A fortnight after the Grenfell inferno it is still beyond us to know with any degree of precision just how many people were burned alive, suffocated to death or killed as a result of blunt force trauma in the early hours of June 14. Indeed the Metropolitan Police warned yesterday that it could be months before the total loss of life is ascertained, with some reports suggesting that as many as 300 people are still unaccounted for and therefore presumed dead. This in addition to the 80 victims whose deaths have already been officially confirmed.
But there is at least one aspect of this monstrous crime that can be discussed with the greatest certitude, namely the cladding which, in the words of the Grenfell Action Group, ‘played a major part in spreading and accelerating what began as a single-dwelling fire’ and as such ‘rendered standard fire safety advice redundant’.
It was in 2014 that the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) resolved to prettify Grenfell Tower for the benefit of North Kensington’s wealthier inhabitants: Berkeleyans for whom the working class and its poverty cease to exist when smothered in metal à la Unit 4. Appointed by the KCTMO to oversee the refurbishment — the ‘pimping up’ — was a company called Rydon Maintenance, which sub-contracted the installation of exterior cladding panels to Harley Facades, among whose suppliers were Celotex and Omnis Exteriors.
Somewhere along this chain the choice was made to use a type of panel, Reynobond PE, that contained, unbelievably, a flammable polyethylene core. The combustibility of Reynobond PE meant that it was banned for use not only in the very haven of light-touch regulation and in Germany but also here in the United Kingdom on buildings taller than 18 metres. Nevertheless it was preferred in the case of Grenfell Tower to a fire-resistant alternative that would have cost the Tory-run local council just £2 more per square metre. And so the bodily safety of hundreds upon hundreds of residents — who were never informed of the ‘known fire risks associated with the use of cladding’ — was deemed to be worth less than £5000 all told, or 0.53% of the dividend Harley Facades paid last year to its sole shareholder.
It bears saying too, again and again, that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea could have called a halt to the installation of the cladding during any one of its 16 inspections of the renovation works, but according to the Guardian it ‘appears not to have spotted’ that a banned product was being used. Perhaps the dearth of building inspectors, brought about by Tory cuts to local councils, was partly to blame, or maybe the RBKC is as zealous about ‘cutting red tape’ as central government, which boasts on the website of the Cabinet Office of having reduced fire safety inspections ‘from 6 hours [long] to 45 minutes’.
Of course, the decision to use Reynobold PE stands as an indictment of the ‘inhuman, standardised division of labour’ that Lukács once lamented for entailing ‘ever-increasing remoteness from the qualitative and material essence of the ‘things’ to which bureaucratic activity pertains’. But more importantly it was, like the ‘culture of negligence and incompetence‘ that gave birth to it, at bottom a matter of class — of property relations and the scandalous imbalances of wealth and power they operate to produce. Had the residents of Grenfell Tower not been relatively poor, or working class, or social housing tenants, we can be sure their lives would have been duly valued by the KCTMO, RBKC and others involved in the block’s refurbishment. More generally, the concerns these residents repeatedly raised about the safety and habitability of their homes would not have been ignored as they were by a range of different organisations over a period of many years.
At any rate, everything we know about the cladding that was on the building and the fire safety standards that prevailed inside it suggests we are dealing here with prima facie cases of corporate manslaughter and manslaughter by gross negligence. The five elements of the former offence, as laid down in section 1 of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, can quite plausibly be made out in respect of what happened. But justice will not properly be done until individuals are sent to prison for their commission of the latter.
We must try to ensure, then, that the news cycle does not succeed in abandoning the charred remains of Grenfell Tower. Survivors and the families of victims cannot be forced to wait three decades for charges to be brought, nor must their voices or indeed the gravity of the crime be suppressed amid the plodding parade of a public inquiry.