reported on 20 June 2017) Astounding!

There are many types of cladding, some non-combustible, others highly flammable, and “it is a matter of choice.” For building companies, ‘choice’ is usually determined by cost! On this fiery face-lift using non-flammable cladding would have only added an extra £293,368 to the total cost. But in an unregulated market, profit over people always wins!

Secondly, over the years, Ministers were repeatedly warned of London’s woeful fire regulations, the importance of non-flammable cladding systems and the risk to those living in high rise blocks. But as with the poor Grenfell residents and the Fire Protection Association, warnings were ignored. And most shocking, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group wrote to the Minister in March 2014 providing “credible evidence to justify updating…the guidance…which will lead to saving of lives.” It begged the Minister not to “wait another three years in addition to the two already spent” before taking action.

After further correspondence, the government Minister Stephen Williams sent a reply that there was no urgency.

“I am not willing to disrupt the work of this department by asking that these matters are brought forward.” he was reported as saying in the Telegraph. Staggering!

Furthermore, since the fire, allegations of deliberately moving survivors around and withholding the real death toll to downplay the magnitude of the catastrophe have continued. This ploy was presumably meant to alter public perception and to lower the culpability stakes for the pollies, bureaucrats and the building company. Additionally, the media has been widely criticized for its willingness to support government spin, so as not to cause alarm or erode confidence in the police. The BBC was the exception; on 16 June when the official number of dead and missing was advised as 30, the BBC estimated it above 70.

Immediately after the fire, authorities announced that checks would be carried out on tower blocks that had undergone refurbishment. Too little, too late! The government also hastily announced multiple ‘inquiries’ – to take months or years, to make recommendations never to be enacted or enforced – and after deliberately delaying reviews for years! Hardly actions to inspire any trust!

Will the status quo prevail?

Unquestionably this fire was predictable and preventable. Equally obvious, systemic failure is entrenched public policy. Big fires are the result of bad building. Bad building is condoned by government. And most obscene, the ugly underbelly of non- compliance and its destructive consequences can only operate because it is officially certified!

The London community was outraged by this catastrophe, but the government’s atrocious conduct and the unjustifiable loss of lives in the ‘towering inferno’ ignited intense public furore. Let’s hope it is not extinguished, or the bent system fashioned to fail will prevail!

  • Good article as usual Anne. It will happen here if something is not done about it and soon. That the owners of apartments in the Lacrosse Building are expected to bear the cost of rectification is appalling but a prime example of the rotten influence of big builders; insurance companies and peak industry groups over this industry. They don't want to fix the problem and probably don't know how. The Chinese will sell us anything with any compliance certificates you want. Profits over people as you say. I spoke to a political advisor recently who told me that political parties just don't care – taxpayers are simply seen as an endless source of money and that's all. I encourage you to write your book Anne – one thing they don't like is publicity and the awful truth. Have a look at how the major parties are controlling who gets pre- selection – either union hacks or representatives of big business. Too many lawyers and too few good experienced rational thinkers.. Our legislation is being purchased and our democratic process under attack. One look at how this federal government and most state governments work should provide ample proof of that. AGAIN WRITE THE BOOK

  • London’s Grenfell Tower was refurbished under the eyes of the local council since it is a council owned building. The council is responsible to the community that buildings are built to a standard that ensures the safety of those who reside within them. The council failed in its duty of care. To make things worse at least another sixty high rise buildings have been found to have the same cladding. These buildings are spread throughout England in many different councils, hence there is a systemic problem concerning the safety and regulation by the nominated government authorities in England. The governments response has been to hide the true death toll by moving the surviving residents on a number of occasions thereby making it impossible to count the number of survivors and therefore get a true idea of the actual death toll which by looking at the fire and considering it began at 1.30 AM when most people are sleeping could well exceed 200 people.
    Unfortunately we have the same problem with the same cladding in Australia. We also have the same problem with regards to the responsible government authorities with regards to ensuring that buildings are built to standards and that they are safe to live in. We have also seen the same methods of cover up being used in Australia so as this and other problems with regards to sub standard buildings being rectified.
    Until the two lawyers who lead our two major political parties in Australia address the cultural problem of hiding from the truth which is embedded within our judicial structures their will only ever be a band aid fix, (provided the band aids are made overseas and are cheap).
    Thirty years ago we had a system of governance that as a community we could trust. This system was built upon discovering the truth via transparency. The system was built upon the premise that the laws of the land existed so as to enhance our communities and families. As the tsunami of economic rationalism, aided and abetted by legal colonisation tore through our society during the 1990`s the culture changed and we are now faced with a world where our regulators have been infiltrated by the lawyer class where the telling of lies is the norm, hiding the facts is the right of the vested interest and our communities and families have been relegated to the recycling centre to become fuel for the incinerator.
    Same in Australia as in England, just different countries on opposite sides of the planet.

  • Another great expose on bureaucratic bungling of our building authorities.

    Sadly almost every piece of legislation in the building industry has hidden agendas built into it to protect enterprise at the expense of consumers… as do several of our codes… including our top building code, the National Construction Code.

    But this top code exemplifies the lack of care built into our system as did its predecessor the Building Code of Australia.

    It permits disasters to occur, by permitting Performance Solutions (until recently called Alternative Solutions), to slip through unnoticed at permit stage under one of the permitted methods, namely 'EXPERT JUDGEMENT' (thus avoiding the rigours of testing used in other methods).

    The so-called expertise of the Builder who chooses the flammable cladding (because it is cheaper), the so-called expertise of the Architect or Draftsman who writes the specification and notes it on the drawings, and the so-called expertise of the Relevant Building Surveyor who stamps approval for its use on a multi-storey apartment tower are permitted to use that so-called expertise to create the 17 reported tower fires since 2010 world-wide. It is that so-called expertise that is permitted in our top building code.

    What a gigantic shemozzle our Federal Government has caused… and hardly a word on any of this by anyone to date. And it's been 3 years since out own Lacrosse tower as you point out.

    It's the same at VCAT where any cheaper alternative rectification thought up by a so-called expert is given every chance to succeed, whilst arguing over alleged defects thought up by those same so-called experts who have no proper definition of the term DEFECT.

    It really is a veritable circus.

  • A well-researched article.

    Certainly, Grenfell was a tragedy and a debacle.

    I don't have all the answers and I'm sure there are many wonderful people within the fire/building departments etc. which do their best. Yet systems seem to fail time and time again.

    One wonders if Australia is next. We have already had our 'warnings shot' as in the Lacrosse situation.

    • Russ Jones
      Liberal Matthew Guy. Says the V.B.A. is now a well run building authority he should contact the people who have put in a complaint to them and he might find out the truth but its only a reelection he is interested in there is nothing to be expected from Govt. state or federal untill something happens and the finger is pointed. R. Jones.

  • Once again a blistering, excuse the pun. account from Anne about some of the probable causes including combustible panels in the UK instances.
    Having interviewed Anne many times for my radio program, I hope the pollies call you to make yourself available for any convened hearings in Australia to further expose the building industries failings. This time they might listen.

  • The refurbishment of London`s Grenfell Tower was the responsibility of the local council who happened to also own the building. Another sixty buildings in England have been found to contain the same cladding, hence the problem is systemic.
    The government’s response has been to hide the the actual death toll.
    In Australia we also have buildings that contain exactly the same cladding and we have systemic problems with regards to the building of substandard buildings.
    Until the leaders of both our main political parties address this issue nothing will happen.
    Thirty years ago we had a system of governance that as a community we could trust, but things have changed.

  • Anne has done a lot of research and it is incredible that our government is still debating about this problem and nothing has been done. Keep up the good work Anne.

  • Anne you are right. This fire, like our lacrosse apartment fire was definitely predictable and preventable. No cladding allowed. No fuel for the fire. No loss of lives. And as you say, how many lives we will probably never be told the real death toll. Why is it that the vested interests control our politicians? It is obviously all about money! I hope that the outrage of ordinary Londoners continues and real change can be achieved. As for we ordinary Aussies who are the victims of deregulation, with our lives at risk it is more than a national disgrace. Keep up the good work!

  • Anne, you have certainly painted a clear picture and put the people in the frame. The history of attempts to get the Tower made safe, and especially by the residents themselves – and the ignore of governments at all levels and for years absolutely beggars belief.It is easy to draw the parallels between our own governments and those in London. The helpless victims are what this story is really about and every time their lives are simply not considered of any value. It makes me throw my hands up in despair!

  • Another well researched article that everyone in the wider community would do well to read. This could easily have happened in Melbourne, and as you point out, can still happen here as the government is only interested in talk, not action. Keep up the good work.

  • The latest in from London is that the Council might be charged with Corporate Manslaughter over Grenfell. This may even come to pass of course. So it may simply be more placating of the public – spin doctors spinning stories to calm the masses given the enormity of public outrage. But what about the contractor who changed the cladding to cut costs and make more profits? What about the supplier, the installer, the everyone in the unsafety chain……? At the end of the day no INDIVIDUAL will be called to account or punished. And whatever the outcome in whatever number of years, the dead have lost their lives and their families are losers too; as for those maimed, they have had their lives taken from them and their families too are shattered forever.
    As for financial compensation – if any – the taxpayers will foot the bill! All exempt from any punishment!
    In England, they have industrial manslaughter laws whilst we do not – funny how that happened! Even so, like any 'laws' here in Australia the English 'laws' are worthless – devised to protect the 'elites' who organized the writing of same.
    Every individual in the class of 'big business' is not subject to any 'laws' or any form of 'justice' under the legal system. Guess who set up the legal framework of universal impunity?

  • Anne you have certainly highlighted the catastrophic suffering of the poor people caught in this fire. But to think that it is all about saving money and making more profits and that the government have allowed the builders to cause this disaster. And how many others in London and in Australia? We are now left waiting for more disasters and here. This is disgraceful. As for myself I am scared to move to any building built in the last 20+ years and the high-rise are of course the worst threat, with the community all the victims.

  • Another great article Anne, & so well researched, not only exposing the entire failure of all levels of British Government, where building governance is concerned, to allow a disaster of this magnitude, involving this tragic amount of loss of lives to happen, but expressing the actual supposed, heart-wrenching experience of those involved. Disgusting, and disgraceful that their government, & all the bureaucratic levels involved, allowed this to occur, even ignoring reported, & repeated community concern. But what, terrifyingly, does this remind me of? Oh, that's right, similar "Non-governance' regulation and enforcement " here! All our responsible governing bodies are on notice! VBA, Richard Wynne