Reviewed by Canon Mike D Williams
A shocking but necessary book. Shocking in the way it details the Grenfell fire hour by hour and the catastrophic failures of government, the construction industry, landlords and the fire service. Necessary, because Grenfell was an avoidable disaster and should not be allowed to happen again. The opportunities to prevent it were missed by the different systems and people that were meant to safeguard residents of high-rise buildings.
Seventy-two people died when, in the early hours of the 14 June 2017, a 24-storey block of flats went up in flames. The fire climbed up the outside cladding from the fourth floor where a fridge had caught fire. The cladding was as flammable as solid petrol. Fire doors failed to self-close. There was no alarm to wake the hundreds of sleeping residents and no sprinkler system. The fire service told people to ‘stay put’. Many did but the fire service command and control were not up to the task to rescue many of those waiting for help.
Avoidable in many ways. The book starts with an account of a fire in a poorly maintained council block of flats with a single stairway and failing fire doors where the fire spread rapidly between the flats due to combustible cladding. Many questions were raised by the loss of six lives in Lakanal House in 2009.
Peter Apps is deputy editor of Inside Housing magazine. It is a specialist publication for those who work in social housing. In the months before Grenfell the magazine had run a series of stories about fire safety. In March 2017 an article raised concerns about tower block safety as some of the key changes recommended after the Lakanal House fire had not happened. The use of flammable materials for energy efficiency was one of the key unaddressed issues. People choose not to act – warning voices were ignored.
Chapters deftly combine vivid, compelling accounts of the victims of the fire with forensic detail of political and policy choices that led to the disaster. It is not a comfortable read. Evidence from the Public Inquiry captured in the book suggests that the ideological requirement of the Coalition Government in 2010 to reduce regulation meant that government ministers were not interested in new fire regulations. Nor did they wish to impose regulatory burdens on builders that might inhibit economic growth. The UK is one of very few nations to allow tower blocks with only one set of stairs.
The commercial interests of cladding and insulation manufactures were evident in their ability to capture the regulatory process for their own interest, according to Apps. Cost cutting by local government in the refurbishment of Grenfell meant that highly flammable cladding and insulation was used. Economic interest took precedence over human lives, although the companies involved dispute that. The voice of tenants – some of the poorest in one of the richest Boroughs of London were largely ignored.
Peter Apps has been acclaimed for his reporting on the Grenfell Fire Public Inquiry that will report in 2024. This book won the 2023 Orwell Prize for Political Writing. It is great writing about a devastating subject that we should all understand.