LONDON – The death toll from the Grenfell Tower fire on the night of June 14 is now 79. This figure could rise further.
The inferno that spread through the 24-floor block of apartments in the west of London was a tragedy that could have been prevented if greater care had been taken by the builders and the authorities responsible for the building.
The occupants had been advised that in case of fire they should stay put, as any fires would be extinguished quickly and firebreaks would protect them. As a result of this advice many occupants, especially on the higher floors, were trapped and killed by smoke or fire.
There was only one fire escape via a single internal staircase. There does not seem to have been a general fire alarm to warn all occupants of danger.
The blaze appears to have started on the fourth floor when a refrigerator caught fire. It spread rapidly via cladding that had recently been applied to the outside of the building to provide insulation and improve the building’s appearance. There seems to have been a gap behind the cladding that acted as a chimney and led to the fire spreading rapidly.
The government has called for a full public inquiry led by a judge to establish the facts and make recommendations to prevent further tragedies from occurring. The police have also launched a criminal investigation into whether regulations were deliberately flouted or whether there was criminal negligence justifying charges of manslaughter against organizations or individuals.
There was an immediate outpouring of sympathy for the victims. Quantities of clothing and food were donated to help the hundreds made homeless and destitute by the tragedy. The fire, police and ambulance services responded quickly and were praised for their actions, which helped to prevent the fire spreading and causing greater damage and loss of life.
But the local authority in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been sharply criticized for the chaotic and inadequate measures taken to provide basic necessities for people who in many cases had lost everything (some were still in their night wear) and were homeless. Local fury was such that the central government felt forced to take control and sent in civil servants from the Home Office.
Theresa May, who for the time being remains prime minister, has also been taken to task for not responding quickly enough or with adequate empathy to the tragedy. While Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, both visited the area and listened to the complaints of those affected, May, apparently for security reasons, only spoke with members of the emergency services when she first went to the area. The government, under attack from the opposition, decided to provide an emergency fund of £5 million for the benefit of those made homeless. This may well not be enough.
These measures have not, however, been enough to allay local anger. At one point protesters broke into the Kensington town hall and the political fallout from the tragedy should not be underestimated.
Grenfell Tower was one of a number of tower blocks put up to replace prewar slum housing. Facilities provided were basic and the community spirit of the old slums faded.
The housing association responsible for the upkeep of the building seems to have been remote and bureaucratic. Supervision by the local authority also appears to have been inadequate. The tenants’ committee is said to have made numerous complaints about poor fire safety measures, and it has been alleged that in awarding the contract for the cladding the association chose on the basis of price rather than quality.
Media interviews with sufferers and their relatives show that a high proportion of residents of the tower were from immigrant communities. One of the first victims to be identified was a Syrian refugee. While some occupants had purchased their apartments, many had been rented to the poorer sections of society.
The contrast between Grenfell Tower and similar blocks on the one hand and the mansions and expensive properties in the borough of Kensington on the other has underlined the wealth gap that cheap money has exacerbated. Many of the big houses bought by what has come to be called the Notting Hill set are unoccupied or at least under-occupied. Many are owned by foreign oligarchs and kept as bolt-holes. This induced Corbyn to call for the requisitioning of unoccupied properties to house the homeless. This will not happen, but his call reflects the popular mood.
May no doubt felt as horrified as everyone else at this tragedy and was not lacking in sympathy. But, as during the recent unnecessary and wasteful general election, she has been incapable of demonstrating empathy and a common touch.
The Tory party will not allow May to take it into another election. The question now is not whether she will go but when.
May lacks a parliamentary majority and must rely on the 10 members of the Democratic Unionists (DUP) to enable her government to remain in power. The DUP is a conservative group of narrow-minded Protestants whose attitudes are out of tune with modern Toryism. In return for their support they are demanding money for Northern Ireland projects. They are pro-Brexit but do not want to see a physical border re-erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. The Good Friday Agreement, which ended the “Irish troubles,” calls for the British government to take a neutral stand on political issues in Northern Ireland. This may be difficult if the government has to rely on DUP support to continue in power.
May may be able to hang on to her post for a time as the Tory party does not want to do anything to advance the chances of Corbyn being able to form a government. Moreover it does not yet have a successor lined up who could win a majority in the party and go on to win another election, which will surely have to be called before too long.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy has not yet been played out and the political fallout should not be discounted.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.