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Grenfell – after the fire, the blame storm

June 15, 2017

Aberfan Disaster

Theresa May must be thanking her lucky stars that the awful Grenfell Tower fire didn’t happen two weeks earlier. Had that been the case, by now we would probably have been getting used to a Labour government.

It’s human nature that even before all the victims have been identified, people are popping up everywhere to point the finger of blame.

There’s been talk of corporate manslaughter. Mrs May’s new chief of staff has been accused of not acting on a report warning of fire risks in tower blocks from when he was Housing Minister.

Exits from the tower were reduced during the refurbishment. The Fire Service gave standing instructions to residents to stay put in their apartment if a fire broke out elsewhere in the building. Fire station cutbacks allegedly increased the time it took for the fire engines to arrive at the scene.

There have been rumours about the cause of the initial fire that I won’t bother to repeat because they probably have more to do with social and political narratives than with the fire itself.

Some media commentators have blamed austerity for the disaster. David Aaronovitch of The Times looks back at a string of disasters in the Eighties that involved mass casualties – the Bradford City stadium fire, the Herald of Free Enterprise fire, the King’s Cross underground fire and the Hillsborough disaster. Given the lessons learned from these events, he says, we shouldn’t be here. As he describes them, the common threads in these disasters were that:

“by and large they arose from the use of old, near-obsolete and dangerous infrastructure, from under-investment in improvements and a generally negligent attitude toward health and safety.”

He could have added that there’s another common thread. Just as was the case with Grenfell Tower, there was no lack of people warning about the potential for these kinds of disaster. Go back further than the 80s to Aberfan, where an unstable spoil tip in a Welsh mining village slipped down a hill and engulfed a school.

At Aberfan, the concerns of the locals about the tip were dismissed. It was only when an “expert”, the Borough Engineer, wrote to the National Coal Board with his concerns, that the NCB took notice. But such actions as they subsequently took did not prevent the disaster.

All too often, we rely on experts to allay fears based on what is plainly obvious. Anyone who went to a major football stadium before Hillsborough would be able to tell you of the risk of crushing. And it shouldn’t have been up to a fire officer to point out that allowing thousands of people to gather on an antique wooden stand full of inaccessible rubbish was a recipe for disaster.

So here, unfortunately, is what seems to be a universal human trait. Even in a society that accepts the need for strict health and safety regulations, we trim, we get by, we take risks and we ignore hazards. Regulations can’t cover every eventuality. They are built on what we know, not on what we don’t know. And even when we know about a new risk, it can take an inordinate amount of time to update the regulations. It’s only when a catastrophe forces us to learn lessons that we take rapid action.

It has always been thus in the aviation industry. Most of the technological weaknesses in aircraft are first identified because of crashes. Investigations reveal the causes; manufacturers and operators fix the problems. The one problem they can mitigate, but never fix, is human error.

It will be no consolation to the families of those who died in Grenfell Tower to know that the deaths of their loved ones will probably make similar disasters less likely.

But there will be man-made disasters in the future. Some will come seemingly out of the blue, only for people to tell us after the fact that they told us so beforehand. Others are staring us in the face – infrastructure vulnerable to cyberattacks, major floods caused by climate change for which we have not prepared, nuclear detonations.

We are not, contrary to what Aaronovitch says, back in the Eighties. We are where we have always been, balancing foresight with expediency, and sometimes getting it wrong. And infrastructure that is old isn’t necessary dangerous. If that were the case we would need to demolish the majority of our churches, palaces, Georgian terraces and Tudor farmhouses, and with them the cultural soul of our country. In fact, young infrastructure is often more dangerous than old, because it’s more complex and not designed to last.

If you exclude the threat from terrorism, our country is a safer place today than it was in the Eighties. The very fact that a disaster like Grenfell Tower stands out is because it’s relatively rare. Unfortunately, there’s one thing the designers and the regulators can’t anticipate every time. Us.

We are fallible, stupid, vain, complacent, greedy, selfish and negligent. We are human. We have some positive qualities too, as all those who rushed to assist the survivors of Grenfell Tower have shown.

But if you know anyone who has never taken a risk, cut a corner or accidentally put someone else in danger – and got away with it with a sigh of relief – then you know a very rare person.

So the blame storm rages away, almost as fiercely as the fire that consumed the tower. The rich and the poor blame each other, as do the left and the right. In a disaster of this magnitude we can always find someone to blame. Whether or not we are justified in pointing the finger, this is how many of us make sense – our sense – of what happened.

No doubt there will be an inquiry. People will be held responsible and recommendations made. But whatever sanction the state might impose on such parties as may be identified as culpable, I suspect that it will be nothing compared to the punishment they will exact on themselves, knowing that they have contributed to all those needless deaths.

With that in mind, when you drive your car a little too fast on the motorway, or take your eyes off your kids in the shopping mall for just a little too long, you might want to spare a thought for those who took a risk and didn’t get away with it, or looked away when they shouldn’t have done, and say to yourself “there but for the grace of God go I”.

From → Politics, Social, UK

  1. John Butler permalink

    The council was warned until it was exasperated with the lone councillor for the area bringing up the plight of the poor in this part of the borough and the shocking quality of housing and maintenance. The truth is this is not so much the result of human failure, this is the result of the turgid class system, the gross privilege of the enormously rich and their complacency towards the poor on their doorstep who actually clean their loos, wash their linen and care for their elderly and sick. The history of this in Kensington and Chelsea is a long one. I know people in Chelsea who work for a charity looking after the casualties of our system in north Kensington, but the system is something they can do little about. The Tories just don’t get it. The council should face the music, and the government be held accountable for the impoverishment of people who work in public service and the attenuation of our public services while private wealth increases exponentially. Theresa May hasn’t a clue. She gives one half a percent of her income to charity which she thinks is noble of her, and was too scared to face the public today. Shame on her and the whole damned lot. I doubt she’ll have much of a government left unless she somehow breaks out from her emotional and political straitjacket. And where are the Royals? They live in the borough. If Buck House caught fire they would have been there passing buckets of water. What about housing those who’ve lost their homes in the Palace rather than the hotels they’ve been put in? And where was the Leader of the Council today – meeting the owners! It is intolerable.

  2. Thanks John. There will be a reckoning, I’m sure. I lived in the borough once – at the poor end – and I can relate to what you’re saying. This is not just about Kensington, and not just about the fire. Trouble is, I’m not confident that any of the political parties can deliver on their promises to address the widening gap between rich and poor so starkly exemplified by Kensington. I might be wrong, but hope is not my strong suit these days. S

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