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Firefighters try to pout out the blaze at Grenfell Tower

The Fires that Foretold Grenfell

A haunting story of five fires that foretold the Grenfell disaster, told by those directly involved.

About the programme

Made over the course of 12 months, the film crucially tells the story of the legislative history of building regulations from 1973 to the present day through five fires. 

Focusing on three key factors that contributed to the scale of disaster at Grenfell – the flammable cladding applied to the tower, the fire service’s ‘Stay Put’ advice for residents, and the absence of sprinklers – the programme will hear first-hand how these factors had already played a part in the previous five blazes, some with fatal consequences.

The programme explores the causes, subsequent investigations and the recommendations that were sent to successive UK governments, ultimately posing the question, if lessons had been learned as a result of tragic repetition of errors over the decades, could Grenfell have been avoided?

The five fires revisited include: Summerland disaster, Douglas, Isle of Man (1973); Knowsley Heights fire, Liverpool (1991); Garnock Court fire, Irvine, N Ayrshire (1999); Harrow Court fire, Stevenage, Herts (2005); and Lakanal House, London (2009)

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Grenfell tower after the fire, with a banner, reading forever in our hearts

Grenfell - Forever In Our Hearts

Playing with fire

Discover the missed opportunities that could have prevented the Grenfell fire and saved 72 lives.

Grenfell Tower, after the fire. A 'Justice for Grenfell' poster in the window or a nearby flat.

Grenfell: a site of contempt

A decision to save £293,000 led to the loss of 72 lives and some former residents of Grenfell Tower are still struggling to get the help they need. 

Much is still to be revealed about the circumstances leading up to the fire at Grenfell Tower on 14th June 2017. But one thing we already know – and a fact to which anyone remotely connected to Grenfell Tower can surely never be reconciled - is that the loss of 72 lives followed a conscious decision  by the richest council in England to save £293,000. This is surely the apogee in the contempt displayed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council and the Tenants Management Organisation Grenfell residents which had endured… for years  and which must generate an enduring sense of worthlessness that the residents in and around the area will do well to shake off. But what is perhaps more surprising – and disgusting – is that this contempt has persisted in the aftermath of the fire, further generating what Majid Yar has labelled harms of misrecognition  – in essence, disrespect.

Failures which led to a disaster

Community member writing on Grenfell tribute wall

Community member writing on Grenfell tribute wall

"For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another".

One aspect of this contempt was the complete lack of effective immediate response or leadership in the aftermath of the disaster – what Theresa May was to refer to, one week after the fire, as the failure of the state , local and national, to help people when they needed it most. This is the context of the observation that absence of clear strategies breeds lack of trust in authority , loss of confidence and a fear of the future that, sadly, is often well founded.

These failures on the part of authority persisted and continue to this day – as documented, for example, in the Initial  and then the Second  Report of the Independent Grenfell Recovery Taskforce, which have documented the continuing failings of RKCBC and the severe trust deficit  between it and the local community. Then, more recently, the charity Muslim Aid has documented the void left by local and central Government, one filled particularly in the first few weeks  by the community itself and a vast array of local organisations.

The continuing contempt on the part of central and local Government has also been repeatedly evidenced in the series of lies, half-truths and broken promises made to the affected households in the aftermath of the fire.

One area of mistrust was the palpable failure to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire – namely that “every person made homeless would receive an offer of accommodation within three weeks”. In fact, this was subsequently clarified  as meaning temporary accommodation. In November 2017, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) Council promised that every survivor would have the opportunity to move into a new home before Christmas , while weeks later the Minister for Housing and Planning estimated it would take RBKC up to 12 months  to rehome families.

Breaking promises

A man writes on Grenfell tribute wall

A man writes on Grenfell tribute wall

The contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire has been maintained and reproduced after the fire.

Moreover, the promise of being offered like-for-like tenancies was repeatedly broken . As the Chair of Grenfell United noted, "For the survivors and affected families it seems like one broken promise after another". Shortly By the end of May 2018, almost one year after the fire, it was stated only a third  of the 210 families who had lived in the tower were in new, permanent accommodation, with another 72 neither in permanent nor temporary, but emergency, accommodation .

A further area of mistrust was the shifting and uncertain nature of the ‘amnesty ’ offered to undocumented residents – originally stated at one year, then extended for 3 further months, followed by a policy announcement that survivors would be able to apply for further periods of limited leave to remain , building up to five years. They could then apply for permanent residency. A less well-documented condition of the offer set a deadline of 31 January to apply for the amnesty.

A further focus of contempt is to be found in the struggles between survivors and residents on the one hand and central government on the other around the Inquiry. First, contrary to assurances from Government, local residents were not consulted before the appointment of Judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead the Public Inquiry, in the light of which Justice4Grenfell concluded that this further compounds the survivors and residents sense of distrust  in the official response to this disaster – and had they been consulted would likely have objected  to the appointment.

Fighting to be heard

Grenfell Heart tribute memorial

Grenfell Tower Heart

Following this was the protracted process in which the limited initial Terms of Reference of the Inquiry were challenged  and then largely confirmed, itself followed by the Inquiry’s formal December 2017 opening, at which the lack of direct or indirect representation of residents was the key point of contention . Only on the virtual eve of its opening did Teresa May confirm that there would be a Phase 2 of the Inquiry what which two panel members would be appointed. Of this partial, last-minute concession, Deborah Coles of INQUEST stated, at every stage, bereaved and traumatised families have had to fight to be at the centre of the inquiry .

In short, the contempt displayed towards the residents before the fire has been maintained and reproduced after the fire. It was popularly recognised as a cause of the fire per se. As one resident stated outside the tower as it continued to burn, “We’re dying in there because we don’t count ”. The struggle of survivors of the fire, the bereaved, and the residents of the Lancaster West estate to be heard – to count – continues.

Grenfell Tower Timeline: Was the disaster inevitable?

A total of 72 lives were lost in the Grenfell disaster and anger has grown amongst local residents towards their council.

The top of Grenfell Tower, after the fire

The missed opportunities which could have prevented the Grenfell fire

In this timeline we look back at tragedies caused by fire and see what action has been taken to eradicate them from happening. Plenty of warning signs have been highlighted in recent years, yet a huge disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire still wasn't prevented.

London Building Act introduced

The London Building Act is passed by parliament on the eve of World War II.

London Blitz, September 9, 1940

London is under attack

It wasn’t long until the capital felt the full force of the Luftwaffe’s bombs, but London didn’t burn like the medieval German city of Dresden, attacked by the Allies.

National Building Standards introduced outside of London

The government passed the first set of national building standards for construction outside of London.

Deadly fire at the Summerland Leisure Centre, Isle-of-Man

In Douglas, on the Isle-of-Man, 50 people died after the Summerland Leisure Centre caught fire from a discarded cigarette. As was the case at Grenfell, there was no sprinkler system installed and its core building materials (cast acrylic sheets) were only theoretically tested under fire conditions.  

The use of cladding is widespread

In the 1980s, the use of cladding was widespread in the construction industry, but the safety of these non-structural materials was to later come into question. A fire in 1988 in Royston Hill, Glasgow, and one in 1991 at Knowsley Heights, Liverpool, prompted an angry outcry. Both buildings were fitted with cladding, but in each case, the buildings’ occupants all escaped with their lives. 

Newly installed rainscreen cladding spreads fire at Knowsley Heights, Liverpool

The fire was deliberately started when rubbish was set alight outside the 11-story Knowsley Heights tower block in Huyton, Merseyside. The flames began at the bottom of the building, and spread through a 90mm gap between the wall and the newly installed rainscreen cladding. The fire spread to all floors of the 11-storey building, causing extensive damage to the walls and windows of the building.

Disaster at Garnock Court in Scotland

Sadly, a 1999 fire in a tower at Garnock Court, Irvine, Scotland, proved more deadly, killing one man, and prompted a government select committee to hear evidence on the safety of cladding.

During the inquiry, Glyn Evans from the Fire Brigades Union called for tall buildings to be constructed from entirely non-combustible materials. 

Scotland takes action on tower block safety

The Scottish parliament introduced new laws to enhance the safety of tower blocks, but the same measures weren't introduced elsewhere in the United Kingdom. 

Three die in fire at Harrow Court, Stevenage

Six die at Lakanal House fire in London

And, it was in England, four years later, when the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell - a mere eight miles from Grenfell Tower – resulted in the deaths of six people. A faulty TV set in a ninth-floor bedroom was the source of the blaze, and it wasn’t long until the fire in the 1950s tower block – which recently had cladding installed - got out of control.

Coroner's recommendations – including revisiting building regulations and the need to retro-fit sprinkler systems in high rise residential buildings – were ignored.

Sprinkler systems introduced in Wales

Wales introduced mandatory sprinkler systems to be installed in all new building, but England didn’t follow suit.


Meet the OU expert

Professor Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology The Open University
Professor Steve TombsProfessor of CriminologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
Professor Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology The Open University
Professor Steve TombsProfessor of Criminology

Before joining The Open University in January 2013, Steve worked at Liverpool John Moores University where, since 1998, he was Professor of Sociology. There, over 21 years, Steve taught across Schools of Business, Law and, latterly, Social Science and Humanities.

Steve is co-Director of the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative.

He has long-standing interests in the incidence, nature and regulation of corporate crime and harm, and in particular the regulation and ‘management’ of health and safety at work, and have published widely on these matters.

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