What can we learn from Grenfell Tower?

by William Hatchett, EHN Editor

The charred remains of Grenfell Tower will cast a long shadow. Perhaps, like Ronan Point (a tower block destroyed by a gas explosion in 1968) the image will serve as a visual metaphor for a system, or a series of systems, that failed.

Shocking images of the fire, which broke out on 14 June, filled the news and there has been considerable analysis since. Important implications for environmental health professionals are already arising. On the front line are practitioners working in housing management, building control, planning, architecture and fire safety.

Safety audits of high-rise blocks have been ordered and potentially criminal investigations of the owners, managers and contractors of Grenfell Tower have been initiated. A public inquiry has been promised. The latest number of dead and missing victims has been reported at 79.

Under scrutiny is the role of sprinklers and alarms in enhancing fire safety in tower blocks, as well as the flammability of cladding, the alleged breaching of fire stops by new pipework installed in Grenfell Tower, the ‘stay put’ advice for tower block fires and the alleged failure of the building’s managers to listen to tenants and leaseholders’ concerns about safety.

Commentators may point out that these matters were highlighted after the Lakanal House fire of 2009, which killed nine people in Southwark and led to detailed guidance from the Local Government Association. Yet, 8 years later, the tragedy of Grenfell Tower was allowed to happen.

EHPs cannot but have a profound interest in the fire and its implications. They will have concerns relating to emergency response, the adequacy of fire and building regulations, the scrutiny of contractors, and the shortage of temporary and emergency accommodation for those waiting for an ever-shrinking stock of affordable social housing.

Perhaps Grenfell Tower will ultimately provide us with lessons about the supply and management of social housing: perhaps it will also tell us that deregulation has gone too far. It would be wrong to pre-empt the findings of inquiries and legal processes yet to take place, but whatever the messages of the disaster are, for the sake of those who have died, we cannot afford to ignore them.