The building that some 500 people called home on Tuesday 13 June was nothing but a black, smouldering skeleton the next day, towering over the school in front of it.
On Thursday morning (22 June), our chairman was approached by a journalist working for the Reuters news agency, who wanted to write “a tale of two cities – the two Kensingtons” and possibly also about people’s view about fire safety.
Knowing that our president, Nick Ross, has been campaigning for better fire safety for many years, Amanda asked him if he could respond – and this is what he wrote to the journalist a couple of hours later:
Amanda tells me you wanted to do a story on a divided community in Kensington, and perhaps one about fire safety.
On the first, though I know editors generally aren’t keen on nuance, a warning about clichés. There aren’t two communities in Kensington; there are many, and sometimes few in the sense that neighbours might not know each other well. It’s true there are very big wealth disparities in close geographical proximity, with Kensington and Chelsea having some of the most expensive housing in Britain, though arguably that’s better than having rich boroughs separated from poor ones. It’s also true there is a general wealth gap between the north and the south of the borough, although there is social housing mixed with private housing in every ward. It’s not true to say than only poor people live in high rise, or that the Grenfell tragedy was caused because of the wealth gap. Flats are on sale in Campden Hill Towers, one of the tallest blocks in the borough, at over £1m for little more than 800 sq feet – and that tower block doesn’t have sprinklers either.
What’s more, Labour councillors and Labour ministers have been as slow about updating fire regulations, and as resistant to requiring sprinklers, as Conservative ones. I’ve been to see three ministers over the past thirteen years, urging the compulsory fitting of sprinklers in all social housing, and the Labour ones were as dismissive as the Tories. It’s true that Kensington and Chelsea were like rabbits in headlights when the catastrophe unfolded, but I suspect most other boroughs, run by any or all political parties, are just as bad about contingency planning for this sort of thing. It’s true that RBKC have huge financial reserves, and it’s questionable whether that’s a sensible policy given there is so much deprivation in the borough, but it’s also true that the decisions on how to upgrade Grenfell were taken by a committee with a big majority of tenants and independent members.
So it would be good if you could avoid oversimplifications.
The disgrace about Grenfell is actually complicated. While I and many fire chiefs have been passionate about sprinklers and are angry about what has happened – and you may have seen from Monday’s Panorama the specific warnings given to ministers by the All Party group, as I did to the Local Government Association in 2013 – nevertheless some other fire experts were half-hearted and wondered, given that fire deaths were declining for many years, whether it was worth the investment. Chief fire and rescue advisers to successive governments neither pressed hard for updating building regulations or for fitting sprinklers at least on the most vulnerable housing, and nor did they resign over what I saw as safety lapses. They were all good people, all trying to balance risk against expenditure. I disagreed with them and I think they gave bad advice, but they were not evil and they should not be cast as villains.
The task now is to make sure this never happens again. You could help by pressing the case for sprinklers, especially in social housing where there is often multi-occupation, where people tend not to afford the most up to date electrical equipment, and more residents tend to smoke more. We also need them in care homes, hospitals and schools – in fact everywhere where people rely on someone else for their own safety. Most of the 300 or so who die from fire each year do so in low-rise, so let’s not get fixated on tower block, cladding or ventilation systems, important as they are. No one has ever died in a home protected by a sprinkler. They’re cheap, at around £1,200 to £2,000 per dwelling, around the same as fitted carpets. In around 95% of cases they control the fire before the fire brigade arrives, only one sprinkler head triggers at a time as needed, they cause far less water damage, and they almost never go wrong. At Grenfell they would have put the fire out before it spread, and even if flames got unnoticed to the cladding, sprinklers would have stopped it gaining a foothold in other flats and would have washed the smoke from stairways and kept the temperatures down.
The real story is not one about a divided community but about how, with fire safety, it always takes a tragedy to get us all to act: north, south, rich, poor, left and right.
All good wishes.
Nick Ross, President
The Kensington Society
This video was published by the London Fire Brigade in 2012 and shows the difference sprinklers can make.