In the predawn hours of June 14, 2017, a refrigerator caught fire in an apartment at Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey public housing tower block in London. Within the hour, the fire had spread out of that apartment, ignited the tower block’s flammable external cladding, and spread around the building at a speed which shocked fire safety experts. As of this time of writing, the official death toll stands at 79, and this number is “expected to climb further, making the fire the country’s deadliest in decades, perhaps since the early 20th century.”
The physical factors which contributed to the rapid and destructive spread of the fire — the flammable external cladding; the absence of sprinkler systems — can be traced back to the political and economic conditions which encouraged the local government to neglect the safety needs of the poor residents who lived at Grenfell Tower and to prioritize the desires of the wealthy residents who lived in the luxury neighborhoods around the tower block.
The “unprecedented” speed of the spread of the fire led to the safety advice issued by the emergency services to the tower residents to remain in their apartments to become instructions that sealed many of their deaths. As a fire safety expert explained, “I’ve been to hundreds of tower block fires and every one has been contained in the flat of origin. It very, very rarely spreads beyond even the room of origin. Our general advice would be that unless the fire is in your flat, stay put.”
However, this policy assumes that the apartments in the building “can contain a fire for at least 60 minutes, sometimes up to three hours, before the fire service arrives.” This turned out to be a false assumption in the case of the Grenfell fire. Less than an hour after the initial fire had broken out, it had spread from that first apartment to “both sides of the block, the flames wrapping themselves around the building via the cladding panels.”
As one survivor recounted: “The fire service and the police were like headless chickens and people were told to stay in their flats — at one stage a megaphone was used. But 20 minutes later the fire had become so fierce they were telling people to get out. By that time, it was too late and they were trapped and screaming from the windows.”
In a form of the urban beautification campaigns that governments around the world regularly implement to keep the poor out of sight from the monied classes, the regeneration work for Grenfell Tower that took place between 2014-16 included aesthetically improving the exterior of the tower block by installing a low-cost cladding (Davis, 2007, pp. 104-108). Planning documents for the renovation repeatedly boasted of how the cladding would improve the “appearance of the area” and improve the view of Grenfell Tower “when seen from the conservation areas and luxury flats that surround north Kensington.”
To minimize costs, cheap but flammable aluminum composite cladding with polyethylene cores were selected for the Grenfell project, instead of the slightly more expensive fire-resistant versions: “the fire-resistant panel costs £24 per square metre — £2 more expensive than the flammable version. This indicates that, based on a rough estimate that the panels covered more than 2,000 square metres on the tower, contractors could have acquired the fire-resistant version for less than £5,000 extra.” These savings of £5,000 had a huge human cost. Witnesses to the Grenfell fire note that the flammable cladding “went up like a nightdress by a fire— it just went whoosh.”
The Grenfell fire has highlighted the fire risk of polyethylene-core cladding which has been installed on almost 30,000 buildings in the UK, including 87 tower blocks similar to Grenfell Tower. Following the Grenfell fire, the Department for Communities and Local Government has ordered local authorities across the UK “to urgently check whether the tower blocks in their areas have been cladded using similar materials to those at the Grenfell Tower.”
Past fires in the UK involving external cladding had led to a recommendation in 2000 for all cladding “either to be entirely non-combustible or proven not to pose an unacceptable risk” — if passed into law, this could have prevented the Grenfell fire. The aesthetically pleasing aluminum surface of the cladding too “is not fire resistant” and “has high thermal conductivity — so the cladding itself could have heated up very quickly, failing to prevent the fire from travelling through the windows and up the exterior of the block from one storey to another.” In view of the known danger of such flammable cladding, fire safety expert Sam Webb observes: “We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.”
In the US and Germany, such polyethylene-core cladding is banned from installation on tall buildings because of the fire risk. Indeed, the Grenfell fire has highlighted to fire safety experts like Wilfried Gräfling, the chief of Berlin’s fire brigade, of the need for even stricter legislation to ban the use of flammable material as insulation, and to allow “only mineral material that can’t burn, ensuring that it’s no longer possible for a fire to spread via the cladding.” In recent years, the use of flammable cladding has contributed to skyscraper fires around the world, including the 2014 fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne and the 2015 fire at the Address Hotel in Dubai.
The pressure to install aesthetically pleasing but dangerously flammable cladding on Grenfell Tower can be traced to the spatial segregation of high- and low-income neighborhoods.
Following the Grenfell fire, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and the Minister of State for Trade and Investment Greg Hands stated that the flammable cladding was already banned in the UK. If so, this would “move responsibility for the disaster away from the government and point instead to possible crimes by the tower’s owners and their contractors.” However, fire safety experts assert that both ministers are wrong and that the flammable cladding remains legal in the UK:
“The critical building regulation … requires only that the exterior ‘surface of a composite product’ used as exterior cladding must be ‘composed throughout of materials of limited combustibility.’ The sheets of aluminum believed to have been the ‘surface’ around flammable insulation at Grenfell Tower would pass this test, even though the surfaces could, and did, melt in a fire.”
The residents of Grenfell Tower had long been concerned about fire safety in their tower block, and had made repeated attempts to warn the property owners, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), and the estate agents, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), about the dangerous conditions there. As the angry survivors pointed out after the fire: “All our warnings fell on deaf ears and we predicted that a catastrophe like this was inevitable and just a matter of time.” Indeed, some of the residents who had repeatedly complained about the fire risks at Grenfell Tower were instead threatened with legal action.
It was not just the residents of Grenfell Tower who had concerns about fire safety in tower blocks. Fire safety experts had warned four different ministers of the Department for Communities and Local Government about such fire risks, but the government “did not strengthen the regulations.” As Jason Sayer points out, “this tragedy is the result of deregulation in the housing sector and removal of red tape that supposedly allows developers more freedom to build. Instead, it leads to worse and less safe housing conditions.” With regard to the Grenfell fire, the deregulation of fire safety means similar incidents could happen again.
Austerity for the Poor
The pressure to install aesthetically pleasing but dangerously flammable cladding on Grenfell Tower can be traced to the spatial segregation of high- and low-income neighborhoods in the RBKC, which suffers not just extreme income inequality, but the most extreme income inequality among all local governments in the UK. As one of the RBKC’s low-income residents describes of the segregated treatment in the borough: “If you go to different areas in Kensington, you can see a lot of money being invested in that area, but whatever we have here, they cut it. And everything they build here is private. If you go further down this road, it feels like you have gone into a different world.”
The differential treatment given to both sets of neighborhoods has its roots in London’s real estate boom, which gave local governments strong fiscal incentives to pressure their low-income residents to leave: “As house prices spiralled, local authorities could see that the large inner-city estates they managed need no longer be an economic burden. If only they could move … their lower-income housing tenants out, they could sell on the land to developers with a windfall profit.”
Not only did the incentivization of such segregation prompt the local government to clad Grenfell Tower in cheap and flammable material for the aesthetic benefit of the wealthy residents of the surrounding luxury homes, the effect can also be seen in the installation of key fire safety systems — including sprinklers— in the luxury housing units, but not in the low-income units. Even though Grenfell Tower’s residents had complained multiple times about the dangerous absence of sprinklers, the KCTMO steadfastly refused to install a sprinkler system in the tower block. Savings of £138,000 accrued from this choice not to install sprinklers in Grenfell Tower, but as with the £5,000 in savings from the selection of flammable rather than non-flammable external cladding, this additional £138,000 in savings came at the cost of scores of human lives. Indeed, following the Grenfell fire, the RBKC came under criticism for its “years of chronic underspending” which allowed it to save £274 million in reserves even as “families in their borough were living in … unsafe housing.”
Austerity was also imposed on the fire service: “Since 2010, more than 10,000 firefighters have been axed, dozens of fire stations have closed, fire engines have been scrapped and levels of emergency rescue equipment has been slashed. In London, 10 fire stations have been closed, 27 fire engines axed and more than 600 firefighter posts have been cut.” These cuts had an impact on the fire service’s response to the Grenfell fire, with firefighters having “no choice but to work in Grenfell Tower for 12 hours or more, with no chance of being relieved by a fresh firefighting crew.” The gutting of the fire service was part of a larger project by the Conservative government to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and eliminate the “albatross” of “overregulation.” In theory, this should have liberated free enterprise to flourish; in practice, it led to the inferno at Grenfell Tower.
Grenfell Tower hence may be read as a symptom — and in its destruction, the consequence — of the larger political and economic changes brought by the adoption of neoliberal ideology. Some long-term residents of the RBKC have highlighted how the segregation between its high- and low-income neighborhoods has accelerated the social cleansing of the borough, resulting in a form of apartheid, such that even though the “rich and poorer communities” may physically just be “a few hundred yards away,” they live “worlds apart, from one another.”
However, neoliberalism is not exclusive to London or the UK, but is instead a global phenomenon characterized by “the massive privatization of public assets, the subcontracting of public employment … and the deregulation of financial markets.” Under these conditions, “ever-growing social inequality” has become “the very engine of the contemporary economy, not just its inadvertent consequence.” And just as the wealthy residents of the RBKC live in their own privileged communities away from their poorer neighbors in the borough, similar processes of “residential segregation and zoned consumption” have emerged around the world (Davis and Monk, 2007, pp. xi-xiii).
This “unprecedented spatial and moral secession of the wealthy from the rest of humanity” could herald the arrival of an “authoritarian global apartheid society” in which the have-nots are simply excluded from public life. Around the world, “more than one billion people already live in slums” — vast disposable populations whom their governments have chosen to exclude from the care of governance (Davis and Monk, 2007, p. xiv; Zizek, 2013, p. 63). The dangerous exclusion from the basic standards of fire safety suffered by the residents of Grenfell Tower points towards this emerging future where the poor are simply excluded from government services altogether, and the state only has consideration for the wealthy.
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