Published 27 July 2017
About a year ago I was moved to write about Hillsborough. The verdict from a two-year-long inquest had just been delivered and finally, after a generation of perseverance on the part of victims’ families, a jury ruled that 96 people had been unlawfully killed at a football game in 1989.
I’m a lifelong Liverpool fan, but that’s not why I wrote. I did because, when you strip it back, Hillsborough had little to do with football, and lots to do with – irrespective of the political divide – our institutions’ penchant for self-serving lies and conspiratorial self-preservation at the expense of everyday people.
After decades of hot air and carpet brushing, 2016’s verdict finally paved the way for prosecutions – justice for the 96. And late last month, the CPS served summonses to six of the men on point at Hillsborough.
God knows the families deserve closure. To put it in context, their ordeal started before the Berlin Wall fell; before Nelson Mandela was released from prison; before Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia joined hands and sang their way to emancipation from the Soviet Union.
As other nations were making strides towards freedom, democracy and people power, citizens in Liverpool couldn’t prise open the clamped lips of the institutions we rely on to protect us.
And sadly, that’s what moves me to write again.
Once more, everyday people have been fatally let down by those who are supposed to safeguard us. Just as Hillsborough was not about football, Grenfell is not about a fire in a tower block.
In the last days of June, a Grenfell inquiry was announced with first hearings set for September. But unless this inquiry utterly, holistically, root-and-branch examines the tyranny, the greed and the inequality which underpins Grenfell then, frankly, we have learned nothing from Hillsborough.
The Grenfell inquiry needs look to the cultural framework which led to the disaster. Cladding, sprinklers, staircases, fire doors – they all played a huge part. But the Grenfell catastrophe is the result of a gradual watering down of regulation, and compassion, in the name of cash on all sides of the political spectrum.
In Labour-controlled councils and governments as well as Conservative ones, legislation that put pounds before people caused this tragedy. I genuinely can’t believe anyone would allow substandard cladding for a single story building; never mind a tower block. But then there’s the letter of the law …
Until the mid-eighties, it was law that all building cladding had to stay fireproof for at least an hour. But in 1986, the National Buildings Regulations came in and stated that cladding’s only job was not to add to the heat or intensity of a fire should one break out. From that point, cladding wasn’t required to non-combustible. (Seriously!)
After a 2016 west London tower fire, London Fire Brigade found that the building’s cladding had – due to it melting and dripping onto lower floors – actually helped the fire to spread. Fire chiefs wrote to every council in London to warn them of the dangers. No action was taken.
In fact, a leading fire safety expert warned the government three years ago that a tragedy like Grenfell was inevitable if rules on cladding weren’t urgently reviewed.
As Communities’ Secretary, Eric Pickles promised a review and updated building regulations policy by 2016/17. It’s 2017 and nothing yet. In 2014, in fact, rules on installing anti-fire devices – such as sprinklers – into new buildings were relaxed so as not to put off developers.
With this increasingly laissez-faire, reckless culture in fire and safety, Grenfell hadn’t had a risk assessment in 18 months. Although there’s no suggested regularity for inspections, a “material change” to a building should have triggered a reevaluation last year, given that Grenfell’s £8m refurbishment – a project undertaken to improve the view for Kensington & Chelsea’s luxury properties – was finished in May 2016.
Even if checks had taken place, the Conservatives’ Cutting Red Tape initiative reduced the mandatory time for fire inspections from six hours to just 45 minutes as of 2015.
A word on the Cutting Red Tape initiative. According to George Monbiot, the organisation – which is designed to snip regulation wherever there’s a corresponding opportunity to make cash – had a meeting on the morning of 14 June, as Grenfell tower smouldered. The day’s topic: debating whether rules on the fire resistance of cladding materials should be removed for the sake of construction industry profits.
That is the framework we need to look at. That is the culture of cash first, people second. Grenfell was the final push of a cancer already spread thick.
This article doesn’t intend to be partisan. Conservative fingerprints might be on this specific tragedy, but so too are Labour’s. Successive governments and councils of all political stripes either abetted Grenfell – or did nothing – in the 30 years since profit overtook precaution in policy.
The cladding on Camden’s tower blocks – you’ll recall June’s evacuation was issued by the Labour Council – went in around 2006, some eight years into a Labour government with a Labour-controlled council and good old Red Ken Livingstone sat as Mayor of London.
I found Jeremy Corbyn’s rapid politicisation of Grenfell sickening: he turned a national tragedy into a party political weapon in about 75 nano-seconds. The hypocrisy reeks. Labour, Conservative – our pandering political class as a whole is to blame.
Because for years Grenfell residents complained, blogged, screamed, wrote, petitioned about the tinderbox in which they lived. But nothing was done. What’s more they’ve been treated appallingly in the aftermath.
The forthcoming Grenfell inquiry needs to cover all this ground. All of it. It can’t lick around the edges: a bit of negligence here, a bit of misconduct there. There’s a long stream of systemic callousness, which brought us to the point where people died in their own homes in the middle of the night.
The fact is, the Grenfell fire started decades ago.
For me, the inquiry already has the makings of a Kangaroo court. In this country, we don’t allow defendants to select the charges on which they’ll be tried – so it’s unsettling that a government has set limited terms for an inquiry based on its own shortcomings. Moreover, we don’t allow criminal suspects to vet the trial judge – why should the government get to approve the inquiry’s chair?
The media, victims, even Theresa May – many have drawn macabre comparisons between Hillsborough and Grenfell. So our leaders need to get it right this time.
Hillsborough is still raw. We’re weary, cynical and fatigued by the self-protectionism of those who should protect us. Last time I looked we pay for the privilege.
The last article I published was about society’s anger reaching boiling point. And I think if we see any more self-serving lies and conspiratorial silence as everyday people count the cost then society might snap. Saint Jeremy might talk in pacifist tones, but he and his Momentum mob whipped up a frenzy of anger after Grenfell. It’s an approach that does nothing to soothe the sensitive times we live in.
This world is changing, and I for one, feel uncomfortable and unsettled at what I see in front of me.
I just hope beyond hope that we’re not, a la Hillsborough, still seeking truth and justice for Grenfell a generation from now.