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The Grenfell fire inquiry is ignoring the biggest causes of the tragedy

31. Oct 2019

First printed in The Times October 31 2019,

By disregarding funding cuts, poor regulation and falling safety standards, this report into the disaster lets ministers off the hook. The 1,000-page report into the Grenfell fire that was published yesterday reaches damning conclusions.

Cladding on the London block breached building regulations and caused the fire to spread rapidly. The “stay put” policy in place — which requires residents to remain in their flats rather than use the escape routes — should not have been adhered to once it became clear that the fire was spreading quickly and it was clearly unsafe to remain within any flat.

The lack of training of senior fire officers to deal with such large fires involving cladding is also a focal point of criticism. The fire brigade is seriously criticised for systemic failures.

All of these conclusions are valid and were expected, given the nature of the evidence received by the Grenfell inquiry. However, it is evident that the inquiry will never deal with the more important underlying causes.

So-called light touch regulation has been the watchword of successive governments in areas ranging from banking to health and safety. The policy’s aim was to reduce the role of the regulator by requiring the regulated to self-regulate much more. Some have seen this as a thinly disguised way for local and national government to cut costs.
Such policies have had disastrous consequences elsewhere, usually leading to a lowering of standards and allowing unscrupulous companies to prosper at the expense of those they should be protecting.

The second part of the inquiry will not deal with the likely causal connection between cuts to the emergency services and the lack of adequate training, the lack of sufficient equipment to fight large fires and the “institutional failings” of the fire brigade. The budget for prosecutions for breaches of fire safety has been slashed over the years - and again this will not feature in any report.

While the inquiry will have been told of the lack of equipment for fighting high-rise fires - some had to be brought in from other fire brigades during the blaze - it cannot inquire about the cost-cutting exercise that leaves London with some of the tallest high-rise buildings in the world but without adequate equipment.

The inquiry will not look at the financial reasons for building regulation officers’ lack of sufficient scrutiny of the refurbishment works that were the main cause of a fairly ordinary fire becoming an uncontrollable blaze. Every local authority has faced similar - or worse - belt tightening.

It cannot be of comfort to the families of the deceased to know that the report will not deal with such fundamentally important potential causes of the disaster. In fact, family representatives were asking for a broadening of the terms of reference, but such calls were not heeded.

Instead, the report heaps blame on easy targets such as the fire brigade whose officers were placed in extreme danger in a situation which should never have occurred.
It was ever thus with inquiries. They are designed to allow ministers to tiptoe quietly away.

Sailesh Mehta is a barrister at Red Lion Chambers in London who specialises in fire law

[PRINTED [The Times]]

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