Learning from history: Grenfell, Lakanal, governance – something is badly wrong

By Alistair McIntosh, Chief Executive, HQN

“Thirty years on Piper Alpha is now modern history. Let us hope it never again becomes a current event.” That’s what Stephen McGinty wrote in 2008 about the fire on a North Sea oil rig that killed 167 people. 

No one expected the official report into Piper Alpha to be anything other than a whitewash. But Lord Cullen, who led it, had other ideas. He praised the bravery of the rescuers. But he was also clear that a lack of information, poor communications on the night, sloppy maintenance on the rig and some shoddy rescue equipment stopped them saving more lives. Does that sound familiar? It should do as it’s pretty much word for word what Sir Martin Moore-Bick is saying about Grenfell.

Now, I can get the problems working in the North Sea at the dead of night in the 1980s with old radios and patched up trawlers that are hard to manoeuvre. But poor communications in the middle of London in today’s digital era? I’m not having that. The staff in the call centre couldn’t see what was going on at Grenfell and that made it harder to give the right advice. We knew more about it on the living room telly than they did. 

But there would’ve been nothing to see at all if the building had worked properly. We’ve seen 5,000 or so fires in London towers since 2014. Most of the time if you “stay put” you’re fine. Tragically, at Grenfell the compartmentalisation failed and the fire spread too quickly. 

The cladding gets the blame for this. And this is another example of not learning from history. One of the best-selling books of the 1960s was Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader. It pointed out that lots of the ornamentation on American cars of the period looked great but was in fact lethal. You could say the same thing about cladding on our towers. One of Nader’s chapters is called Damn the driver and spare the car. I’ve not forgotten all the slurs about the tenant of flat 16 being responsible for the fire. It’s good to see that Sir Martin says loud and clear that Behailu Kebede went about things the right way. 

Now, of course Piper Alpha and Nader’s book were years ago. Memories do fade. But we haven’t learned the lessons from Lakanal - and that wasn’t so long ago at all. Why is it that we’ve built so many homes since Grenfell that don’t pass muster on fire safety? And that’s in places where the RSH thinks governance is top-notch. Something is going badly wrong here. 

The root of it is that very few of us ever see a Grenfell for ourselves. Only 0.02% of fires lead to more than one death. All too often it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. Sir Martin makes many sensible recommendations. We should follow them. Maybe we should go further in some areas and put in more sprinkler systems. I think we should check houses for safety as regularly as we service cars. How long will we keep safety to the fore? Experience shows that sooner or later we will start to drift again. Already I hear quite a few grumpy senior people saying that Hackitt is over the top. We’ve been here before.

There was a fire in Clanricarde Gardens, which is quite near Grenfell, in the early 80s. Eight people died in awful bedsits. You’ll struggle to find anything about it on the internet. I only remember because I was working in Housing Aid nearby when the reports came out. At the end of just about the only article I can find from the time, a frustrated campaigner says this: “But what does it take to improve standards? We’ve only got sewers because Parliament couldn’t stand the smell of the Thames.” All of us have got to work tirelessly to keep the noses to the grindstone here. Let’s hope the election focuses minds.

It’s great that Sir Martin commends the families and the firefighters. Well said. Something else caught my eye in the report. Did you see all of the penetrating analysis from the expert witnesses? I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of any of these people before the fire. Now, they’re the calibre of people we need advising us on safety. We should be listening to them before not after events such as Grenfell. 

Lord Cullen thought that the top people at the time were too blinkered and didn’t think enough about risk. Could he be talking about us today?