Fire safety inspections in buildings have fallen by 40%, leaving thousands of people at risk. According to the Fire Protection Association (FPA), that statistic “should be a source of deep shame for this Government”.
“What value do we place on the lives of our citizens?” asked Sam Stein QC at The Grenfell Tower Inquiry last week, “and how far are we prepared to pay for the protection of our people?” This question, it was suggested, lies at the heart of the investigation into the failures that led to the deaths of 72 people.
Eighteen months on, there are serious questions being posed about the Government’s commitment to fire safety. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services has just published the first tranche of studies into the effectiveness of services across England. This is the first time such an inspection has been carried out. It found that the 14 Fire and Rescue Services inspected so far had cut their fire safety audits by 42% since 2010-2011. Eight services “require improvement” in terms of fire safety audits, while one service was found to be “inadequate”. Many teams are understaffed and under-resourced.
‘Protection work’ – ie visits by Fire and Rescue Services personnel to homes and buildings to assess fire safety – were found to be “not a priority”. The findings suggest that Grenfell Tower was not an isolated case when it comes to fire prevention. The FPA states: “The Inspectorate has not yet looked at London, or other metropolitan areas, but there are very worrying echoes here of what we’ve learned about the policies and procedures that led up to Grenfell Tower – and the institutional defensiveness we’ve seen at the inquiry so far. A lack of resources means that fire prevention teams are unable to visit all the premises they need to inspect and cannot keep up with requests for inspections from Planning Departments. This builds a worrying picture of a Fire and Rescue Service that’s responsive rather than proactive, prioritising emergencies over inspections.”
The FPA continues: “This may all seem like so much paperwork, but the story of Grenfell Tower is state failure in action. Grenfell was, as lawyers for one of the families put it at the Inquiry, chronically under-assessed in terms of fire safety. Before the horrors of 14 June 2017, visits to the tower block were planned, but cancelled. Actions from previous inspections were not followed up. Building plans were not placed on the London Fire Brigade’s risk assessment database, which meant they were unavailable to firefighters attending the emergency.”
On 17 November 2016, seven months before the fire at Grenfell Tower, the London Fire Brigade served a fire safety deficiency notice on the landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). It outlined eight areas of concern, including fire doors and emergency exit routes. KCTMO was given six months to put these deficiencies right. It’s unclear whether it took any steps to remedy them.
The question of whether lives could have been saved by proactive follow-up – more resources, staff and time spent on enforcement – “should haunt the Fire and Rescue Services for decades”.
Fire safety: a joint effort
Fire safety is a joint effort between the Fire and Rescue Service, building owners and local authorities. The Fire Service has a power of enforcement. In some areas, according to the Fire Brigades Union, this hasn’t been used for two years. Resourcing may play a role here – the mantra in the public sector from 2010 onwards was “more for less”, after the first austerity budgets translated themselves into front line policy.
Jonathan O’Neill, managing director of the FPA, said in a statement: “Unless and until Fire and Rescue Services are allocated the sufficient additional resources that have been highlighted as required so far, enforcement activity will continue to fall and rogue landlords and building owners could continue to act unhindered.”
With every new piece of research into what went wrong at Grenfell Tower, the key points to note are core aspects cut back and a degradation of services. “Austerity is a catch-all,” points out the FPA, “but this in itself masks more urgent questions about responsibility, culture and Government delay.”
The FPA continues: “Where is the urgency? Immediately after the fire at Grenfell Tower, the Prime Minister said: ‘We cannot wait for ages to learn the immediate lessons.’ There are still 441 high-rises clad in dangerous materials. There are still families at risk in their homes. That such damning findings are produced 18 months on should be a source of deep shame for this Government. What message does this send out to bereaved families about the Government’s attitude towards fire safety?”
In the course of one evening in west London, whole families disappeared. People picked up their children or grandchildren from school, went home to make dinner and were never seen again. Chairs sat empty in playgroups and classrooms. Absence took the place of children, friends, parents and neighbours.
At the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Michael Mansfield QC quoted a survivor who lost six members of her family. “The impact it’s had on our families and our community could have been prevented. We cannot change that now, but there has to be change.”