Book review: Learning from the Grenfell Tower Fire and Other Disasters | News

Book review: Learning from the Grenfell Tower Fire and Other Disasters

By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO.

Gill Kernick starts off by saying "this is the book I wish I’d never had to write". She loved living in Grenfell Tower from 2011 to 2014. So much so she bought a flat in nearby Trellick Tower to continue to enjoy the high rise life.

On the dreadful night of the fire, she watched her old home burn down and her friends and neighbours lose their lives. I can’t begin to imagine what that does to you.

Gill doesn’t want to see that happen again, hence the book. In her day job Gill is a consultant on safety in high risk industries like oil and gas. So this book is a fusion of the personal and professional, and all the better for it. It really is a labour of love.

The point of Gill’s writing is to stop us sleepwalking into another tragedy. And the risks certainly aren’t going away.  All around the West London skyline much taller blocks than Grenfell are sprouting. Are we learning the lessons? What does Gill say we should do?

First of all, she says we need to listen to people who live and work in our homes. No one took the concerns of Grenfell’s residents about safety seriously. Gill points to many examples in other industries where the same thing has happened with tragic consequences.   

“Those on the frontline had given up on the truth. They were expert in telling those up the chain exactly what they wanted to hear, and then getting on with navigating the gap between work as planned and work as done as best they could. They knew that if something went wrong, they would likely be blamed or punished  - or worse still, injured or killed.”

Too often an individual “bad apple” carries the can for safety blunders.

This sort of scapegoating is often the wrong answer. It may be the whole system that needs to change.

How do we do that? We're great at dealing with risks that crop up all the time. Gill points to ten pages of guidance on climbing ladders. Then contrasts that with the dearth of guidance for dealing with something like Grenfell.

The head of the London Fire Brigade, Dany Cotton, didn’t even think it was worth preparing for this. She told the Inquiry it was about as likely as a spaceship landing on the Shard. That’s the perils of sticking to the routines and tenets of the day job right there.

In a similar vein the Government knew something like Covid was on the cards at some point. It was on all the risk maps. Was our planning good enough? In truth, did they actually think it was going to happen? Is that what held us back?

We need to get better here. Gill says we should go looking for problems by practicing what she dubs “chronic unease” . Too often boards are satisfied with small-sample box-ticking reports that no one ever really gets under the skin of.

For a while Gill worked with an actual retired NASA astronaut. So did Jim Wetherbee rely on rocket science? No he told us simply to improve our attitude: “You can either take the view that we are “post-Grenfell” or the view that we are “pre-the next Grenfell”. Which view you take determines your sense of urgency regarding learning and change.”

Where is that “learning and change needed”?  Bluntly the contractors and suppliers are fighting like ferrets in a sack at the Grenfell Inquiry. We did our job someone else is to blame, is the excuse. That’s a clear sign of a ruptured system.

Back in the 1980’s Tom Peters was highly influential in telling us all to “stick to the knitting”. He said you should concentrate on doing your bit of the process well rather than biting off more than you can chew. As the old saying goes — don’t be a jack of all trades, master of none.

It was a reaction to the dead hand of giant corporations and councils at the time. Of course you can be too big and lose sight of things. But the buck passing at the Grenfell Inquiry is not the solution either. Surely its time to strike a better balance. 

Maybe we should begin by building back capacity at the councils. From the sounds of the Grenfell Inquiry things are at a pretty low ebb. One of Kensington and Chelsea’s surveyors John Hoban told the inquiry about how his service was down to the bare bones.

In fact, he was so frustrated with it all that he quit a few weeks before Grenfell. So far he is about the only witness to show any real sorrow for the victims. His evidence rings true, I too have seen the technical guts ripped out of landlords. And many of the contractors aren’t good enough to take up the slack.  

This is a powerful book that makes the case for a total overhaul of safety in housing. What are the key ingredients? We must listen to residents and operatives.

The right experts need to be in the right place at the right time. Yes we must keep on top of day in day out safety concerns but not to the exclusion of scanning and preparing for less likely but devastating tragedies. In hindsight, these are always preventable.

Gill’s book will, I hope, help you to do just that.

The book can be ordered here: Catastrophe and Systemic Change: Learning from the Grenfell Tower Fire and Other Disasters