|Volume 49 Number 13, June 22, 2019||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, 14 June 2019
The Grenfell tragedy must never happen again. The new Prime Minister should make our buildings safe, invest in fire protection and reform fire and building safety systems.
On this day two years ago, 72 people lost their lives in Grenfell Tower in the worst residential fire since the Second World War.
As I met exhausted firefighters and desperate residents searching for their loved ones in the aftermath of the fire, I struggled to understand how this could happen in 21st-century Britain.
But Grenfell was a symbol of everything that's wrong with 21st-century Britain.
Years of austerity. Years of deregulation, privatisation and underinvestment in social housing. And a system that doesn't work for ordinary people.
The government response to Grenfell was abysmal. Two years on, the bereaved, survivors and residents are still waiting for justice.
And two years on, we're still waiting for the lessons of that day to be learned so that everyone can feel safe in their homes.
Enough is enough. The new Prime Minister must listen to and act on the demands of Grenfell campaigners and the Fire Brigades Union.
It's time to make our public buildings safe, invest in fire protection and reform our fire and building safety systems to ensure that the Grenfell Tower tragedy can never happen again.
Grenfell was a catastrophic failing of every aspect of fire-safety that plunged firefighters into an impossible situation.
But the government has been far too slow to remove the type of cladding used at Grenfell from high-rise buildings.
It's also abandoned the thousands who sleep in buildings wrapped in other flammable materials or live in buildings under 18m because they don't meet the narrow criteria for cladding removal.
And there are thousands of hospitals, care homes and schools still wrapped in flammable cladding too.
The government has also allowed private building owners to get away without paying to remove flammable cladding, forcing taxpayers to foot the £200 million bill.
Even then, it was only after immense public pressure from terrified residents that the government agreed to cough up.
Impact of austerity
Despite the pressure that firefighters were under at Grenfell, the government has refused to reverse years of cuts to frontline fire services.
Government funding for fire and rescue services has been slashed by 15% over the last five years. Like so many other public services, the tactic has been to squeeze finances centrally while restricting council taxes locally, forcing local brigades to impose their own cuts.
This means that many fire and rescue services across the country would not be able to mobilise on anything resembling the scale needed for a fire like Grenfell.
The Fire Brigades Union raised concerns after Grenfell that the fragmentation of the fire and rescue was leading to a postcode lottery of public safety.
Yet Theresa May chose not to respond, instead allowing one of her junior ministers to dismiss it as a local matter.
Not good enough
Theresa May recently had the gall to say she was proud of her response to Grenfell. This from the leader of a government that has failed to take decisive action to prevent a similar fire.
The second anniversary of Grenfell must be a turning point. The incoming Prime Minister needs to start listening to the victims and experts and take decisive action to improve safety.
So today we're calling on the government to take five key steps:
1. Remove flammable cladding from all tower blocks and public buildings. There are still 328 residential and public buildings using the same cladding as that on the Grenfell Tower, and at least 1,700 with other potentially combustible claddings, including hospitals, care homes and schools as well as high rises.
2. Retrofit sprinklers in high rises and schools, wherever a risk assessment deems them necessary. Coroners' reports have called for sprinkler systems to be fitted, but so far only 32 out of 837 council tower blocks over 30m tall have sprinklers.
3. Ensure tenants are given a real voice in the running and upkeep of their buildings. Grenfell tenants say their concerns about materials used in the refurbishment were ignored by Kensington and Chelsea council. Tenants' right should be strengthened and democratically-elected groups given a direct say.
4. Reverse the cuts to firefighter numbers and Fire Safety Officers. In 2016-17, the government spent £1,013m on fire services. But in 2019-20, it will only spend £858m. Every single fire authority has seen the amount it receives in central government funding cut in the last three years.
5. Create a new independent national body to oversee standards and best practices in fire and rescue services across the country. There is no national body to oversee fire and rescue service and fire policy. This means standards vary across authorities and lessons are not being learned. Minimum standards should be set for response times and crewing levels.
Working with the Daily Mirror, Grenfell campaigners and the Fire Brigades Union are calling on the Communities Secretary to commit the government to real action on all of the changes we need.
If you agree, sign our petition.