[Now with very important comment about the privatised Building Research Establishment – see below]
There are two answers to the above question – one simple and one much more complex. We don’t know the full answers to either yet, but we know more or less what the questions and areas of uncertainty are.
The first answer is the simple, proximate, one: what caused the fire, how did it spread so quickly, why were more people not rescued or able to escape?
We don’t know the answers to any of these things fully yet but it seems a single localized incident in one flat started the fire, it spread rapidly mainly because it went outside and up the building, going back in to the flats as it did.
The most likely culprit is the weather-proof cladding. Aluminium covered (which melts at 600C, the temperature of the average house fire) and filled with flammable insulation it clearly burnt and helped spread the fire.
The fact that apparently hundreds of tall buildings in the UK may have the same cladding as Grenfell is obviously a potentially huge danger if it was the cladding that was the main cause of turning a minor fire into a major disaster.
Why it also seemed to spread so ferociously inside the building is not at all clear, nor is it clear if an internal sprinkler system would have made any difference?
Why so many people were trapped is also unknown at this point. Was it because they obeyed the instruction to remain in the flats with the doors shut or were they unable to get out? Did the escape routes, that are supposed to be protected, fail?
All of these are questions of fact. We may never know the answers to all of them – especially the last one – because some of the most important witnesses are dead. But we can know the answers to most, and fairly quickly.
Given both the anger of survivors and others and the limitations of various investigatory authorities I have suggested an independent, expert, and rapid inquiry like an Air Accident Investigation Branch one would be the best option.
The Police are focused, rightly, on criminal liability that will never be the whole story. The Fire Service, despite the heroism and professionalism of its officers has questions to answer about inspection and advice (the ‘stay in your flat’ instruction). The Local Authority is the landlord. It clearly needs something like the AAIB to carry out a fast, expert, investigation into the immediate facts.
Who was responsible?
The second set of issues, and answers, are likely to be far more complex. Far too many people, on all sides of politics and none, are rushing to blame one simple scapegoat.
For some on the left its “neoliberalism” or “the Tories” – as if we hadn’t had both Labour and Tory governments over the five decades since Grenfell Tower was planned and built, long before so-called ‘neo-liberalism was a twinkle in Margaret Thatcher’s eye (it was completed in 1974).
On the left focus has also been on the Tories running Kensington and Chelsea, Tory austerity and deregulation, contracting out, and the arms-length ‘Tenants Management Organisation’ (K&CTMO) – although the latter policy was pushed hard by New Labour.
Some on the left are saying this was a case of the ‘neglected poor’ where standards were relaxed or dodged to save money and it ‘wouldn’t happen in a rich tower block’. We don’t know that yet – it may be true. But it may also be that some very expensive tower blocks harbor just the same risks. That’s another reason not to rush to judgment on the basic facts.
On the right some of the most bizarre ‘explanations’ have been advanced: that the external cladding was due to “EU bureaucracy” (it wasn’t) or the ‘green’ policies of the previous Labour Government (despite the fact the cladding was installed long after Labour had left office).
Now the genuine anger of some survivors and residents is being denounced as “Socialist Worker middle class twats” (Iain Martin, The Times). It is true there were some Socialist Worker placards at the demonstrations, but the SWP always manage to hand some out. There’s no evidence the majority of protestors weren’t local. On the other hand, the parasitic Trots of the SWP are being despicable and harming the genuine cause of the survivors.
The reality is the truth of who was responsible for Grenfell Tower is going to turn out to be complex.
Politically it will almost certainly include decisions by politicians at all levels of government and on all sides.
The system of regulation – building and fire prevention standards – for which politicians are responsible, is a clear focus for attention. The decision of central government to abandon most of its central role is dubious. Local authorities have neither the resources nor expertise to judge things like the safety of materials.
The system of management of social housing – arms-length and often unaccountable – is also suspect. How much has it created an unaccountable system in which neither voters nor tenants are listened to?
Architecturally it will not turn out to be the idea of tower blocks per se – they can stand, not be burnt down and be pleasant places to live or they wouldn’t sell apartments for, in some cases, millions. But it may turn out that there has been false optimism amongst architects about how easy it is to protect them and their occupants from fire.
This may also relate to a greater culture of complacency about fire in general? We have seen a dramatic reduction in house fires in recent decades, mainly due to preventative regulations (especially on materials), fire inspections and public awareness campaigns (e.g. TV adverts about the need for smoke alarms).
Has this created a social-cultural ‘group think’ mentality? Like all too many disasters in the past it may turn out that a major contributing factor was simply too many people thinking across the public and private spheres thinking “that couldn’t happen any more”?
All of the above suggests a two stage investigation: the first to establish the immediate facts (and what implications that might have for safety of other tower blocks) and the second to find out who was responsible for allowing these circumstances to happen?