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The Grenfell Tower Fire: Why Were Residents' Concerns About Fire Safety Ignored?

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The Grenfell Tower fire is a tragedy that has left over 79 people dead and many missing and unaccounted for.  As public and criminal investigations are launched, many questions will need answering, not least; how in 2017 could a building housing hundreds of residents go up in flames with such devastating speed?

Launching of a criminal investigation

Police have launched a criminal investigation into the Grenfell Tower fire after it was revealed cladding panels similar to those likely to have been used on the 24-storey building have been widely prohibited on tall buildings in the US since 2012[1].

Building safety experts warned last year that the government’s drive for greater energy efficiency was leading to buildings having an “increase in the volume of potentially combustible materials being applied”[2].

According to the Guardian, under the US building code, the use of metal composite panels without a fire-retardant core has been banned since 2012 on buildings over 50ft (15 metres) tall in various circumstances – including where exterior walls are required to have a fire-resistance rating, as well as in restaurants, care homes, hospitals and concert halls[3].

Why were residents’ concerns about fire safety ignored?

On the Grenfell Action Group blog, tenants said only a "catastrophic incident" would make the building's landlord pay attention to its "dangerous living conditions[4]."

Their concerns and pleadings appeared to fall on deaf ears, despite repeated attempts to warn Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) about the fire risk.

The administrators of the blog have provided links to several previous blogs, proving that they have been issuing warnings to the local body and management company about the fire risk for years.  For instance:

  • In 2013 they warned that shutting down the block’s car park would mean just one narrow, restricted road for emergency vehicle access, something which eyewitnesses reported slowed down the fire engine response during the catastrophic fire that subsequently occurred
  • A long post was written about tenants continued fear of fire due to electrical surges
  • In a 2016 blog, chillingly named ‘Playing with Fire’, residents stated there were not enough fire escapes in the building.  The post said, “The Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring to an end the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders… It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block… is the most likely reason those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice”.

But it was not just tenants who raised concerns about the building and how it would behave in the event of a fire.  A local councillor, Judith Blakeman, who sits on the tenant management organisation, raised concerns about the National Grid installation of gas risers or pipes in the main stairwell as part of the refurbishment. According to an article in the Guardian, she was reassured by the landlord that they would be boxed in with “fire-rated” protection, but it seems this action was never taken. The London fire brigade stated they had not been able to put out the flames until they had isolated a ruptured gas main in the building[5].

The residents of Greenfield Towers tried in vain to get legal advice after citing several alleged structural and maintenance issues with the Grefell tower block but were prevented from doing so by devastating legal aid cuts.  In 2013 to save £350 million per year, the government cut legal aid for certain areas of law including divorce, personal injury and housing (except for in exceptional circumstances).  The legal profession and other professional bodies strongly opposed the cuts before at the time they were introduced.

Corporate Manslaughter

Labour MP, David Lammy, has called the Grenfell Tower fire ‘corporate manslaughter’[6].

The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 creates a means of accountability for deaths caused by very serious management failings.

The Act is concerned with corporate liability and does not apply to directors or other individuals who have a senior role in the company or organisation.

However, existing health and safety offences and gross negligence manslaughter continue to apply to individuals.

If a company is prosecuted for health and safety offences, the Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences Sentencing Guidelines provide the framework for judges to link the fine handed down to the turnover of the company.  This has led to fines of many millions of pounds being handed out in circumstances where health and safety laws have been breached, especially if the breach occurred in pursuit of profit.

Under the sentencing guidelines, the threshold for directors to receive custodial sentences is also reduced.

Unimaginable loss to people and property

Not only have many people lost their lives in this tragedy, scores have been injured.  Fire is cruel to the human body, leaving scarring and lifelong pain.

Those who escaped physically unscathed will be dealing with the mental trauma of what they heard and saw for many months and years to come.  Both residents and emergency service responders may suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can be just a debilitating as a physical wound.

There is also economic loss, not only for tenants who have lost everything, but to suppliers and contractors who serviced the building.  Many people, may find themselves unable to work for a period, leaving already desperate families with additional financial stress.

Despite the criticisms of Kensington and Chelsea Council’s handling of this tragic event and the repercussions, there has been a huge outpouring of local support for those affected by the fire.  Many solicitors are offering legal advice free of charge (this is being co-ordinated by North Kensington Law Centre[7]) and hundreds of thousands of pounds has been donated through Just Giving pages.

It will be a long time before we can understand who is responsible for a fire that destroyed the homes of some of Britain’s poorest, who ironically, lived in one of the richest boroughs in the country.  Thankfully, there has been an enormous outpouring of generosity from the public.  This should reassure the victims that people do care greatly for their welfare and provide them with the small comfort that comes from knowing you are not alone.

A lack of access to legal aid should not be a barrier to justice and compensation

At IBB, our personal injury team has the expertise and knowledge to advise and represent those who have suffered a personal injury and wish to claim compensation for negligence. A lack of access to legal aid should not be a barrier to justice and compensation and as such our lawyers offer ‘no win, no fee’ arrangements. To discuss how we might be able to help, please phone us on 0333 123 9099, email us at enquiries@ibbclaims.co.uk  or fill in our contact form.  Any discussions you have with us will be in the strictest of confidence.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/15/grenfell-tower-police-fear-they-will-not-be-able-to-identify-all-the-dead

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/15/experts-warned-government-against-cladding-material-used-on-grenfell

[3] ibid

[4] https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/grenfell-tower-fire/

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/14/key-questions-about-the-grenfell-tower-fire

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/15/grenfell-tower-death-toll-rises-to-17-as-hope-to-find-survivors-wanes

[7] http://www.nklc.co.uk/

The information contained within our Blog Articles is provided as general information only. It does not constitute legal or professional advice or seek to be an exhaustive statement of the law and should not be relied on or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances. For further details, please see our terms of use policy.

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