13:19, May 20 62 0 theguardian.com

2018-05-20 13:19:31
The Guardian view on the Grenfell Tower inquiry: necessary but not sufficient

The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire finally begins this week with a fortnight of testimony from friends and relatives of the 71 people who died in the terrible blaze on the night of 14 June 2018. The blackened shell of the 24-storey tower has become a symbol of the inequalities of Britain. Almost a year on, there remains a disturbing feeling that justice is far from being delivered. The families of the dead are a long way from possessing any sense of completion. The inquiry, led by a judge, is a necessary step, but it is far from being a sufficient one.

The government has yet to make much progress on the houses that the former Grenfell residents need – only one in three of the families are living in a permanent new home. Woeful handling of the situation by Kensington and Chelsea council has not improved much since it dumped its ineffective leadership last year, bringing in a new head who’d never been to a tower block. Unsurprisingly the council continues to build fewer affordable homes than any other London borough.

Justice must also been seen to be done. Many fear that ministers will never fully hold to account those culpable, shying away from taking on vested interests in the building industry. This dread deepened last week when mixed signals were sent over whether the use of combustible materials to clad high-rise buildings would be banned. In the case of Grenfell the “cladding” consisted of aluminium sheets fixed to a quarter-inch core of polyethylene, a material so flammable it is compared to petrol. Australia had a high-rise fire in 2014; it now has a ban on unsafe cladding. Dubai had one in 2015; it has a ban on high-risk materials. More than 300 tower blocks in the UK are wrapped in similiar dangerous cladding. It seems obvious that Britain must do the same.

It was bewildering that last week’s official review of building regulations, commissioned by the government, did not prohibit the use of combustible materials. The report’s author, Dame Judith Hackitt, told the BBC on Thursday morning that she didn’t think a ban would work. This was contradicted by James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, who told MPs he would consult on a ban, but not implement one immediately. His defence was that the cladding on Grenfell Tower was unlawful under existing building rules and should not have been used. If that is the case then why are the guilty parties not being tracked down now and held to account? Ministers cannot hide behind public inquiries.

It seems clear that official guidance was drafted to be vague enough to convince parts of the industry that a material that was unsafe was legal. Yet prominent Conservatives since 2010 missed chances to tighten up regulations. Gavin Barwell, the then housing minister (now Downing Street chief of staff), did not take the opportunity offered by a coroner’s inquest after a fire in a 14-storey block where six people died. He neglected to uncover the dangers of cladding materials in a review of guidelines. Brandon Lewis, now party chairman, said he wanted to “exhaust all non-regulatory options before we introduce new regulations” when it was recommended that tall buildings were retrofitted with sprinklers. An Inside Housing investigation uncovered a 30-year obsession with deregulation. This fixation meant that warning signs of disaster seem to have been missed on this government’s watch. An ideological compass can be a guide to action. But it pointed in the wrong direction over Grenfell Tower. Public safety needs rules that are prescriptive. Lives will be lost if ministers get this wrong.

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