It is now more than four years since 72 people – including 18 children – were killed in the worst atrocity this city has witnessed since the end of World War II. And yet it too often feels as if the fire at Grenfell Tower has already slipped to the back of the public consciousness.
The mammoth public inquiry into the fire has already made some extraordinary revelations about how it was allowed to happen, but how widely are they known?
How many in London know, for example, that the inquiry was told the fire risk assessor who reviewed the safety of the building four times in the years leading up to the disaster invented some of his qualifications and copy and pasted text into his assessments from reviews of other buildings? How many know that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea did not act on specific advice from the London Fire Brigade to do something about the defective fire doors in Grenfell and made other buildings it owned across west London, deeming it too costly and too difficult a problem to fix? How many know that the violently combustible nature of the cladding panels bolted to its external walls was demonstrated in testing carried out by Arconic, the company that sold it, from as early as 2004, but these tests were never released to customers or the regulators that certified the product as safe? Instead, they described the result internally as “very confidential” with one senior staff member writing in 2010 “It’s hard to make a note about this because we are not clean”. How many know that senior figures at this company secretly warned of a fire killing “60 or 70” people should it keep the product on the market ten years before Grenfell burned?
All of this and more has been revealed amid the slow and painstaking evidence sessions which have taken place – sometimes over Zoom – over the last 18 months. But they do not seem to cut through. One thing which might draw attention back to the fire – and the crucial question of how it was ever allowed to happen – is a documentary set to air tonight on Channel 4.
This film has got hold of something precious – reels of footage of the Grenfell Tower community before the blaze which decimated it.
Artist Constantine Gras had been invited by the council’s building manager, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) to produce a film of the refurbishment, in what was probably intended to be positive PR stunt.
However, as the refurbishment went wrong and the relationship between the council and residents soured, Mr Gras’ film began to capture something more profound – the increasingly desperate efforts of residents to have their complaints listened to and the persistent rebuttals they faced from staff at the KCTMO.
It is widely known that residents complained about the refurbishment before the fire, but what this footage offers is crucial evidence of how these conversations played out.
This is crucial evidence in settling the narrative about what happened in the years before Grenfell. Residents have recalled to the inquiry that they were shut down, ignored and dismissed. But some KCTMO staff have attempted to paint a picture of the community – and some more vocal members of it in particular – as aggressive, bad tempered and difficult to deal with.
What comes across in the film is a community which simply wanted to be heard. Yes, people are angry and forceful in their complaints. There are plenty of frowns and a few impassioned speeches. But they are also entirely respectful and clear about what they feel is going wrong and what they want. They just want the issues they are raising addressed.
At least two of the residents we hear speaking in these meetings died during the fire, and giving them the chance to have their voices heard publicly is reason enough to watch this film.
We witness their complaints being met with a wall of bureaucracy – despite even the attempts at mediation by the local MP. Even when presented with a painstakingly compiled survey covering the large majority of flats in the tower, the KCTMO representative bats away the concerns, saying they cannot act without more specific information. It immediately emerges such information has, in fact, already been provided and ignored.
A question posed by more than one of the former residents interviewed for the film is: what if they were properly involved in the decisions about what to do to their home? Would the decision to save money by using the cheapest possible cladding have been made if residents were in any way engaged in the choice?
This is currently a very live issue. A run of stories by ITV News and others have proven beyond doubt that four years on from Grenfell, dozens of social housing estates around the country are still plagued by disrepair and the residents complain of exactly the same dismissive treatment which is recorded in this film.
The government promised action to fix this almost exactly four years ago: to provide tougher regulation and more empowerment to communities. But no significant changes have yet been bought into force.
As it is, residents face the same infuriating quandary those in Grenfell faced: to try desperately to get the company that owns your home to take your complaint seriously, with no power to compel them to do so if they do not. This film – in its utterly harrowing portrayal of the night of the fire – spells out the worst consequences that can flow from that failure.
This is not all the film offers. It is also a rare and precious glimpse into life in the tower before it was lost. I have interviewed many people who lived in Grenfell Tower over the last four years and one thing that often comes through is the contrast between how they talk about their community and how their community is talked about.
Frustrations with the refurbishment and a failing repairs service aside, they do not tend to remember it as a bad place to live
You are generally guaranteed to hear about the incredible views pretty early on and most will also be full of anecdotes about the sense of community they shared with their neighbours – an increasingly rare thing in our city. The film captures what they were talking about.
Whether it is the vista of central London bathed in morning sunlight, the rain of an approaching storm sweeping across the city or the stills of neighbours on a holiday at the beach together and reminiscences of large extended families cramming into flats for birthday parties, the film captures Grenfell as many of its residents remember it: a happy and beautiful home.
But these memories are painful. The beautiful views are gone now, covered up behind the weatherproof sheeting which has wrapped around the burned-out tower for the last three years. Many of the people who shared the happy memories are dead.
That is part of the power of this film. You haven’t really understood what the Grenfell fire was until you’ve seen what was lost.
Watch the footage of a bright eight-year-old boy colouring in a mural as he spins out an imaginative story about aliens, realise that he is one of 18 children who died in the blaze and you are some way towards grasping the scale of the tragedy.
The film understandably dedicates itself to the story revealed by the footage, which means it has less time to tell the other side of why Grenfell happened: the catastrophic corporate scandal which led to immensely flammable cladding and insulation being sold for use on hundreds of thousands of homes.
Grenfell was, of course, just one of the blocks caught in this mess of missed warnings, buried fire tests and deregulation and tens of thousands of people around the country are still going to sleep with similar products attached to the walls of their homes.
We are still a long way from seeing many of these buildings fixed, or any measure of justice for those responsible for the deaths at Grenfell Tower. This is a situation we should not simply accept. This film is a powerful and timely reminder of why.
Peter Apps is deputy editor of Inside Housing;Grenfell: The Untold Story is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight