As the government’s public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster begins, exactly three months after the terrible events took place, minds are turning again with interest that should never have waned to the fire that took so many lives and the failings that led to it.
But a leaked 2013 letter sent to a government minister acts a stark and tragic reminder of what will almost certainly not be considered at the inquiry that many are concerned is aimed at obscuring the real picture of Grenfell Tower, because its narrow scope will look only at the immediate causes of the fire and its rapid spread.
Ex-firefighter Ronnie King OBE is the Honorary Administrative Secretary of the ‘All-Party Parliamentary Group’ (APPG) for fire safety and rescue. The leaked letter is one that he sent in 2013 to then-LibDem MP Stephen Williams, who was at the time a communities minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
The letter, which has been confirmed is genuine, reads as a tragic cry for action on known dangers to people living in at-risk accommodation – including, specifically, those in high-rise blocks like Grenfell Tower.
And it specifically addresses the risk of fire from exterior cladding panels.
King starts by pointing out to William the obsession of ministers with cost above all other factors:
The word ‘cost’ eight times in two paragraphs – just one example showing that the government’s focus has definitely not been on the safety of residents. The ‘costs of sprinklers‘, according to King, are consistently ‘the principal argument for not installing them‘.
King goes on to point out that the government is using outdated guidance – when updated guidance from the same company shows clearly what they are ignoring:
The government’s obsession with cost is not only callous but self-defeating: sprinklers would save money as well as lives. Stupid, without question. Wilfully so? King seems to think so. After referring to the Lakanal House tragedy in 2009, where lives were lost to another fire involving composite panels, he tells the minister:
King has no doubt that government ministers already knew about the updated guidance – and had made no change to regulations. In fact, they were talking about waiting until 2016/17 before taking any action – and, as we now know, did not do so even then, even though they were warned changes would save lives.
King ends his letter with a terrible, prescient plea to the minister to do something instead of waiting for more lives to be lost – in exactly the way they were at Grenfell Tower:
Tragically, that’s exactly what the government did – and is still doing, as Theresa May has ruled out retrofitting sprinklers to all high-rise accommodation, instead leaving it up to owners and local authorities to choose and insisting sprinklers are not always a suitable measure.
Nobody has ever died in a fire in the UK, in a building with sprinklers fitted – and as King and the APPG advised the government, it would be more cost-effective to fit them than not to.
Ronnie King told the SKWAWKBOX that this letter and every other piece of evidence and correspondence generated by the APPG has been submitted to the inquiry. Shamefully, the narrow scope set for the inquiry by Theresa May means that the above letter and others relating to the long history of government neglect and delay, which has led directly to the situation in which the Grenfell fire could start and spread as it did, are unlikely even to feature in the inquiry’s deliberations and conclusions.
In that context, as the survivors and neighbours of Grenfell Tower feared, the inquiry looks more whitewash than investigation.
King’s full letter can be downloaded here: sw parl.
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