What a wretched week. In a year where tragedy has hardly been in short supply, Grenfell Tower has marked a new low. An accident waiting to happen born out of a scandal hidden in plain sight. These are clichés and yet they are for once entirely apt. Their very paucity seems to capture the most grotesque thing about what we are witnessing. We could have prevented it.
Even before the fire had been put out we had started to debate what went wrong. And the shocking thing is that so many of us had an answer. Inadequate regulation, poor standards, deficient governance, insufficient funding and more and more. Before we knew very much at all we were tripping over answers.
There was nothing unfathomable or inexplicable about it. It was a tragedy that was immediately explainable. And we all had our theories. Whether they are true or not we still don’t know, though it’s likely all played their part in some way. But so readily available were they that it was as if prescience and hindsight had become one and the same. We barely needed to collect our thoughts to understand the meaning behind a monumental tragedy or pause for breath to articulate it.
And the terrible thing that quickly became clear is that there was another group of people who had also known something of the truth all along. The people who actually lived there. But unlike ours, their prescience had been lived and voiced. They feared that something was actually going to happen to them. We now know in the most brutal way imaginable that they were right.
Of course, there are exceptions. Some of those who had ready answers had them because they have been warning, agitating and campaigning. Often for many years. But even they will have been asking, couldn’t they have done more. In fact, the dreadful irony is that they are more likely than most to be doing just that. To be asking, what if? No one with integrity ever enjoys saying I told you so.
On Wednesday night I watched a discussion on Newsnight. None of those who took part was anything less than sincere. It was very early to know quite what had happened, let alone why. Theories were offered in good faith, not necessarily mutually exclusive or competing, but a hotchpotch of unknown knowns. And I found myself speculating, based on my own limited experience, which might be right or wrong.
In particular, I found myself reacting to the notion that the fact that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) is an arms-length management organisation (ALMO) had been a contributory factor. It was implied that if the housing had been managed directly by the council it might have been a different story. Unfortunately, this gave rise to the misleading suggestion that ALMOs are profit making companies. In fact, they are not for profit companies, usually wholly owned by local authorities, and those who run them are very much committed to public housing.
In any case, the argument didn’t resonate with me and it’s worth mentioning why. But it’s also worth mentioning how I reacted. For four years between 2008 and 2011, I chaired the board of an ALMO in another London borough. An area which is very different in some respects but which had at least two startling similarities. The homes we managed were cheek by jowl with increasingly lavish wealth. And the people living in those homes were very often there because they were too poor to live anywhere else.
My tuppence halfpenny worth on Wednesday evening was that the immediate explanation was most likely to be a potent mixture of inadequate regulation and scant investment. A few days on I haven’t changed my mind. But it’s also true that I bristled at the notion that a model of governance which I had been party to in might have in some way contributed to the unfolding horror.
I scarcely want to admit my selfishness but in my defence, it’s a very human reaction. I didn’t want to feel responsible. Hadn’t I, after all, spent many unpaid hours as chair of an ALMO? Hadn’t I done so out of a genuine commitment to making people’s lives better? I can honestly answer yes to both questions. So why should I feel responsible when there are others who did less and worse?
It’s so much more comfortable not to feel culpable, especially if it affords you the opportunity to be a little bit righteous. I have a visceral dislike of blame cultures. But right there and then, in the comfort of my beautiful privately owned home 400 miles away I definitely didn’t want to feel that anyone could point the finger at me.
As it happens I still don’t think the model of governance itself was the problem. Reflecting on the board I presided over, I don’t think that decision making by councillors alone would have been inherently superior to ours. In fact, I think we were able to incorporate a better range of skills, knowledge and experience. But like the KCTMO board, our responsibilities were performed within a regulatory framework which wasn’t of our making.
Neither do I think councillors alone would have been inherently superior at listening to residents. In fact, in some respects, we were better placed to precisely because we were at arms-length. We certainly didn’t care any less. However, it does seem that communication with tenants at KCTMO had broken down badly.
But my reflection couldn’t reasonably end there. The fact is that whatever its relative merits the ALMO model was effectively forced upon the council as the only means of securing funding to refurbish decaying homes to a decent standard. And even the ALMO had to jump through hoops to secure a particular rating from the regulator before the funding would be made available.
I’m not advocating throwing good money after bad. All the improvements we had to make to get the money mattered and in many cases, they were long overdue. But the investment in decaying housing stock was long overdue too and while we were playing an elaborate game of process, the decay was continuing largely unabated.
And even though my role was as an independent member of the board, all of this was initially presided over by a government run (with a handsome majority) by a party of which I was a member at the time. For four years I sat in meetings with fellow board members and senior officers all of whom knew that we were operating in a context of significant levels of underinvestment over many years. There was new money but it still wasn’t enough.
And if I’m honest when I look back I can’t tell you much about the safety of our buildings. Did they have the right cladding? I don’t know. Did they have sprinkler systems? Almost certainly not. Did I lie awake at night worrying about it? No. Did some of the residents? Quite possibly.
So when we look on and offer potential answers, when we shake our heads at the dearth of decent responses from those who hold more cards than we do, (as well we might) there are plenty of us who need one way or another to acknowledge that this has happened on our watch too. Some people feared this and begged others to listen. Some of us might have listened more than others, but it wasn’t enough to stop it happening.
I’m not advocating a wave of suffocating and pious guilt. But rather that if we all knew this was happening then the very least we can do is make very loud demands to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Not just for inquiries or inquests though there may well be a place for both.
Not just for a better resourced and co-ordinated response to those left destitute but goodness knows it sounds like that’s needed even though I’m sure those on the ground will be working tirelessly.
Not only by focusing on the long term though we clearly need a monumental change of direction in our thinking about housing, public and private.
Not only by focusing on the medium term though there are things we must do as soon as possible that will set us on the right course, most significantly tightening regulations.
But for action to be taken now.
I’m not a fire and safety expert but what I’ve heard repeatedly over the last couple of days is that that sprinkler systems would have saved most if not all of the lives lost in this tragedy. And I’ve heard that in the case of Grenfell Tower that would have cost between 150 and 200k. If both those things are true, then the money should be found now to install one in every publicly owned tower block in the land.
No matter if it’s complicated or causes inconvenience. No matter if the state of the building suggests a better solution would be to bulldoze it. If people are living there now, just do it. Now. Inspect building materials by all means. Do safety inspections by all means. Do any amount of due diligence. But if there is an evidence base to suggest that there is something that can be done that prevents further loss of life, we should find the money and start on Monday.