In the months before fire ravaged the Grenfell Tower, Gavin Barwell, then housing minister, ignored multiple letters warning of the risk of a deadly conflagration. So frustrated did those lobbying for action become, they started sending their missives by recorded delivery. But Barwell – now Lord Barwell – faced no calls for his resignation after the publication of the first phase of the report into the tragedy last week.
Four years before fire ravaged the Grenfell Tower, Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, closed 10 fire stations, sold 27 fire engines and put 500 firefighters out of their jobs. When, in early 2017, Andrew Dinsmore – a Labour member of the London Assembly – suggested he had reduced fire cover, he told him to “get stuffed”. But Johnson, now Prime Minister, faced no lynch mob (at least not in connection with Grenfell).
So who is being blamed for the deaths of the 72? The people who walked into the burning building with no thought for their own safety, of course. The people who – faced with a crisis not of their making – took difficult decisions in impossible conditions. Though everyone knows combustible cladding was responsible for the blaze snaking its way around the outside of the building, it’s the firefighters we appear to be gunning for.
I can’t begin to imagine what that must feel like. To have followed brigade policy; to have tried belatedly to help choking, half-conscious residents down the tower block’s single staircase – and then to be held culpable for the deaths. Because, what? Because our culture demands someone to blame and the organisation you work for is the most convenient fall-guy?
How fortunate for the government that inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s criticism of the London Fire Brigade (including individual officers) should have been leaked to – check notes – the Johnson-supporting Telegraph. And how much more fortunate that the Telegraph and other papers should be so willing to spin that criticism into a narrative that served the government’s purpose.
This is not to suggest that Moore-Bick’s criticisms were illegitimate. His job in the first phase of the inquiry was to investigate what went wrong on the night. In the second phase, he will turn his attention to the fitting of the cost-saving cladding. To the untrained eye, this running order may appear back-to-front, but there must have been a logic to it.
In his report, Moore-Bick said the “stay put” policy – a policy based on the notion that a fire could be contained within the flat in which it started – should have been abandoned much earlier. By the time it was reversed, it was too late to save many residents. This policy had remained “an article of faith” despite a similar blaze in the Lakanal tower block in Camberwell in 2009.
Nor did LFB Commissioner Dany Cotton do much to reassure residents when – giving evidence to the inquiry – she said she would not have changed a single thing the fire service had done on the night.
It is important the LFB should be taken to task for all of this, and that Moore-Bick’s recommendations should now be acted upon. But the 900-plus page report was complicated as reports into multifactorial disasters tend to be. Grenfell’s cladding breached regulations; the block had no alarm or PA system to communicate with residents; and there was no evacuation plan.
Inside Housing magazine, which has been forensic in its coverage of Grenfell, revealed that, far from abandoning the “stay put” policy in the wake of the Lakanal fire, the Local Government Association had doubled down on it, declaring a change in approach “[unjustified] by experience or statistical evidence”. In other words, the “stay put” policy may have been misguided, but it continued to be regarded as best practice by more than the LFB.
At the same time, the responsibility for developing a specific evacuation plan lay not with the fire brigade but with the building owners, and the owners of most high-rises did not create one.
As Inside Housing deputy editor Peter Apps has pointed out, Grenfell is really a story about slipping standards in construction and building maintenance. Fire officers made errors of judgment while under pressure, but the decisions taken on the cladding were driven by financial considerations, while the failure of politicians to respond to warnings was born either of indolence or a sense that the residents of high-rise flats aren’t particularly important.
And yet, last week’s coverage was a masterclass in story-telling, scapegoating and deflection. The Telegraph was shameless. It carried the headline: “Fire Brigade Condemned for Failings at Grenfell” next to a photograph of Boris Johnson raising his eyes to heaven as if in exasperation.
And what about this offensive intro (on a separate story in the same paper)? “Nazanin Aghlani hadn’t wanted a superhero to save her mother. A professional firefighter just doing their job should have been enough.” The Mail’s splash was choc-full of emotive language. Moore-Bick had “reserved his most damning criticism” for the LFB, it said; the LFB had “slavishly adhered” to the “stay put” policy.
Even on the BBC, all the emphasis was on the fire brigade failings. There was little effort to contextualise or to ask who might benefit from the firefighters being so comprehensively slated.
This targeting of firefighters at the expense of other, more negligent parties will have a destructive impact on all those who were there on the day. In the wake of the damning headlines, Labour MP and former firefighter Jim Fitzpatrick said: “Every firefighter involved will be feeling guilty today.”
In fact, that sense of guilt and devastation predates the inquiry. By January last year, around 140 of the 250 who attended Grenfell had sought counselling. Newsnight interviewed one of them, Ricky Nutall. “I feel guilty every day. I will feel eternally guilty,” he said. “The whole incident was so overwhelming. I went to work as one person and came back as another.”
Contrast this internalised sense of responsibility with Johnson’s insouciance at the now infamous London Assembly meeting where he treated his questioners with contempt and his role as mayor as one more round in the giant game that is his political career.
Yet last week Johnson stood up in the House of Commons – a little green Grenfell heart on his lapel – and said the bereaved were “ignored and overlooked” as if he and other members of his party weren’t the principal offenders in all the ignoring and overlooking.
When the next phase of the inquiry begins, Moore-Bick will take evidence on the refurbishment, the cladding and the building regulations. Hopefully those who cut corners and colluded in the lowering of standards will be held to account.
In the meantime, however, the firefighters – secondary victims of a national disaster – are being subjected to a trauma-increasing degree of scrutiny which Johnson and Barwell are successfully evading. It’s a cynical ploy facilitated by sections of the media. And it is entirely in tune with our times.