‘Private Eye’ reports on the Grenfell Tower fire disaster (issue 1447)

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LONG before the Grenfell Tower fire in north Kensington on 14 June, the Grenfell Action Group (GAG), representing local residents, had published a regular blog cataloguing the many failings of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea council (RBKC) and the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO), which runs social housing in the borough on behalf of the council.

Grenfell - infernoIn November 2016 a GAG post stated: “It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at TMO will be found out and brought to justice!”

In April this year, fire broke out at night in the 31-storey “brutalist” Trellick Tower in nearby Kensal Town and 200 people had to be evacuated. No one died and the incident did not seem to stir the TMO out of its complacency.

Long-term dysfunctionality

The TMO was set up in 1996 to manage the Tory council’s 9,760 properties. Ultimate responsibility still remained with the council, the property owner, which at any one time has at least two councillors on the TMO board.

grenfell - fireman overcomeWhen the TMO started life it was claimed it would be “tenant-led” and give residents a more powerful voice than under direct council control. However, the TMO’s long-term dysfunctionality was such that in 2007 and 2008 tenant members made numerous unsuccessful attempts to call extraordinary general meetings (EGMs) to hold the board to account over their fears about safety, financial malpractice and pisspoor governance.

In December 2008, having run out of excuses not to hold any EGMs, the board changed the TMO’s constitution so that 250 signatories, rather than 50, would be needed to petition for an EGM.

grenfell - exercise bikeThe change happened without consultation; and rules governing the annual general meeting were also tightened. Tenant members of the TMO were no longer permitted to ask questions at the AGM under “any other business”. Instead they had to write down their questions – in no more than 40 words – and submit them before the AGM to the chairman, who decided whether they would be answered or not.

Systemic failures

After a long fight and more than 400 individual complaints about the way the TMO was run, in 2009 an investigation was undertaken by Maria Memoli, a solicitor who had served on several professional governance committees of the Law Society. Far from being “tenant-led”, Memoli identified 28 systemic failures in practices and management of the TMO, and found residents were being treated with contempt by TMO employees.

grenfell - man & boyThere was a lack of customer care, etiquette and ethics and a lack of respect by certain individuals at the TMO towards residents,” she said, finding that board members abused their positions, got preferential treatment and had their repairs prioritised over other tenants who were not board members.

Memoli made 34 recommendations; but rather than embrace the lawyer’s impartial advice, the council sat on her report for six months on the grounds that it “did not meet expectations”.

When Memoli’s report was finally released at the end of 2009, the council decided it would give the job of adjudicating on the upheld complaints to John Butler, a retired housing association chief executive. Butler promptly departed from nearly all the investigation’s recommendations.

grenfell - workers at topHigh-handed management

It is worth noting that in 2006 the TMO had received a three-star rating from the Audit Commission, allowing it to pocket an additional £6m of “decent homes” money. But how was such a rating awarded when, according to Memoli, the organisation was completely dysfunctional?

The Audit Commission inspection team had been headed by Sheila Belgrave, who a year after the rating was published asked her bosses if she could be seconded to the TMO. The request was turned down, but the following year Belgrave resigned from the commission and joined the TMO as its director of housing and business improvement.

Promotion quickly followed and Belgrave had the title of deputy chief executive added to her job title. Naturally her increased responsibilities led to a bigger pay packet.

Over the years the high-handed management style of the TMO led to tenants being inhibited about complaining, because they feared victimisation. This could be seen in repairs not being carried out on schedule and undue attention being paid to how those who spoke out were conducting their tenancies. A schoolgirl adds to a wall of names. grenfell - praySome tenants likened living under TMO rule as like living in a prison. It was certainly a far cry from the TMO’s “mission statement”, which includes a pledge to “delight residents and customers by exceeding expectations” and “to be open and accountable for all we do”.

Blame the victims

THE priorities of Kensington & Chelsea council and the TMO on receiving £42m from central government in the 2000s to carry out remedial work on the borough’s housing stock are worth examination. Safety does not appear to have been high on the list.

paget-brownAfter the Grenfell blaze, council leader Nick Paget-Brown [pictured; he later resigned after closing a meeting because journalists were present] implied in an interview on the BBC’s Newsnight that the Grenfell tenants were themselves somehow tangentially responsible for the fire’s spread.

Responding to questions about the lack of a sprinkler system, Paget-Brown claimed sprinklers were not fitted in the recent £10m refurbishment of the tower because “there was not a collective view [ie among tenants] that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers.”

He also stated: “We are now talking retrospectively after the most enormous tragedy, but many residents felt that we needed to get on with the installation of new hot water systems, new boilers and that… trying to retrofit more would delay the building and that sprinklers aren’t the answer.”

Paget-Brown failed to address two serious issues. Firstly, it is the council that is ultimately responsible for what happens in the TMO and it is the council with whom the buck stops when things go wrong.

Grenfell - firemenSecondly, it is the legal responsibility of a property’s owner, ie the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, to ensure tenants live in a safe environment. In tower blocks this means fitting sprinklers.

Between 2000 and 2009 RBKC was allocated £42m by central government for major repairs on properties that urgently needed a lot more than a lick of paint. Despite the windfall, however, not a penny was spent on improving fire safety in tower blocks.

The watchdog that didn’t bark

LOOKING exposed following the Grenfell tragedy is the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the regulator that deals with complaints from tenants against social housing landlords and which is meant to monitor the landlords’ performance, financial control and services.

Within a year of coming into existence in April 2012, the HCA, which replaced the Tenants Services Authority after it was abolished as part of austerity cuts, faced fierce criticism from individual tenants, tenant groups and MPs, all of whom claim it is toothless. Below: Prime Minister Teresa May with firemen the day after the inferno.

grenfell - mayThe criticism arose because of the way the HCA decided to interpret its remit, which was only to investigate complaints against social housing landlords when there was “serious detriment”, which the HCA failed to define.

In 2013 the Commons communities and local government committee reviewed the HCA’s work and complained that it had “interpreted its remit as narrowly as possible” and was failing to “discharge its responsibilities as we would expect”. In fact, the HCA managed to avoid doing very much at all, save finding reasons that complaints against landlords should not be pursued. Presumably this wasn’t the intention when it was created, but nothing has changed since.

Clearly, the risk of a fatal fire should have met even the HCA’s “serious detriment” criteria, so the question is whether the HCA was told of the fire safety risk that tenants living in Grenfell Tower had complained about for years.

The HCA should certainly have known about those concerns, because one man sits on the boards of both the HCA and the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (TMO). Step forward ex-property developer Anthony Preiskel, who last July attended a TMO board meeting at which fire safety concerns were discussed.

At that meeting the board agreed that as part of its health and safety action plan it should “extend the fire safety approach adopted at Grenfell Tower to all major works projects”. Heaven help the tenants.

Sprinklers doused

WHEN Wales acted to make sprinkler systems compulsory in all new and refurbished homes, it faced furious opposition from both developers and ministers in Westminster.  Below: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn comforts a survivor. 

grenfell - corbynThe Welsh government changed Part B of the building regulations to insist on sprinklers in all new and converted housing, care homes and university halls of residence, to be phased in between 2013 and 2016.

Among the displeased was Steve Morgan, chairman of leading house builder Redrow, who said in 2015 that the “crazy” introduction of sprinklers and planning requirements for social housing would make it unviable to build in Wales. Former communities secretary Eric Pickles had already argued in 2013 that the Welsh law on sprinklers was part of a burden of “red tape” putting Wales at a “competitive disadvantage” to England in the housing market.”

When another house builder said it would build homes in England before Wales because of tighter regulations and delays in introducing Help to Buy, Pickles tweeted: “Will the last house builder driven out by Labour from Wales to England please turn off the cement mixer?”

Not to be outdone, former secretary of state for Wales David Jones told a fringe meeting at the 2013 Conservative conference: “Regulations on builders are considerably more onerous than in England – including the bizarre proposal to fit every new house with a sprinkler system. The consequence of this over-regulation is that fewer houses are being built in Wales.”

Sajid Javid succeeded Pickles as communities secretary and is now the cabinet minister in charge of the response to the Grenfell Tower fire. Javid was the architect of the government’s “red tape challenge” to get rid of £10bn worth of what it saw as unnecessary regulation in his previous job as business secretary.

Grenfell - interiorIn contrast to Wales, the English building regulations have only required sprinklers in residential buildings constructed since 2007 that are over 30m in height. Scotland requires sprinklers in all new residential buildings over 18m tall.

However, none of the regulations require sprinklers to be retro-fitted in existing buildings. Urgent investigations are now said to be under way in all three countries.

PS: Sighs of relief for bosses at social housing landlord Selwood, which backed down from plans to strip out sprinklers in 200 homes in Wiltshire that it claimed were too expensive to maintain.

After strongly defending the decision to remove the sprinklers to the Eye in February (Eye 1438), Selwood made a U-turn, following advice from Dorset and Wiltshire fire officers who said the system should stay.

 Pictures: London Daily Telegraph