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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for July 2017

On Tuesday 4 July, I visited the Grenfell Tower site. This is a detailed account of my visit. It was an experience I will never forget.

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Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower, taken from outside Kensington Leisure Centre on Tuesday 4 July 2017

By MARCUS STEAD

THE FULL horror of Grenfell Tower has to be witnessed to be believed. No pictures I have seen in newspapers or on TV came close to preparing me for what came into view as my train approached Latimer Rd tube station.

To say the burnt out shell looks like a something from a war zone does not really do it justice. The tower is surrounded by peaceful, orderly streets, with obvious signs of wealth, where upmarket terraced housing sits alongside what we used to call ‘council flats’.

That’s not to say this is an area without problems. The Lancaster West estate, where the tower is situated, has a complex, troubled history. The area experienced racial tensions over many decades from the 1950s onwards. In an attempt to bring residents together, the then-Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, personally led the Good Friday service in the shadow of Grenfell Tower following a period of unrest in 1979.

In the 1990s, the estate also suffered from gun violence and drug wars, and a police patrol was shot at after using Grenfell Tower’s underground car park in February 1993.

During my visit, it was not easy to gauge the extent to which the area had been gentrified in recent years, but my overall first impression was that it was a pleasant area in which to live.

As soon as I stepped off the train, a recorded announcement was played on the station intercom asking us not to take photographs of the tower, as it may upset local residents.

My short walk towards the site was calm and eerie. There were not many people about. Two police officers chatted to each other as they guarded the sealed-off quickest route from the station to the tower.

The short diversion took me past St Francis of Assisi Primary School, where I could hear infant-aged children cheerfully playing at morning break time. Other buildings, trees and hedges protected children from the sight of the burnt-out tower. To what extent are they aware of what has happened? How are grief-stricken teachers answering difficult questions about where their missing classmates are? I can only guess.

A left turn took me to St Clement’s Church, where the hundreds of messages on the railings offered some clues as to the mood in the area, nearly three weeks after the fire. There were many posters containing pictures of the missing with requests for information as to their whereabouts.

There were flowers, candles, and cards containing messages of condolence for those presumed dead. The tone of the written messages varied hugely. Some were of a religious nature – it was clear that members of the Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish faiths perished in the fire, and that by and large, this was a close-knit community where people lived together in harmony.

There were poems, general messages of support, and some expressions of anger broadly aimed that the political classes for allowing this situation to develop, and for Kensington and Chelsea Council’s crass handling of the aftermath to date.

There were also notices offering various forms of practical help, including a poster from Royal Mail informing Grenfell Tower residents that their post was being held for collection at a nearby sorting office.

There was information about an upcoming church memorial service, which would begin with 20 minutes of silence, followed by music and prayers, and also a large notice saying that they could not accept further donations of money or clothing, but that people were welcome to leave flowers.

A right turn took me to the courtyard of the Clement Jones Centre, a community facility which normally offers information, advice and guidance, English classes and employment support. For the time being, this is a place that provides practical help as well as being a place for quiet, contemplative thought.

It was a sunny, if slightly hazy day, and the information desk situated in the courtyard was staffed by a delightful young black lady with a strong London accent. I asked her if there was a book of condolence I could sign, to which she replied that they operated a system by which people could write on cards and drop them into a box, which would be checked and posted onto the railings by staff later on. She then kindly walked me around the corner, back to the side of the church, where I left a personal message on a card and placed it in the box.

A four-storey block of flats shielded my view of the tower while I paid my respects, but I was now ready to get as close to the site as I possibly could.

I walked along Treadgold St, a row of quaint terraced houses, window boxes, trimmed hedges and pseudo-Victorian street lamps. But a closer look reveals that this was a sad, angry street. I spotted several strongly-worded window posters demanding the Kensington and Chelsea council leadership resigns immediately.

Treadgold St bears left, and then a right turn took me on to Bodmore Rd, where I walked towards the plush, recently-refurbished Kensington Leisure Centre.

At the front of the leisure centre was a patio, to my left were several large trees in full bloom, and as I walked past, the exceedingly grim sight of the tower came back into view.

A long row of temporary boards sealed off the grassland and footpath that would normally link the leisure centre to the tower. On one of the boards was an A4 sheet of paper with a notice reminding visitors that this is a community in mourning, to behave responsibly, and that if they must take pictures of the tower, to refrain from taking selfies.

Incredibly, quite a few people had been treating the burnt out tower as a tourist attraction in the previous few weeks, turning up in bright clothing and taking selfies with big smiles on their faces. But when I was there, it was just me and one other man quietly paying our respects and taking pictures, he with an old-style camera, me with my smartphone.

A walk along the boarding brought me to within a few yards of the tower. This gave me a new perspective on the sheer scale of what had taken place. There was row upon row of empty window frames with bent, twisted metal, which seemed increasingly severe the higher up I looked.

In the bottom left of the tower was a small section unaffected by the fire, with its window glass and fancy cladding still intact.

In each of those burnt out boxes in the sky was a story. In many cases, it will be of lives lost. The fire burned for at least 24 hours, which will mean that in some cases, identifying people will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. We can broadly assume that the registered occupants of the flats who are thus far unaccounted for have perished. But inevitably, sub-letting will have taken place, which will swell the numbers of the deceased.

But that is not the end of it. The whereabouts of others are far less certain.  It’s entirely possible that people currently on the missing persons register had been visiting someone in the tower that evening, but there are no remains, and their families will never know for certain whether they were there, or are still alive, somewhere.

The survivors escaped with their lives, but will have no possessions left. They will need help in the months ahead, long after the news agenda has moved on. We would all do well to remember them if we are clearing out old furniture or clothes for many months to come. Finding them clothes and furniture will not be that difficult, but some things cannot be replaced – family photos, items of sentimental value, and a lifetime of memories. But they are the lucky ones.

There were some signs of life carrying on at the leisure centre. The café was open, though I spotted just one customer, and I could hear music from one of the upstairs rooms, in what was probably an aerobics class.

With the short walkway to the tube station blocked off, I had little choice but to make the same journey in reverse to get back to Latimer Rd. When I reached the Clement Jones Centre and the church, I took one final look at the flowers, cards and notices. This time, a male about my age stood alongside. We said nothing to each other as we gathered our own thoughts.

As I reached the primary school, I again heard that innocent sound of young children playing, largely unaware that their lives have been changed forever. Sooner or later, they will come to realise that missing classmates and other people they saw in their daily lives have gone, never to return.

When I returned to Latimer Rd station, I read several A4-sized posters containing strongly-worded, but incoherent attacks on the political establishment, written in pure anger. They did not seem to know who or what exactly they were blaming, but they knew this situation should never have been allowed to happen.

There were other notices, including a poster inviting youngsters distressed or affected by the fire to attend a free boxing training session, where they would receive coaching from professionals, one of many small, kind gestures that will bring a degree of comfort to a distraught community.

I stood on the platform for some time while waiting for my train to arrive, and the recorded message asking people not to take pictures was replayed every few minutes.

Later in the day, I was stood on a platform at Wood Lane station, just one tube stop away from the tower, opposite the famous BBC Television Centre (currently being redeveloped), not far from Loftus Rd football stadium and close to the Westfield Shopping Centre.

The north-east bound platform of the station provides a striking, unobstructed, especially bleak view of the tower from around half a mile away. This vantage point also provides a unique sense of perspective.

There I was, surrounded on one side by the biggest shopping centre in London, full of high-end fashion stores. On another side was the iconic Television Centre, home of many classic TV programmes, which is currently being redeveloped, partly as modern TV studios, and party as luxury apartments, yet straight in front of me was a burnt-out giant filing cabinet in the sky, where unknown numbers of less well-off people died because insufficient regard was paid to their safety by those in power.

Which brings us on to where we go from here. Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s appointment as head of the inquiry has not been universally welcomed. Labour MP David Lammy’s characteristically stupid remarks about a ‘white, upper-middle class man’ being chosen for the job, like so much of what he says, are best ignored by all sensible people, but other concerns are more legitimate.

As a Court of Appeal judge in November 2014, Sir Martin, along with two other judges, ruled that when Westminster City Council offered housing 50 miles away in Bletchley to Titina Nzolameso, who, with her children, had been evicted from privately rented local housing, it was not necessary for the council to explain in detail what accommodation was available within its area.

Instead, it could take a broad range of factors into account. The decision was subsequently reversed by the Court of Appeal, but the tenant’s solicitor in that case, Jayesh Kunwardia, said, following Sir Martin’s ruling, “It gives the green light for councils to engage in social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale.”

This, in itself, suggests that Sir Martin’s appointment is insensitive to say the least. We do not know enough about his personal life, but his CV and career path suggests it is likely he attends the same dinner parties and mixes in the same social circles as those close to power.

Governments of all colours do not have a good track record in appointing those to lead wide-ranging inquiries or setting the terms under which they work.

The late Lord Justice Taylor did not seek to deceive or mislead in his inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster in the early 1990s, indeed football stadia around the country are a great deal safer because of his recommendations, but he was severely restricted by the set parameters of his investigation (the 3:15pm cut-off point being the most obvious), which meant that families had to campaign doggedly for 30 years before the full truth began to emerge.

Similarly, as Home Secretary, Theresa May went through a series of wholly unsuitable appointments for the inquiry into alleged historical child abuse by establishment figures. First of all, Baroness Butler-Sloss stood down because she believed her position to be untenable. Her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s. The fact that she was 81-years-old at the time and was taking on a complex task that would have taken several years to complete would probably have been a factor as well. Yet, absurdly, she was Mrs May’s first choice.

Mrs May’s second choice was Fiona Woolf, who resigned a month after being appointed when it was revealed that she lived in the same street and mixed in the same social circles as Leon Brittan, one of the accused.

It was another four months before, Mrs May appointed a New Zealand High Court judge, Dame Lowell Goddard, to take charge, only for her to resign 18 months later, citing, among other reasons, the inquiry’s ‘legacy of failure’.

By the time of Goddard’s departure, Theresa May had become Prime Minister, and Alexis Jay was appointed to continue the inquiry’s work, but not before the group, ‘Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse’ formally withdrew cooperation, saying the investigation is ‘not fit for purpose’.

The Hillsborough and historic child abuse inquiries are just two examples of the establishment investigating itself that have been unsatisfactory. There are plenty of others. Lord Cullen was a key figure in the investigations into the Lockerbie fight and Dunblane massacre, and I am not satisfied with his work into either, the most pressing question being: Why is there a 100 year ban on his Dunblame report, and who is it protecting? (I think I know, but can’t prove it).

I wish Sir Martin well. I hope the Nzolameso case was an error of judgement on his part from which he has learnt, and that he will put any personal friendships with those in positions of power to one side as he seeks to get to the truth of what happened, but the precedents are not good. I have a horrible feeling that the community in and around Lancaster West estate will have to show the same stubborn, tenacious qualities the Hillsborough families have shown over nearly 30 years to find out what happened.

So what is likely to have happened? No one single event or individual is likely to be held solely responsible for the fire, but two key developments offer major clues:
First of all, dangerous alterations to entrance and exit points were made long ago in a bid to combat crime. These changes possibly took place as long ago as the late 1970s, though it could have been as recently as the early 1990s.

Prior to these changes, there were two means of entrance and escape from the Grenfell Tower, but subsequently, this was reduced to one, that led through a cramped lobby.

The second, and most obvious, was that cheap, flammable cladding was put on the exterior of the building during renovation work that was completed in May 2016.

Other factors did not help. Prior to 1986, all buildings in London were subject to the London Buildings Acts, which stipulated that external walls must have at least one hour of fire resistance to prevent flames from spreading between flats or entering inside.

But those rules were replaced by the National Buildings Regulations and the vital time stipulation was scrapped. Instead, materials on the outside of buildings only had to have met ‘Class O’ regulations, to show they did not add to the heat or intensity of the fire, but they did not have to be non-combustible.

A recent London Fire Brigade investigation into the fire at a tower block at the nearby Shepherd Court in August 2016 found that external cladding had helped the fire to spread.

They discovered that when exposed to high flames, the metal sheet of the cladding had melted away, which in turn set the inner polystyrene from on fire, allowing ‘flaming droplets’ to fall onto lower floors while helping flames to spread higher up.

Fire chiefs wrote to every council to warn them of the dangers, but no action was taken.

Furthermore, a fire safety expert warned Government advisers three years ago that a tragedy such as this was likely to happen unless they changed the rules to ban the use of cheap, flammable insulation, which was already outlawed in Germany and in the USA.

Arnold Turling said the Grenfell blaze was “entirely avoidable” and that a gap between the panels acted as a ‘wind tunnel’, fanning the flames, and allowing the fire to spread to upper levels.

Mr Turling, a member of the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, said: “Any burning material falls down the gaps and the fire spreads up very rapidly – it acts as its own chimney.”

The cladding used on Grenfell Tower was sold under the brand Reynobond which comes in three different varieties: one with a flammable plastic core and two with fire-resistant cores. It is very likely the cladding used on the tower had a polythene or plastic core.

Reynobond’s fire-resistant panel costs £24 per square metre, just £2 more expensive than the plastic/polythene version.

In the Grenfell Tower, there was no central sprinkler system, which members of the Fire Protection Association said would have ‘undoubtedly’ have saved lives. In 2014, housing minister Brandon Lewis stopped short of forcing builders to fit sprinklers over fears it could discourage house building. Yet in Wales, all new homes from 2016 have to be fitted with sprinkler systems.

Furthermore, it seems possible that not all the front doors in the block were fire-proofed. Official fire brigade advice to stay put in the event of a fire is based on there being fire-proofed doors to stop the fire spreading rapidly through the building.

Regulations state that all newly-built tower blocks must have fire doors on the flat, the stairwell and the riser doors, which provide access to the pipes.

Building regulations are not retrospective, so cannot force the installation of modern equipment on old buildings, but Richard Brownlee, Managing Director of Surrey Fire and Safety Ltd, said that it would be expected that fire doors were installed as part of any refurbishment and installation would be recommended as part of any refurbishment.

Routine safety checks did not take place. According to information released by Kensington and Chelsea Council under the Freedom of Information Act, the last time that Grenfell Tower was subject to a full Fire Risk Assessment was December 2015.

There is no law that specifies the frequency of such inspections, but industry experts say they should take place every 12 months. However, there is a legal requirement to have a fire risk assessment carried out if there is a ‘material change’ to the building, but they do not specify a timescale. Needless to say, an inspection had not taken place in the period since the cladding work was completed in May 2016.

Building Regulations from warn developers that they must install systems to prevent flames from leaping from floor to floor, which in the case of cladding such as this means firebreaks ie gaps in the external envelope to prevent the continual burning of material.

However, this is only guidance, not regulation. There may or may not have been such firebreaks in the cladding, and they possibly wouldn’t have been much use due to the highly combustible cladding material, but it would be useful to know if the guidelines had been followed.

In 2013, the Grenfell Action Group published a 2012 fire risk assessment done by a tenant management organisation Health and Safety Officer which recorded safety concerns. Firefighting equipment at the tower had not been checked for up to four years; on-site fire extinguishers had expired, and some had the word “condemned” written on them because they were so old. It is clear that fire safety at the tower had been treated as an afterthought by the authorities for some considerable time.

Was the recent renovation and installation of cladding partly motivated by ‘climate change’ dogma originating from our EU masters demanding insulation at all costs? Probably. Was the cladding carried out on the cheap and in haste to make the view better for those living in more luxurious accommodation nearby? Perhaps. Have you heard of many (any?) instances of refrigerators exploding before? No? Me neither. Therefore, are modern fridges safe? Should there ever be a gas supply in such buildings?
More pressingly, why, in a supposedly rich and safety-conscious society, are human being forced to live in tall buildings which no fire-fighter’s ladder or hose can reach?

We live in a country of absurd health and safety regulations that too often emphasises all the wrong things. The council employee who maintains your local park is forced to wear high-visibility jackets and goggles while trimming the hedges, before going ‘home’ to a flat hundreds of feet in the sky with a single entrance, no sprinkler system, and highly flammable cladding on the outside.

Political figures like the repulsive Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, are seeking to make political capital from the fire by saying the victims were ‘murdered by political decisions’. Such language is stupid and irresponsible, but I would expect nothing less from a nasty little Marxist who twice ‘joked’ about the duly elected former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, being murdered by the IRA.

Similarly, his boss, Jeremy Corbyn, has said that the fire was a ‘terrible consequence’ of ‘austerity’. He has conveniently ignored all the evidence I have listed about decisions taken long before the supposed ‘austerity’ of recent years. Corbyn, too, is a cheap opportunist who plays on people’s emotions for his own ends.

An appropriate long-term legacy would be to leave the burnt-out Grenfell Tower standing, as a reminder to us all, visible from miles around, of the crass incompetence and neglect that led to huge numbers of utterly needless deaths.

It should be fenced off, and an annual televised memorial service held on the grassland outside, to which all major political figures and senior members of the Royal Family feel obliged to attend.

Unlike other remembrance ceremonies, where we spend quite enough time congratulating ourselves, this should be about humiliating and chastising ourselves for the complacent, self-satisfied society we created. The only ‘heroes’ of this are the fire service and medical personnel who worked on the night and in the days that followed.

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Written by Marcus Stead

July 9, 2017 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized