Andrew O’Hagan has produced a report into Grenfell Tower fire and the aftermath of that tragedy. It is the product of ten months of research and comes to 17,000 words – and fills an entire issue of the London Review of Books. Given that so much has already been written on this story, it is astonishing that such much new material is produced. But most impressive is that O’Hagan – a man of the Left – has the courage to tell the truth about what he found, no matter how inconvenient it might be.
A prevailing narrative was that the leading Conservative councillors in Kensington and Chelsea were to blame. At best, the message was that they were incompetent and out of touch. At worst, that they had base motives – that they were corrupt or callous and hated the poor, and were thus willing to sacrifice their lives to save money. To make that version of events coherent, it was added that after the tragedy the council failed in its duty to help the survivors. Various people claiming to speak for the survivors would be provided with extensive and sympathetic airtime. The message was not usually complicated by too much checking as regards the accuracy of their claims – or how representative the views expressed were.
Grief quickly gave way to anger. Reason was relegated. O’Hagan certainly does not ignore emotion in his account. On the contrary, the poignant personal details are almost unbearable to read – especially of the children who died:
“On the day of the fire, at the nursery school, Fethia had practised a new dance routine in the garden. She was wearing white leather shoes with flowers on the front, and, while she was dancing, one of the flowers came off and got lost. She was upset. At the end of the day her teacher found the flower and put it next to Fethia’s peg. It would be there the next day. ‘Fethia gets herself all churned up about such things, but it will all be fine,’ her teacher said to herself as she closed her classroom for the day and made her way home.”
But O’Hagan also assesses the evidence thoroughly, and with an open mind. Nick Paget-Brown, the council’s leader at the time, and Rock Feilding-Mellen, who was deputy leader and the councillor responsible for housing, have been presented as pantomime hate figures. O’Hagan suggests that, for many, it seemed right to put “compassion before composure, and to feel insulted by authorities who appear to think when they should be feeling”. Thus the rage at “the councillors at the top with all the decision-making power, with their patrician manners, their double-barrelled names..”
Yet the evidence to support this view wasn’t there. O’Hagan says two separate sources spoke to him of emails from July 2014 “between Peter Maddison, director of Assets and Regeneration at the Tenants Management Organisation, and Feilding-Mellen and others, discussing the colour and type of fixing for the proposed cladding on Grenfell Tower.” O’Hagan got hold of the correspondence. He says:
“The suggestion that Feilding-Mellen and others at the council pushed for cheaper and less safe cladding – a hallmark of media coverage since the fire – is flatly disproved by the string of emails between these individuals. In any case, the question of who chose the cladding is a red herring: hundreds of councils made similar choices, believing that cost and colour – not safety – were the issues they were being asked to adjudicate. Flammability was never mentioned. (It would have been taken for granted that the suppliers had successfully tested the different materials.) In fact, Feilding-Mellen, far from wanting to save money, states in his email of 18 July that he would support the more expensive option. It is Maddison who raises the issue of costs in his next email, three days later. Again: one should not be surprised by this – it’s his job…
“Costs aren’t discussed any further. Feilding-Mellen, having previously given his opinion about the colour and having encouraged them to spend the budget, does not reply. There is no suggestion that anyone believed or knew that the choice of aluminium over zinc would compromise the tower’s safety. How would they know that if none of the experts had told them? In any case, Feilding-Mellen did not get involved in the decision. The inquiry will eventually make clear what combination of factors – architectural, planning, managerial or otherwise – contributed to the disaster. But it’s unreasonable and unjust to accuse people of knowing things they were never expected to know. Councillors make arguments and oversee budgets: they don’t decide on the relative merits of one metal as opposed to another.”
If anything, the opposite criticism should have made of Feilding-Mellen. The £10.3 million refurbishment of the 129 Grenfell Tower flats comes to £80,000 for each home. Given that tower blocks were already unpopular places to live and staggeringly expensive to maintain, would it not have been better to build attractive new replacement homes on the Lancaster West Estate? As we know, high rise is generally not necessarily high density – so it would have been possible to provide more homes as well as better homes with mansion squares and terraced streets.
One council worker told O’Hagan: “it is simply false of them to suggest the refurbishment was forced on them. Tenants asked for it to happen, heat insulation on the tower was not good and the windows were poor, and the understanding was that the refurbishment would regenerate the block and to some extent compensate residents for having put up for so long with the building work on the academy down below.”
Of the widespread reports that Council staff failed to help survivors of the fire, O’Hagan says:
“Not a single media outlet reported over the course of those first days that housing officers from Kensington and Chelsea went to the Rugby Portobello Trust (and the other centres) to help the victims. Or that more than three hundred staff were deployed immediately. Or that the council’s director of education, Ian Heggs, was in discussions on the morning of 14 June with the heads of eight local schools (I’ve seen the emails) about pupils from the tower. Nor that the education officers met with school heads and arranged for pupils to have psychological support and to be schooled elsewhere while the academy was closed, and organised transport as well as paying for uniforms. Or that hotel beds were supplied for hundreds of people and funds located immediately or that provision grew over the days. None of that mattered, it seems.”
It is not just the media who come in for criticism but also the fire brigade:
“The biggest weakness, all my sources agreed, was the slowness in telling residents to evacuate. Quite simply it caused nearly all of the 72 deaths. ‘There’s a moment,’ the fire expert Stephen Mackenzie told me, ‘when the tactics have to move from “remain in place” to “assisted evacuation”.’ It had been obvious from very early on, even to spectators on the ground, that the fire at Grenfell Tower was not going to be put out, that it was jumping from floor to floor via the cladding, and that anybody staying in the building was in grave danger.”
Also, I’m afraid that although local government is broadly exonerated by O’Hagan, the criticisms of central government is serious. Sajid Javid, then Communities and Local Government Secretary, “arrived at the Westway Sports Centre at nine on the Friday morning….was just in and out, talking about how we should buy more properties off Rightmove,’ the property website.” One housing officer told O’Hagan:
“It was arranged that Javid should meet a group of seven at the sports centre, the family of Mr Jafari, the victim of the fire who had gone every day to the hardware store in Portobello Road. The Jafaris had chosen to sleep on camp-beds at the sports centre rather than take hotel rooms. Most of the camp-beds, brought in by the Red Cross at the council’s behest, were never used, but the Jafaris preferred to be there and stayed all week. Javid and the government housing minister, Alok Sharma, had been saying that as much housing as could be bought should be bought; the council should use its financial reserves. Then one of the ministers did an extraordinary thing: in conversation with the Jafari family, who told him they needed a four-bedroom house, he promised they would get one. He said he wanted it to happen fast. ‘So, with this particular family,’ a senior housing officer said, ‘the government got itself into such a situation that the government itself had to find a two million pound property for the family. They live there now. And of course when other families heard the story they were like, “Where’s my two million pound house?” And you can’t blame them.”
It is also claimed that Theresa May demanded that all the survivors should be rehoused within two weeks:
“Laura Johnson, the borough’s head of housing, had made the point elsewhere that day that victims would not feel ready to make a decision about housing for some time yet. It was too big a decision and many of them were very traumatised. She had decades of experience with tenants. Rock Feilding-Mellen said that experienced housing officers had told him the same thing, ‘that the people who’d lost their flats would quite rightly need time before reaching such an important decision, and they had every right to have that time.’ But the ministers insisted.”
The Prime Minister told the House of Commons:
“The support for the families in the initial hours ‘was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, without even basic information about what had happened, what they could do, and where they should seek help.”
“What was May talking about and who had written that speech for her? ‘Without a roof over their heads’? Every family that needed one had a hotel room right away. ‘Without basic information’? The rest centres were doing that work immediately, with council staff handing out money, and pharmacies in situ.”
We should remember the political context. The general election took place on June 8th last year, leaving the Government weak and beleaguered. The Grenfell Fire took place on June 14th. Paget-Brown and Feilding-Mellen were at the scene by 3.45am, going through emergency procedures with council officials. But they didn’t make dealing with the media a priority. Hostile coverage meant they became less willing to engage, and the situation worsened. Perhaps Ministers felt that if the council couldn’t defend its reputation effectively, then central government wasn’t even going to try to do it for them.
Some balance is needed. Elected politicians, even local politicians, should recognise that media interest in legitimate. But let us try to break with the Alastair Campbell legacy of crisis management where spin is given priority, and that the pressure of the 24 hour news cycle scuppers serious government. O’Hagan’s essay is a strong antidote to such cynicism.