Grenfell Tower: tragedy or crime?

What was behind the devastating fire in north Kensington in June?

Proletarian writers

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Tragedy: a serious play or drama with the problems of the central character, leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending, as in ancient drama by fate and an inherent flaw in this character, or, in modern drama, usually by moral weakness, psychological maladjustment, or social pressures; or: a very sad event or sequence of events; disaster.

Crime: an action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law; or: an action or activity considered to be evil, shameful or wrong.

How the inferno came about

Soon after midnight on the morning of Wednesday 15 June, the back of a fridge-freezer in a flat on the fourth floor of the 24-storey 1970s concrete tower block known as Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, west London, malfunctioned and caught fire.

This is apparently a not uncommon occurrence, and hundreds of fridge-freezers suffer similar malfunctions each year without the wider public ever knowing about it, usually with only minor damage resulting if it is dealt with promptly. A domestic fire extinguisher, then, should be adequate to put out such a fire and stop it spreading.

In this case, the appliance was situated with its back to the wall near the flat’s kitchen window. The fire brigade was called out and the fire was extinguished. Imagine the confusion of the original team of firefighters when they saw two, four, eight and then sixteen more fire engines arriving after them. All became clear when they left the flat: the flames were spreading up the outside of the tower until the building resembled the nightmare depicted in the film The Towering Inferno. Unseen from within, the flames from the back of the fridge freezer had ignited the external cladding panels just outside the adjacent window.

Nothing more would have been heard of this fire but for the fact that Grenfell Tower had been refurbished recently – the last of the works not yet completely finished. That refurbishment included the fixing of layers of insulation and aluminium cladding on the outside of the tower – supposedly to make the flats easier and cheaper to heat and keep cool, but also for cosmetic effect – to make the block, built in what is known as the ‘brutalist’ style (utilitarian with no disguise of materials, usually concrete, or function – the National Theatre being a prime example), more aesthetically pleasing to current taste (and wealthy neighbours) and in line with present fashions in building design and appearance.

When Grenfell Tower was built, the object of the designers was twofold: to prevent the collapse of the tower in the event of a gas leak and explosion, as had happened in the tower block called Ronan Point in Newham, East London, on 16 May 1968, just months after its opening; and to enable any fire to be contained in the flat where it had started so it could be extinguished there or otherwise allow time for occupiers of neighbouring flats to be evacuated safely.

Ronan Point had been erected using pre-cast concrete panels assembled on site, which, under the pressure from a gas explosion, collapsed all down one side of the building as though they were no more than a pack of cards. The new design of a concrete framework cast on site created a very stable and secure structure. It is noticeable that, notwithstanding the intensity of the fire that raged through the building, Grenfell Tower still stands – all 24 floors of it – even though everything (inside and out) apart from that concrete shell has been reduced to ashes.

That structure and the building’s design was the reason for the advice given to residents that, in the event of fire, they should stay in their own flat and close the door (as smoke is the primary cause of death in all major fires). That advice had been correct and had kept the residents safe for 40 years up until the refurbishment last year. (See Grenfell Tower: Construction facts by Thomas Lane, Building, 16 June 2017)

The original lead architect for the building, Nigel Whitbread, said in 2016 that the tower had been designed with attention to strength, following the Ronan Point collapse of 1968, “and from what I can see could last another 100 years”. He described it as a “very simple and straightforward concept. You have a central core containing the lift, staircase and the vertical risers for the services and then you have [10] external perimeter columns.

“The services are connected to the central boiler and pump which powered the whole development and this is located in the basement of the tower block. This basement is about 4 metres deep and in addition has 2 metres of concrete at its base. This foundation holds up the tower block and in situ concrete columns and slabs and pre-cast beams all tie the building together.” (Protesters march as anger mounts over Grenfell Tower response, The Guardian, 17 June 2017)

Local council organisation at the time of building

In the 1970s local councils commonly employed their own architects, engineers and workforce for building and maintaining the council housing which it had been the priority of every government since the end of WW2 to build.

This resulted in a team of permanent council officers and employees who knew their colleagues and workmates over a long period of time, for whom ‘public service’ had a real meaning, who took pride in their work and who knew their local area and community. They also knew that they would be held accountable for mistakes in the construction or repair of council houses or in any other aspect of the council’s work and responsibilities.

This was the situation when the Grenfell Tower and others like it were built. Such teams were not perfect, but they had a measure of continuity and accountability – both personally and through the elected councillors – singularly lacking in the current era of outside contractors and evanescent subcontractors with a shifting workforce.

Unusually for the time, the Kensington and Chelsea borough council initially appointed external architects Clifford Wearden and Associates to design Grenfell Tower as part of the Lancaster West estate, for which the master plan was drawn up by the architect Peter Deakins. (Although he was not the designer of the individual buildings on the Lancaster West estate, many of which were completed by in-house architects of the London County Council).

Interviewed on the Today, programme, he told Sanchia Berg: “In those days the process was more closely overseen, which may help explain why the tower is still standing, despite the fierce fire that raged through it. It’s a very solid building underneath, and would stand up to pretty well anything, I would think. The way buildings were detailed, there was so much control, there were so many fire officers involved, and building regulations under the London Building Acts – it was far more strict.” (See Grenfell planner’s shock at burnt remains by Sanchia Berg, BBC News,13 July 2017)

By contrast, today many contracts are so-called ‘design and build’. The architects will draw up the design, but hand their plans over to the builder or developer once the project has been approved by the local authority planners. Contractors will often take over the detailed design, meaning they will be responsible for compliance with regulations, and they will have a building control officer, who can either be employed by the local authority or work independently. Contractors are now responsible for assessing fire risk, as opposed to the old system where the fire service would inspect and provide a fire certificate.

The Keynesian consensus

Local councils in the 1970s also ran the sewerage services, while all the utilities were publicly owned and each had its own, permanent workforce covering every grade of worker from the humblest to the most senior and including all the professional and technical staff each operation needed, with a similar cohesion and pride in their work and in public service to that of the council teams. It is hard for people who started work in the 80s and later to imagine what it was like working in such an environment and how rewarding that work could be.

The working class had returned home after the war – men and women, armed forces and civilian workers – determined that the appalling conditions that they had suffered all through the 1930s should not be resumed or repeated. The ruling class was terrified of the example of the Soviet Union, which not only had entirely escaped the economic depression before the war, but had grown so fast and so solidly that it was able not only to withstand and defeat the terrible onslaught of the German army (albeit at very great cost) but also to rebuild at an awe-inspiring speed after their defeat of the Nazi power in May 1945.

There was an alternative to capitalism that shone bright and clear in the form of socialism – proletarian state power – which after the success of the Chinese revolution in 1949 and the foundation of all the various east European and Asian socialist states controlled one third of the world’s land mass and provided for one quarter of its population,

This example, and the fear that the working class in the west European and other nations would follow it (as the French and Italians wanted to and the Greeks notably did fight to do), meant that, in order for their rule to survive, the imperialists had to improve the conditions of their own working class.

Hence in Britain there was the creation of the ‘welfare state’, the provision of free secondary and tertiary education and the massive house-building and nationalisation programmes of the Attlee Labour government of 1945-51 – elected in 1945 when the expectation was that Churchill (and his Conservative party) would be rewarded for his wartime leadership with a return to government.

These programmes became a cross-party consensus during the 1950s and 60s, and both Labour and Tory parties competed to see which of their governments could build more social housing units per year throughout that period. Party leaders on both sides had lived through the 30s and the war and often had a personal conviction that these programmes were the ‘right thing’, as well as a class view that these policies were the necessary thing to do.

Abandonment of the consensus

This consensus was broken in the late 1970s, the final rupture coming with the election of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership in 1979. Much as she is reviled by much of the working class and blamed for the destruction of British industry in the 1980s, if it had not been her it would have been another leader of the Tories or of Labour pursuing those policies – Blair followed exactly the same policies when Labour came to power in 1997, and Callaghan had started to implement monetarist policies before 1979.

‘Monetarism’ was the first policy aimed at reversing the Keynesian consensus of the postwar era, whereby state intervention in markets had for a time allowed the money supply to increase as needed to keep production flowing with public works, allowing inflation and higher taxes to cover the cost to government of such interventions.

Monetarism, by contrast, aimed to lower inflation by restricting the money supply. As there is no link with gold deposits held, governments can decide how much money is minted or printed at any given time. Later, ‘neoliberalism’, the policy of letting the market decide everything, replaced that of state intervention. (See Monetarism page on Wikipedia)

The Thatcher government came to power in 1979. Privatisation was her government’s most high-profile policy after the bloodbath of the first few years, during which the high cost of borrowing (deliberately high, following the restriction in the supply of money in the system) drove much of British manufacturing to the wall, entailing a huge loss of jobs.

Many manufacturing firms had become uncompetitive in the world market owing to decades of underinvestment in new technology. British capital looked for easier and greater profits abroad and relied on Victorian engineering and infrastructure to support production at home; out-of-date machinery being the true reason for the much-complained-of ‘low productivity’ of the British worker.

British industry had been protected for many years by the monopoly afforded in many markets owing to the direct rule of British imperialism, but this direct rule (and with it the exclusive domination of the subject countries’ markets) had had to be ceded to the independence movements (inspired and helped by the USSR) of the British empire’s subject nations in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.

Shedding ‘surplus’ labour was another theme in Britain in the 1980s, resulting in private firms and public services no longer having the staff to provide adequate cover for sickness and holidays, so that the hours of the remaining workers became longer and the pressure on them more intense: a significant reduction in the quality of their own and their families’ and communities’ lives.

Had it not been for the Falklands’ War and the jingoism that engendered, it is unlikely that Thatcher’s Tories would have won a second term of office in the 1984 election. But the crisis of overproduction – already started then – would have resulted in similar policies by whichever party was in power.

This was the time that saw the beginning of the sale of council houses, first by Tory then by Labour governments and councils, at a substantial discount to the current tenants – a bribe to the more prosperous sections of the working class to sell their children’s and grandchildren’s chances of decent and secure housing.

In conjunction with alterations to the law (which ended restrictions on private rents, removed security of tenure for private tenants and reduced security for social tenants), this resulted in the housing market being ‘freed’ and opened up to private capital and private profit.

To hasten the process, councils were forbidden by law from using the proceeds of the sales to build more social housing and were not even allowed to keep the proceeds for their other outgoings, but had to hand it to government for the latter to spend as it thought fit.

Housing Associations were formed and encouraged to take over council houses and flats, as well as to build their own, thus taking much of what remained of the diminishing stock of social housing away from local government and removing any pretence of democratic responsibility for it.

What was the reason for these profound changes of policy? The post-war boom of reconstruction and manufacturing was coming to an end and the latest, longest and deepest of capitalist imperialism’s periodic crises of overproduction had begun.

The factories were producing more goods cheaper, but there were not enough workers in the world with sufficient means to buy all the goods produced. Credit cards were introduced in the 1970s to encourage workers to borrow and so keep spending, but the capitalists needed new opportunities to invest and make profits. The government tax or council tax pound was a guaranteed source of money (local or national government very rarely defaults on its debts).

After the utilities’ privatisations had allowed massive land grabs by private companies and guaranteed returns on their investments, another source of profit was found in outsourcing. Starting with the workers perceived to be the weakest, such as hospital cleaners, jobs in public services were transferred to private companies on the basis that the latter could run them more ‘efficiently’ – ie, at less cost to the government, council or other public body.

Attacks on the working class and its organisations

This could only be achieved by eroding the pay and conditions of the workers, and to do so their collective strength had to be weakened. Unions were demonised and hedged around with increasing restrictions. The Wilson (Labour) government had tried to curb the power and influence of the unions in order to weaken workers’ resistance to the erosion of their jobs and living standards.

Barbara Castle had produced a white paper euphemistically entitled ‘In Place of Strife’ in 1969 with that aim: proposing no strikes without ballots and an industrial board with power to enforce settlements in industrial disputes, but the unions at that time were too strong for a Labour government (which had to keep up the façade of being pro-worker) to pass anti-trade union legislation.

The cabinet was split, with Callaghan leading the opposition within, and the TUC were opposed. The ruling class and its media set about undermining the Labour government and in 1979 were successful in replacing it with the Tories under Thatcher (their previous leader, Heath, having been too conciliatory to workers, especially the miners, and having been discredited in his turn).

By 1984 the ruling class were prepared and ready; the miners were deliberately taken on at a time of the Thatcher government’s choosing in order to reduce the power and prestige of the NUM, one of the leading unions whose members had always enjoyed a great deal of public sympathy because of the dangers of their job.

Just as industrial workers losing their jobs in the early 1980s were pressurised into not taking a stand against lay-offs by enhanced redundancy payments – which could be withdrawn in the event of non-cooperation with the job losses – so the workers later transferred to private companies from public bodies such as hospitals and local councils were assured that their terms and conditions of work would be secured in their new contracts by their new employers. But there was no guarantee for future workers’ pay and conditions.

In addition, after the Thatcher government allowed private companies to use their ‘surplus’ pension funds as company money, many hitherto good occupational pension funds went into deficit and benefits were withdrawn – as before, first from ‘new’ workers while existing workers were supposedly protected, though not for long.

This process continues to the present day. Even privileged sections of the public service, including judges and hospital doctors, who were protected when the industrial workers, miners and later junior clerical and unskilled public service workers’ terms of service and pensions were eroded, are now themselves feeling the pinch.

In the early 1970s a Tory councillor in the home counties was discussing the future of local government with a fellow councillor in the presence of a council employee* whose job it was to act as secretary to the council committee on which both sat. He envisaged – as the most desirable aim – that councils should sit just once per year in order to allocate contracts to cover all the services that the council is obliged by law to provide. Councils would no longer need to employ anyone except a team to collect the rates (now council tax) and negotiate the contracts.

In the context of the time, it seemed a mad idea. However, it is now clear that it was a serious proposal within the Tory party then, and that, over the next 40 years, the ruling class through both Tory and Labour governments and councils has worked steadily to bring this about, forcing out any of the politicians who objected.

When the crisis of capitalism reached its peak in 2008 with the collapse of the market in bad mortgage debt – unaffordable loans that had been another attempt to keep increasingly impoverished workers spending – it was the Labour government that decided to nationalise the bad debts of the banks, giving the banks vast sums of money in order to keep them afloat, justifying it as protecting small account holders’ savings and access to their money. Gordon Brown, in a Freudian slip of the tongue, said he had “saved the world” by initiating this action by all the imperialist countries; in fact, he had acted to save imperialism.

The cost of this bailout was and is still being borne by the taxpayer (disproportionately by the poorer of these, as the rich have a huge variety of ways at their disposal to minimise their liability to tax or to avoid paying it altogether). At the same time the tax-funded services that form a vital part of the social wage, essential to the health and wellbeing of workers who cannot afford to provide everything individually (even supposing that were possible, which in the case of education, private and public healthcare and housing to name a few, it clearly is not) have been steadily starved of funds and eroded.

Cuts to the fire service

Then, when the coalition government came into power in 2010, it promised to cut ‘red tape’, regarding it as an unnecessary handicap to business, setting the benchmark as three regulations repealed for every new one enacted.

This only followed on from the previous business-friendly policies of both the Thatcher and Blair governments. It was Labour that introduced and drove forward the infamous ‘private finance initiative’ (PFI) contracts, which gave construction of important public buildings like schools and hospitals to private companies on terms that have left the recipients of those buildings with crippling annual payments and extortionate fees for simple maintenance jobs over which the construction company has a contractual monopoly.

It is conveniently forgotten that the cuts to staffing in both education and the NHS owe much to this haemorrhaging of funds to the PFI contractors, who enjoy guaranteed, risk-free profits out of tax revenues.

It was the Labour government in 2005 that removed the need for the professional fire service to provide fire certificates to new and refurbished buildings, instead allowing private companies to take on the job, supplying ‘inspectors’ who had neither the training nor the experience to fulfil that role adequately (but providing another ‘nice little earner’ for the companies that undertook the task of providing the inspections and certificates for a fee).

All this time, the fire service has been steadily reduced in number – both of stations and personnel – in the name of ‘modernisation’ (though the last Labour government’s plan to centralising phone calls for fire assistance to just a few call centres has run into the sand after millions of pounds have been spent on it).

Also, to the accompaniment of the bourgeois media steadily vilifying ‘health and safety’, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been denied funds and reduced in size so that there are not enough inspectors to ensure that such regulations as survive the onslaught of repeals are observed. The Trading Standards Inspectorate has been decimated similarly.

With regard to building, the pressure is on local councils to grant planning permission whenever it is sought, and building regulations are relaxed (or ambiguous, as the verbal fights over the panels used for the refurbishment of the Grenfell Tower demonstrate).

The councillors of ‘The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’ moved responsibility for the borough’s remaining social housing to an arms-length organisation called Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation (KCTMO), thus taking away the direct public accountability of its elected councillors.

There were tenants included on the governing committee of this body but their presence was a figleaf, as the fact that tenants’ voices were not listened to is amply proved by the Grenfell Tower disaster. Tenants had complained about the exposed gas pipes on the single stairway (only approved if encased in fireproof covers, which had still not been completed at the time of the fire) and many other aspects of the refurbishment.

This is the history that led up to the Grenfell Tower fire. A sequence of deliberate decisions and changes to the law, to the workforce and to the method of operation of local councils came together on 15 June this year to destroy Grenfell Tower. With it were destroyed the lives of well over 100 members of the approximately 200 households living in the tower, and the homes and health of the survivors: hundreds of working-class people of all ages, guilty of no crime except of being poor in the wealthiest borough in London (and probably in Britain).

Where do we go from here?

The government has ordered a public enquiry into the causes of the fire (although an inquest has been demanded by the survivors, as that offers the them the chance not just to be heard but also to be represented, which an enquiry does not).

Books will be written about the disaster these families suffered, analysing the specific people and companies involved: the decisions made, the design of the refurbishment and the materials and methods chosen for it. New information is coming to light every day, especially about the cladding used, and about the lack of care for the tenants shown by the contractors and those supposed to be overseeing them at the council and the KCTMO.

One of the subcontractors has already gone into liquidation. The insurers of all the many firms involved in the work will fight through the courts for years in an effort to pass the buck for the responsibility for the fire and the cost of compensating the victims (and the council and KCTMO). We will see the unedifying spectacle of councillors and council officials passing the buck to the KCTMO and the contractors and subcontractors.

Senior officers and the leaders of the council have resigned from their positions (but remain as employees or as councillors and are therefore still being paid) in order that they can “devote their time to the public enquiry” (and to covering their own backs).

Many other articles in this journal and in Lalkar, as well as in bourgeois media in Britain and worldwide, have already, are now and will continue to investigate and report on this story, with details of the nature of the building and its refurbishment and the actions (and inaction) of the May government, Kensington council and of all others involved.

A recent search of The Times website for mentions of the Grenfell Tower fire resulted in 424 results – and that was just one of the hundreds of papers and journals worldwide reporting this catastrophic fire.

Tragedy or crime?

The question now is whether it is right to call this terrible fire a tragedy or a crime?

Tragedy implies a degree of inevitability, and a helplessness by the humans involved to escape their fate. For the families caught up in the fire as residents – whether they died or survived – and for their relations and friends outside of the tower, it was undoubtedly a tragedy. They were swept up in a sequence of decisions and events that they were powerless to alter, let alone control.

The fire itself, however, was not a tragedy; it was a crime. It was avoidable – as mounting evidence shows. Whether those responsible for the management of the block, at whatever level, and for the refurbishment, in whatever capacity, are guilty of a crime in the strict sense of a breach of the laws of this country is open to question.

The Metropolitan Police are conducting an investigation as to whether charges of corporate manslaughter can be brought against anyone. There is no certainty such charges can be made to stick, even though there appears to be no doubt that the panels used to clad the tower were highly flammable and totally unsuitable for such a high-rise building, acting as a transmitter of the fire from one small incident to the whole of the outside of the building so that it became a raging inferno within minutes.

In any event, such charges will in all probability only be brought against the agents who carried out the orders of the persons actually behind the fire: the capitalists who call the shots and ultimately control directly and indirectly all those decisions referred to in this article.

Engels, in his 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England referred to the “social murder” committed by the capitalists and their servants and agents who created the working and living conditions that resulted in the prevalent misery and disease of the industrial working class and the premature death of hundreds of their number every year.

Engels categorised it as murder (intentional) and not manslaughter (unintentional) because of the wealth of government enquiries and official statistics that were available even in 1845, and which pointed out the conditions and the deadly results of these conditions. (See Chapter 7, Results)

In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, there have been inquests and reports at home and abroad at least since 1988 which have shown the danger of using cladding such as that used on Grenfell Tower on any building higher than a fireman’s ladder can reach. There is absolutely no doubt that social murder has been perpetrated upon the residents of Grenfell Tower, but it is highly unlikely that the true culprits will ever be required to answer for it.

This is not a tale of ‘conspiracy’, nor is it a tale of ‘evil’ Tories versus ‘good’ Labour party; it is an account of the inexorable economic forces that drive capitalism in its current, final, decadent stage of imperialism and world monopolies. Individual owners of capital may rise and fall, but the ever-increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people and the ever-increasing impoverishment of the majority of the world’s population is well documented – Oxfam publishes the figures annually.

This is a tale of class against class. The economic forces are those inherent in imperialism itself. Contrary to what the bourgeois media and other spokespersons for the system of imperialism would have us believe, this situation is not inevitable; there is an alternative.

To achieve that alternative, the workers must take control of their lives by taking control of their work places, homes, schools, health and environment. They can only do this by smashing the state power of the imperialists, and substituting the state power of the working class; by using that power to take over ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and then organising production and all services for need, not for profit.

This was done with great success in the USSR, even though that country was eventually destroyed by revisionism. It is being done still in Cuba and in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and other countries now oppressed by imperialism are fighting to break free from its stranglehold. It can be done here in Britain once the working class understands the necessity and the possibility and fights for it.

In this year of the centenary of the great October Revolution, which founded the USSR, let us learn the lesson and come together to organise for the proletarian revolution here, in the heartland of imperialism.

“Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”

*The writer was that council employee.