The catastrophic consequences of being poor in one of London’s richest neighborhoods

Flames and smoke billow from Grenfell Tower.
Flames and smoke billow from Grenfell Tower.
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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The residents of Grenfell Tower, a 24-story tower block, had warned for many years that their building was a fire hazard. The tenants had complained that there was only one escape route; they questioned the placement of boilers and gas pipes, the lack of sprinklers, and the absence of a building-wide fire alarm.

The complaints were ignored. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, their worst nightmares came true. A ferocious blaze engulfed the block, home to over 400 people. Some jumped out their windows, others threw their children out of the burning flats, and many screamed for someone to help them.

“I suspect it would be one of the biggest fire disasters in British history,” says architect Sam Webb, the UK’s leading expert on the safety of post-war social housing. “This is a fire that need never have happened.”

As shocking is where the horrific inferno unfolded: Chelsea and Kensington, one of London’s richest boroughs. While it remains unclear how the fire started or why it spread so quickly, many argue the disaster is a powerful indictment of housing inequality in London. The borough is famous for its huge wealth disparity—among the many flats and terraced houses that cost millions, some of the city’s poorest residents live in social housing.

The blaze, which started on the fourth floor and rapidly spread, took over 24 hours to put out. The death toll has risen to 30 (police warn that figure will rise significantly), while more than 30 people remain hospitalized. Firefighters suggest it could take weeks to recover all the bodies. They don’t expect to find more survivors.

Joseph Downing, a researcher from the London School of Economics who studies urban deprivation in the UK and France, blames an institutional culture that allows social housing to be mismanaged and the concerns of tenants ignored. “These residents who started this campaign knew they were living in a death trap,” Downing says. “And they had no choice but to go back home at night and sleep there.”

In one eerily prophetic blog post published in November, the residents note “the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO [Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation], and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation.”

The UK was once a world-leader in social housing, but that changed once a program called “right to buy” was introduced in 1980. This allowed long-term social housing tenants to buy their properties at a discount. As many seized the opportunity to buy their homes, the government failed to build more social housing and replenish its housing stock, exacerbating the chronic shortage of London housing.

The housing crisis was coupled with austerity. Between 2010 and 2015, local governments in England and Wales had their main grants slashed by 40%. These cash-strapped councils sold off historic buildings, concert halls, and even works of art to raise money for essential services. Others turned to their housing stocks to plug holes in their budgets. With the difficulty of building houses in the more spacious outer suburbs (as a result of planning laws and resistance from suburbanites), the value of inner-city public land skyrocketed. Public housing become a key target for redevelopment to attract wealthier residents.

Milking public housing works  

In London, redevelopment schemes could either mean the complete demolition of post-war tower blocks, replaced with high-end flats. Or a re-tinkering of the floor plan to make room for more flats, bigger apartments, and improve the building’s appearance. The latter occurred at Grenfell Tower.

Grenfell Tower is owned by the local government, the Kensington and Chelsea council, but managed by KCTMO, a local housing association. Like many other housing associations, KCTMO outsourced redevelopment work to private companies. One of these works was a $12.8 million renovation last year, which installed a new thermal cladding system. The cladding was installed to improve insulation, ventilation, and to improve the block’s appearance, according to planning documents. This type of cladding is banned in the US (paywall) on buildings taller than 12.2m for fire safety reasons. Though the cladding conforms to UK standards, it is classed as “flammable” in Germany.

The cladding used by the contractors cost £22 per square meter, according to The Times of London. The standard, non-flammable version was £2 per meter more expensive. It would have cost around £5,000 extra for contractors to use the fire-resistant version. To make matters worse, fire experts had warned the government against the cladding material used on Grenfell.

“The repairs and refits carried out to these properties are always second-rate materials by second-rate contractors,” Downing says. That fact has been “an open secret in the sector for the best part of a decade.”

The disaster has sparked calls to revise building regulations. Arnold Tarling, a chartered surveyor at Hindwoods and a fire safety expert, says, “The fire would not have spread if the building had not been altered.” Tarling, who blames the cladding for the spread the fire, argues, “the new regulations are worse than the 1935 London Building Act in regard to fire-proof structures.” Downing agrees. “There’s a “general crisis in building standards,” he says.

Contractors complain that they are under pressure to cut costs for maintenance, repairs, and new build developments. Some feel they have to now submit what they dub as “suicide bids” (paywall) to win work. This in turns leads to horror stories of poorly managed social housing.

Last year, the social housing regulator slammed one of the country’s biggest housing associations, Circle, for providing shoddy repairs (paywall). In East London, community activist group Peach highlighted the squalor residents were forced to live in, including flooded toilets, sharp nails poking through the carpet, and gas leaks. In South London, tenants of the Solomon’s Passage development were told the blocks of flats, which were built just six years ago, had to be demolished and rebuilt due to a number of serious structural problems.

Not the first time

London has been here before. In 2009, six people were killed in a 14-story building fire in South London. An inquest into the deaths concluded the fire was caused largely by unsafe renovation work and the council’s failure to inspect the building. Among a number of recommendations from the inquest was to retrofit sprinkler systems in older tower blocks, for fire services to visit high-rise blocks to learn the layout, and a review of building regulations.

Webb, who advised the legal team for the families in the 2009 case, says the government failed to act on the recommendations. Most crucially, the former housing minister, Gavin Barwell (now prime minister Theresa May’s chief of staff), didn’t give the green right for a recommended fire review of tower blocks. “Every time we’ve raised of this, we’ve been accused of raising scare stories,” Webb says. “He’s just been sitting on it. You have to ask why? People’s lives are at stake.” The former minister has refused to answer questions about Grenfell Tower fire.

Politicians are now calling the blaze “corporate manslaughter” and the pressure is building on May to not only respond the disaster, but to address the gaps in fire safety between the poorest in the country and the richest. She has ordered an full public inquiry, but many still feel that’s not enough.

In the 1990s, Webb surveyed hundreds of residential tower blocks across the country. “We found over 50% of them failed quite basic, simple [fire] measures,” Webb says. He found that in many blocks, fire doors were not there or broken and dry risers were vandalized. Even then, Webb says “in many cases, the council had been informed about this and just disregarded it.”

Webb doesn’t know how many of these blocks have improved in fire safety since his survey over two decades ago. A 2011 report, which found that three-quarters of all social housing blocks were found to be potentially unsafe in a fire, suggests the UK still has a long way to go.