Over Christmas I read the harrowing yet expertly written “Show Me The Bodies How We Let Grenfell Happen” by Peter Apps. Unintentionally, I started at the back of the book and ended up reading the book from the last page to the first. Knowing that 72 people lost their lives, like so many of us, I was again asking myself how this happened.
Apps takes the reader through the events of the night as they unfolded and step by step, seamlessly interweaves the decisions that led to the events of 14th June 2017.
Stephanie Barwise, a lawyer representing the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell tower fire, said in December 2021 “Grenfell is a lens through which to see how we are governed”. I think she is right, and it is vital that nobody ignores the findings of the inquiry when it is published later this year. I believe that Peter Apps’ book gives everyone a heads up to the issues that will need to be addressed.
By the time I had made my way through to the introduction, I realised that at every stage of the refurbishment of the tower, nobody had asked “Is it safe?”. The politicians questioned the aesthetics, but not the safety of the plans. Why should they? Surely officers had ensured it was safe. During the procurement of the contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers, nobody asked “Is It safe?”. Why should they?, The suppliers and the government testing centre surely would have ensured that everything was safe. Building regularisation protected us: surely it was safe. Surely, nobody would recommend materials that were not safe! Chapter after chapter, I noticed that the word “safe” seemed to have been lost.
I won’t focus on the actions of those who misrepresented their professional credentials to secure a job advising the landlord on safety, nor the decision of the contractors to use cheaper cladding to keep a slice of the savings, without asking if the cheaper material was safe enough for the job. As for the safety testing, well that beggars belief.
The inquiry has taken time, but having read this book, and watched the many hours of evidence given on the webcasting, the findings of the inquiry should lead to deep seated change in the housing and construction industry, let alone how the government regulates the industry going forward.
What I want to encourage, with immediate effect, is that everyone in Housing, Local Government, the Fire Service, all other stakeholders, and the private sector, ask at each stage, “Is it safe?”. In all local government officer reports, they have sections on environmental impacts or the effects on equality. A section on the implications on the safety of residents should be added immediately. We should not be waiting for the inquiry to publish its findings.
All employees giving professional advice to decision makers should be appropriately qualified and their qualifications should be rigorously checked, with additional training provided where needed, to ensure that they give the best possible advice on safety for future development and management of housing decisions.
Training should be given to decision makers, whether elected or appointed, and to the boards of housing sector operators, on how to scrutinise reports to ensure that the issue of safety is considered sufficiently for all projects.
“Is it safe?” must be answered before we take future decisions, not just in housing but in all decisions that could cause harm. It is accepted wisdom that “Accidents will happen” and unexpected and unforeseeable events may not be completely eradicated, but it’s hard to argue this with Grenfell.
In the 1976 film, The Marathon Man, there is a chilling scene with Laurence Olivier torturing Dustin Hoffman, Olivier repeatedly asking “Is it safe?” – it haunted me for decades. While I have no doubt that nobody involved with the refurbishment ever wished to cause the loss of life that took place on 14th June 2017, their failure to ask “Is it safe” in the course of their work should haunt us all for years to come.