Safety inspections have fallen by 40%, leaving thousands of people at risk. It should be a source of deep shame for this government
“What value do we place on the lives of our citizens,” asked Sam Stein QC at the Grenfell Tower inquiry last week, “and how far are we prepared to pay for the protection of our people?” This question, it was suggested, lies at the heart of the investigation into the failures that led to the deaths of 72 people.
Eighteen months on, there are serious questions about the government’s commitment to fire safety. Yesterday the fire and rescue inspectorate (HMICFRS) published the first tranche of studies into the effectiveness of services across England. This is the first time such an inspection has been carried out. It found that the 14 fire and rescue services inspected so far had cut their fire safety audits by 42% since 2010-11. Eight services “require improvement” in terms of fire safety audits, while one service was found to be “inadequate”. Many teams are understaffed and under resourced.
“Protection work” – visits by fire services to homes and buildings to assess fire safety – was found to be “not a priority”. The findings suggest that Grenfell was not an isolated case when it comes to fire prevention. The inspectorate has not yet looked at London, or other metropolitan areas, but there are very worrying echoes here of what we’ve learned about the policies and procedures that led up to Grenfell – and the institutional defensiveness we’ve seen at the inquiry so far. A lack of resources means that fire prevention teams are unable to get around all the premises they need to inspect and cannot keep up with requests for inspections from planning departments. This builds a worrying picture of a service that is responsive rather than proactive, prioritising emergencies over inspections.
This may all seem like so much paperwork, but the story of Grenfell is state failure in action. Grenfell was, as lawyers for one of the families put it at the inquiry, chronically underassessed in terms of fire safety. Before the horrors of 14 June 2017, visits to the tower block were planned, but cancelled. Actions from previous inspections were not followed up. Building plans were not placed on the London Fire Brigade’s risk assessment database, which meant they were unavailable to firefighters attending the emergency.
On 17 November 2016, seven months before the fire at Grenfell Tower, the London Fire Brigade served a fire safety deficiency notice on the landlord, Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). It outlined eight areas of concern: including fire doors and emergency exit routes. KCTMO was given six months to put these deficiencies right; it is unclear whether it took any steps to remedy them.
The question of whether lives could have been saved by proactive follow-up – more resources, staff and time spent on enforcement – should haunt the fire and rescue services for decades.
Fire safety is a joint effort between the fire service, building owners and local authorities. The fire service has a power of enforcement. In some areas, according to the Fire Brigades Union, this hasn’t been used for two years. Resourcing may play a role here – the mantra in the public sector from 2010 onwards was “more for less”, after the first austerity budgets translated themselves into frontline policy. Jonathan O’Neill, managing director of the Fire Protection Association, said in a statement: “Unless and until fire and rescue services are allocated the sufficient additional resources that have been highlighted as required so far, enforcement activity will continue to fall and rogue landlords and building owners could continue to act unhindered.”
With every new piece of research into what went wrong at Grenfell, we see core aspects cut back, and a degradation of services. Austerity is a catch-all, but this in itself masks more urgent questions about responsibility, culture and government delay.
Where is the urgency? Immediately after the fire at Grenfell, the prime minister said, “We cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons.” There are still 441 high rises clad in dangerous materials. There are still families at risk in their homes. That such damning findings are produced 18 months on should be a source of deep shame for this government. What message does this send to bereaved families about its attitude to fire safety?
In the course of one evening in west London, whole families disappeared. People picked up their children or grandchildren from school, went home to make dinner, and were never seen again. Chairs sat empty in playgroups and classrooms. Absence took the place of children, friends, parents and neighbours.
At the Grenfell Tower inquiry, Michael Mansfield QC quoted a survivor who lost six members of her family: “The impact it’s had on our families and our community could have been prevented. We can’t change that now, but we can change the lives of those we’ve lost to count, for their deaths not to have been in vain. There has to be change.”
What value do we place on the lives of our citizens? How much are we willing to pay for the protection of our people? The answer must be: whatever it takes. Now.