‘The political people … have delivered incompetence and indifference towards us’ – Grenfell United’s Ed Daffarn

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Grenfell United bannner on the Silent Walk, June 14th 2021, the fourth anniversary of the fire

FIVE years ago, in the early hours of the morning of June 14th 2017, a kitchen fire led to an inferno that set alight the 24-story Grenfell Tower in north Kensington, claiming 72 lives.

In an interview with the BBC last Sunday, Ed Daffarn of Grenfell United said: ‘And as we sit here today five years after the fire, far too little has changed and those with the power to change, the political parties and the political people that we have been dealing with have delivered incompetence and indifference towards us.

‘Tonight as we are speaking there are people going to bed in buildings that are covered in exactly the same cladding as Grenfell, disabled people who live in high rise buildings are living in exactly the same conditions as they were before June 2017.

‘The government promised, Boris Johnson promised, in October 2019 to implement all recommendations from Phase One of the public Inquiry and he has failed to do that.

‘I think this anniversary is mainly about giving the community and the grieving survivors the chance to remember the 72 lives that were lost, the 18 children that were lost, the amazing community that we had in the tower.

‘It’s also an opportunity to thank the thousands of people who came out and offered support on the street and donated money and kindness and love towards us.

‘The White Paper on social housing that has now just been delivered as the Social Housing Regulation Bill has taken five years to get where it is.

‘I don’t know how any young person who woke that night and witnessed what they witnessed will ever really recover from what they saw, particularly if they lost loved ones in the building. It affected the whole community, old and young. I don’t know how the young will move on.

‘We need to deliver meaningful change not only for older people but for younger people. They need to see that something has changed post-Grenfell.

‘Movement is beginning to be made but it is too slow and it has taken too long.

‘There are many issues outside of the cladding issue that still need to be resolved and it’s taking too long.’

The 2017 Grenfell Tower inferno was the worst fire in Britain since the Second World War.

Yet there has been just one arrest of an unidentified person on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

The Grenfell Inquiry, launched the day after the tragedy by then-prime minister Theresa May, has heard hundreds of hours of testimony and examined millions of documents.

What has emerged is a catalogue of cost-cutting, cover-ups, lies, malpractice buck-passing and deceit.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) – the richest local authority in the country – had commissioned a redesign that ignored basic necessities such as fire sprinklers.

In June 2013, the Grenfell Action Group warned that the £6m for the refurbishment of the tower was not enough, and warned at the time that the council and the Tenants Management Organisation (TMO) would skimp on quality and residents would suffer.

How right they were – the lead architect proposed to the TMO changing the zinc cladding – preferred by the residents – to aluminium composite material (ACM), to save £300,000.

Grenfell Tower, built in the 1970s, was owned by RBKC but run by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), which managed all the council’s housing stock.

In 2014, KCTMO in turn appointed private company Rydon as its main building contractor, which then subcontracted work to specialist firms for different areas of the project, including Studio E (architects), Harley Facades (cladding specialists), and Exova (the fire engineers who had been dumped from the project in 2013) among others.

The cladding was manufactured by Arconic, a French company, while the insulation used came from Celotex and Kingspan. The individual components were then supplied by various sub-contractors.

Residents’ wishes on the aspects of refurbishment, choice of windows, and the positioning of boilers, were ignored by Rydon and the TMO and even met with threats.

Daffarn wrote of residents complaining that the TMO threatened to ‘smash down doors’ if they refused to co-operate.

An emergency residents’ meeting on 17th of March 2014 over lack of consultation by the TMO, voted to stop Rydon from entering their homes until issues were resolved.

Residents were bullied by the TMO and Rydon to have the bulky boilers installed in their hallways instead of in cupboards as before – as it was cheaper.

They were threatened with having no heating and losing their tenancies if they did not co-operate.

At the start of the second stage of the Inquiry the contractors threatened to withdraw their co-operation unless given assurances that their evidence would not be used to support criminal charges against them.

Despite protestations from the grieving families, the undertaking was provided by the Attorney General and the Inquiry allowed to proceed.

Scotland Yard can still use written evidence, amounting to as many as 130 million separate documents, but any live testimony will not be admissible in future criminal proceedings.

At the root of the Grenfell disaster is the central role of government policy.

The dangers of flammable cladding had been exposed years before at an inquest into the deaths of six residents of a fire in 2009 at Lakanal House, Camberwell.

The inquest’s deputy coroner at the time wrote to Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State for Communities, recommending a review of fire regulations of cladded buildings.

But Pickles replied: ‘I do not consider bringing forward a review of this matter is justified.’

Tory Prime Minister David Cameron had said after his election Victory in 2012: ‘The coalition (with the Liberal Party) will do whatever it takes to help British businesses take on the world.

‘It means waging war on the excessive health and safety culture … abolish up to half existing regulations … we cannot eliminate risk and some accidents are inevitable.’

The Grenfell Inquiry heard, that Arconic – which manufactured the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding used on Grenfell – sought to sell its more flammable products to the newly deregulated UK because they were restricted in other countries.

Civil servants complained to the Inquiry that the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), was ‘possessed’ by an ‘appetite for deregulation’ during the coalition years.

Brian Martin, a senior official in the Department, was accused of ignoring a warning about the ‘widespread, historic and ongoing’ use of ACM cladding in the UK.

Just 18 months before Grenfell, in January 2016, Martin wrote to a colleague about a cladding fire in Dubai: ‘It relates to a cladding product which is a laminate of aluminium and polyethylene … It’s very rigid and makes nice shiny buildings. Sadly, when it gets exposed to a fire the aluminium melts away and exposes the polyethylene core. Whoosh!’

Time and again, saving money informed decisions.

An email from Zak Maynard, Rydon’s commercial manager, in 2014, was more explicit: ‘We are quids in!!’, he wrote, although he would later claim to the Inquiry he was ‘joking’.

By May 2016, the refurbishment was finished, with councillors and contractors patting themselves on the back with the TMO ‘especially pleased the whole project was done within budget’.

Council leader Nicholas Paget-Brown remarked how ‘the cladding has lifted the appearance of the tower’.

Architect Studio E kept its fees artificially low to win its Grenfell contract despite having no experience of refurbishing high-rise residential buildings or cladding systems.

One of the architects, Bruce Sounes, sent provisional fire strategy plans for the project to a KCTMO official in April 2014, but warned them not to show it to the London Fire Brigade, according to an email seen by the Inquiry.

The fire service, he warned, was ‘likely to support the severe interpretation of the regulations’.

The panels used on the building were Arconic’s product called Reynobond, which has a highly combustible polyethylene (PE) core. It was deemed to be ‘the principal reason’ fire so quickly took hold of Grenfell.

Arconic had known for years that its PE products could be dangerous. Claude Wehrle, Arconic’s technical manager, wrote in an email: ‘PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred (to fire resistant) as a matter of urgency.’

In 2014, Wehrle sent colleagues a test result showing PE panels achieved the lowest fire safety rating, and said it must no longer be used in certain cladding systems.

Celotex, which provided the majority of Grenfell’s insulation, had also initially struggled to get its material to pass fire safety tests.

And Kingspan, which provided some of the insulation for the project, found its Kooltherm K15 product erupted into a ‘raging inferno’ when tested in 2007.

In a text exchange, Arron Chalmers, technical project leader at Kingspan, joked with a colleague about K15 being marketed as safe when it failed fire tests. ‘All we do is lie in here,’ one message read.

It will be only after the Inquiry report is written and only when it is complete will the police and the Crown Prosecution service begin the process of considering charges – far short of the convictions the victims demand.

Grenfell campaigner Queenie Cas told News Line: ‘The only justice is jail time, those responsible should be in prison.’

Scott Dore, who stood as the Workers Revolutionary Party candidate in North Kensington the 2019 General election, said: ‘All these companies, along with the Tories and the Kensington and Chelsea Council, played a role in the lead-up to the Grenfell Tower fire and bear the responsibility for the deaths of 72 people.

‘The Grenfell Tower tragedy can only achieve justice when they are arrested, put on trial and jailed for this crime.

‘Trade unions must take action on safety. This government must be brought down and replaced by a workers’ government.

‘The trade unions must stop seeing their role as advising parliamentary committees on regulation and instead call strike action to kick the Tories out. A workers’ government is the only way forward.

‘For safety’s sake, the entire building industry must be nationalised and put under workers’ control, so that every single home is fitted with sprinklers, fire escapes, smoke extractors, and is built using safe building materials, creating safe and warm council homes for all.’