Opinion: Grenfell Tower disaster has echoes of Cave Creek tragedy

Back in the early days of Britain’s punk rock explosion of the 1970s, a long-respected music journalist penned a scathing article rubbishing a London-based band from that tough and ready genre.

Charles Shaar Murray concluded his poisonous piece by suggesting the ensemble in question were the example of a garage band which was better left in the garage with the motor running and the doors shut tight.

It was a cruel, yet clever joke. It was one which ended up being at the scribe’s own expense, however.

Source: 1 NEWS

Punk swept all before it. The Clash — the band he had so brutally savaged — led the charge and went on to much bigger things.

Not before its members got revenge of sorts, however, by mocking Murray in “Garageland”, a song on their first album.

Some four decades on, another song in that collection has suddenly turned out to very prescient in a spooky kind of way.

Silence is really the only suitable soundtrack for the truly horrific images and sounds of death, destruction and despair which neither eye or ear could ignore as the flames consumed what is now the severely charred skeleton of Grenfell Tower in west London.

If a soundtrack was required, then “London’s Burning” has to be in the mix.

It is not in the category of what middle-of-the-road radio stations define as easy listening.

Amidst screeching guitars, the band’s front-man, the late Joe Strummer, garbles the lyrics in a voice of someone who gargles daily with a mixture of sandpaper and sulphuric acid.

But listen to the words and nothing else comes close as an expression of the alienation and awfulness of life on a rundown estate, where “community housing” amounts to housing without a community.

Strummer described his music as the “Sound of the Westway” in reference to the elevated motorway which straddles the Lancaster Estate in which Grenfell Tower stands.

Such high-rises tell a long, sad story of how what were supposed to be icons of a brave new world where architecture served a beneficial social purpose rapidly deteriorated into repositories of crime, violence and most other manifestations of urban decay.

In “London’s Burning”, Strummer sums up life in such concrete-sculpted hell-holes and all-look-the-same wastelands thus:
“Now I’m in the subway looking for the flat. This one leads to this block, this one leads to that.”

In the years since that song was released, the only thing that has changed for the estate’s downtrodden is that the lead weight of petty local body bureaucracy has been replaced by the equally unsympathetic cost-cutting mentality of a private company contracted to manage the services previously provided directly by the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council.

In such a penny-pinching environment, the revelation that highly-inflammable cladding was used to refurbish the facade of Grenfell Tower is not really a surprise.

That the decision saved all of £5000 — roughly NZ$8800 — in comparison to installing a fire-resistant alternative suggests it was not carelessness or incompetence at work here.

It was sheer callousness. It is inconceivable that no-one party to fitting the cladding was aware of the potentially extremely dangerous consequences.

The furore is rather reminiscent of the Cave Creek tragedy in 1995 in which 14 people plunged to their deaths following the collapse of a Conservation Department viewing platform on the West Coast.

There was no argument as to the immediate cause of this calamity — the use of nails to secure the platform.

Both disasters would seem to have been easy to prevent.

As prime minister at the time, Jim Bolger lamented that the platform at Cave Creek had failed for the lack of all of $20-worth of bolts which would have held the whole structure together.

Likewise, spending just a little more on the right product would have prevented the conflagration in west London.

But decisions are not made in isolation. Bolger’s bag of bolts was mythical. What was very real was a culture within the Conservation Department of cutting corners as a result of chronic underfunding by Bolger’s administration.

A not altogether different scenario applied pre-blaze in the workings of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council.

The $NZ17 million-plus refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was tendered out to a private building contractor, Rymond Construction, on behalf of the council by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), the separate private company which manages the council’s extensive stock of social housing. It does not take much for such arrangements to blur lines of accountability.

Will those angry residents who marched on the offices of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council following the Grenfell Tower inferno similarly get the justice for the dead that their placards have demanded?

Or will they be the losers as the politicians do their utmost to avoid accountability being laid at their door.

Determining exactly where and to whom responsibility for the blaze should be sheeted home is going to be far more difficult exercise for the pending public inquiry.

Will all the blame be laid at the feet of the company which won the contract for refurbishment? What about its sub-contractors? Or the council’s building inspectors monitoring the project?

Or the company which sold the panels presumably knowing full well they were banned from use on buildings of a certain height — or even banned altogether?

What about the council itself? Its slow and feeble response to last week’s disaster is very telling. It has effectively lost touch with its tenants.

Worse, that failure of leadership has been compounded by the toxic relationship between the KCTMO and various residents’ associations which have made it their mission to make the former fulfil its obligations as part of its management contract with council for which it receives a hefty annual fee.

Much attention has focused on a prediction made by the Grenfell Action Group last November that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the  KCTMO”.

The action group’s complaints centred on such things as parked vehicles blocking emergency vehicles from gaining access to the tower, the failure to clear stairwells piled high with rubbish, checking whether fire extinguishers were still functional and so forth.

The residents might well want rid of KCTMO. But that company’s shortcomings may well turn out to be peripheral to the issue at the crux of the conflagration — the cladding.

As for heads rolling, so far the borough’s councillors have shown no great willingness to resign. The leader of the Conservative Party-dominated council Nicholas Paget-Brown, apparently offered to quit but was talked out of it by colleagues. That was a major failure of judgment.

The symbolism of resignations in such circumstances is a critical element in any healing process.

And as likely as not, they will happen. That was the lesson from Cave Creek.

Bolger refused to accept the resignation offered by his Conservation minister Denis Marshall. He instead tried to place all the blame for what happened on the Conservation Department’s West Coast conservancy.

By the time the dust had settled after the official inquiry, Marshall had gone from Conservation. Likewise the department’s chief executive. Likewise the head of the West Coast conservancy.

A similar clean-out is needed in west London. If that does not happen, the sick culture which puts the appearance of a building ahead of the basic needs of its inhabitants would only continue to fester.

If there is real change, then the deaths in the Grenfell Tower firestorm will not have been completely in vain.