Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
In the last few weeks, we have seen the very best of British, and the very worst.
Our emergency services have proved to be heroic, selflessly responding to four terrorist attacks and the horrific Grenfell Tower fire. On all occasions, their timely arrival at scenes of carnage saved lives, as they disregarded their own. Passers-by courageously rushed to help, whilst hospital staff deployed skills developed on the battlefield, using their unique expertise to save lives and limbs. All will be haunted by what they have seen, and the lives they couldn’t save. But they modestly prepare for the next challenge.
I think it is time to celebrate their dedication to keeping us safe, letting them know how much they are appreciated by us all. I’m sure the Queen will organise a special garden party for all those involved, and it wouldn’t hurt for Downing Street to do something similar.
We already have Armed Services Day, so we should launch an Annual Emergency Services Day, led by the Duke of Cambridge or Prince Harry. The date to be the anniversary of either the Manchester or Grenfell events. We also need to have a modern memorial, in the same way that the Military are celebrated. Southwark Cathedral could be designated the Emergency Services Church, just as journalists and the RAF have designated churches in London.
Martin Sorrell, Chairman of WPP, the world’s largest marketing group, would, I’m sure, be willing to support such a programme by committing a team to design appropriate branding (at no cost). There should also be fundraising to support specialist training, and to maintain memorials.
And we should remember all these incidents with appropriate plaques at each location, somewhere for family and friends to visit, and communities not to be forgotten.
Implementing responses to all these terrible events was flawless; the emergency teams arrived within minutes, properly equipped, and immediately got to work.
In contrast, we saw the very worst of the British.
We are not a third world country. Local authorities are supposed to have emergency plans, known as Gold Command, ‘to assist the emergency services, help victims, restore normality’. The Chief Executive of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s job description specifically says that ‘he is on call to cover emergency planning’ – so where was he in the wake of the fire? According to the website, he worked a 4.5 day week on a £187,780 salary. Others obviously asked the same question, and he subsequently, reluctantly, resigned, albeit with the (alleged) promise of a six figure payoff.
The council’s leader and deputy leader (who is also responsible for housing) receive, respectively, £56,529 and £37,511, on top of the councillors’ basic allowance of £11,027. So far, they remain in place.
Their lack of leadership is astounding; such a disaster should have triggered an immediate reaction, led by a strong communicator, with councillors and officers on the streets to co-ordinate food, shelter and support, alongside the Salvation Army, Red Cross, churches, and other charities. Instead, volunteers coming out of their homes organised an immediate response. Shameful.
This created a vacuum, filled by those wanting to politicise the tragedy, feeding false information on social media to already distraught survivors and helpers. Attacks on the Prime Minister, already bludgeoned by previous tragedies, were, I feel, unfair and unreasonable; the local authority was the lead, with the ability to draw on support from neighbouring councils, and the government. Doubtless the public sector across the country will be reviewing its strategies as a result.
Anger about what happened at Grenfell Tower is not confined to London. People across the country mourn with those affected, and require assurances that the tragedy did not result from penny-pinching by the Royal Borough and its management company in probably the richest few square miles in the country. This is an area I know well, having been brought up and educated there; it was always cosmopolitan, with rich and poor happily living as neighbours, (as they do right across the country) enjoying its history and culture. I still visit regularly, so it annoys me that some people are encouraging divisiveness when there is no evidence on the streets.
Having said that, there have been obvious shortcomings. The health and safety of all residents is the single most important priority of all councils and councillors – and government. To hear that the block’s residents repeatedly raised concerns, but were ignored, is shocking; councillors have a duty to represent the residents who elect them and demand that they are listened to. There is no excuse, especially when councillors sit on the management company board, alongside tenants, and the Housing Scrutiny Committee chair receives an additional £15,970 for the privilege. The new Labour MP seems to have forgotten that she was a local councillor, with the same duty to listen to residents.
As experts and journalists continue raking over the coals of the disaster, it is evident that ever more questions demand answers. These will obviously be addressed by the independent inquiry, however, there are two important issues which appear to have been lost in the initial debate on where to apportion blame:
Firstly, a fridge catching fire was the initial cause of the conflagration. The Fire Service community has agreed for years that some domestic appliances by specific manufacturers have been identified as causing fires elsewhere.
The Suffolk Fire Service recently advised the public not to purchase these products and it is time for councils’ Trading Standards and government to ‘name and shame’, ensuring that these products are banned from sale anywhere in this country, NOW, and to insist that they are immediately replaced, with householders compensated by the manufacturer.
A few years ago my two-year-old electric oven caught fire spontaneously. Fortunately I was in the kitchen at the time, and was able to immediately put it out by throwing a jug of water on it. Fire officers subsequently told me of previous incidents, and said never to leave the washing machine or a tumble dryer, and presumably dishwashers, running when I went out – how many other people have this advice?
Anyone living in a tower block should be issued with a fire extinguisher as standard, and told when/how to use it. These have an expiry date so a replacement schedule would be required and implemented as part of annual Fire Safety Checks; it astonishes me that such checks are not part of health and safety legislation for all buildings. It is also surprising that residents appear never to have taken part in regular fire drills.
Secondly, a report indicated that gas infrastructure upgrades were implemented in the block after the refurbishment was completed, with piping in communal areas. If this is correct, why weren’t the works part of the project from the outset when it is commonplace to liaise with energy suppliers and any other related organisations when major works are being undertaken? Is there evidence of a full specialist safety assessment throughout the building during and on completion of both phases?
It is a requirement for privately let properties to have annual gas safety checks; did this happen at Grenfell Tower, where some of the properties were evidently both tenanted and leasehold?
Did changes to the lower ground floor, to add units and move the nursery, compromise the block’s safety? The Planning report and approval notice, presumably dealt with by officers rather than committee, should set out details of any implications, as should Building Regulations.
In order to put any project out to tender, there has to be a detailed specification of the works; the inquiry will no doubt review the documents in detail. One can only hope that safety wasn’t compromised for the sake of a few quid, and a ‘flammable’ material (which the Chancellor subsequently stated was banned for use in tower blocks) wasn’t substituted for one of higher quality, or sticking to budget meant failing to replace each flat’s entrance door with the best fire retardant doors. Tenders are a mechanism to ensure best value and quality for the taxpayer, which doesn’t mean accepting the cheapest quote. I hope the document shredders haven’t been working overtime in recent days, and all information was seized, including computers.
Information which has already come to light implies that the chosen contractor sub-contracted the cladding to another contractor, which raises questions about how the project was supervised by the council. Increasingly, I am of the view that a combination of complacency and sheer incompetence resulted in the terrifying outcome. The council’s Chief Executive’s resignation must not mean that others aren’t held to account.
Given the latest news that about 600 tower blocks could also have inferior quality cladding, including in Camden, Grenfell is having much wider implications for people’s safety. Every day more information comes to light, so it is essential not to rush to judgment; problems date back to 2000 and need to be addressed calmly, with the right advice. Over time, I would expect to see a national strategy to replace tower blocks with more appropriate homes.
Not long ago, when I was trying to raise the importance of installing sprinklers, following publication of a document by Suffolk County Council and the Fire Service, the CEO of a major insurer said that some tower blocks are uninsurable. Given what happened at Grenfell Tower, that is a frightening thought; local authorities tend to ‘self-insure’ their assets, and perhaps that also needs reviewing.