The Grenfell Tower Disaster
Public disasters have become a common occurrence in the contemporary world. Such tragedies result in the loss of lives and destruction of property. One such tragedy is the Grenfell Tower fire which broke out on 14th June 2017 causing death and injuries (Wright 2017). Grenfell Tower was a 24-storey public housing flat in North Kensington, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, West London. Inquests show that residents of 23 out of the 129 apartments died (BBC NEWS 2017). In total 71 people lost their lives including one stillbirth (Dearden 2007). Moreover, the calamity also left many people homeless and devastated by the events that had occurred. At least 20 suicide attempts have been reported among victims of the disaster. This implies that the tragedy had both social and economic ramifications that will haunt those who, in some way, failed to foresee or stop it (Wright 2017). Preliminary investigations have already revealed that, to a greater extent, this disaster was avoidable (Lombard 2017). However, as a result of negligence from different stakeholders, the tragedy did occur. The Grenfell Tower disaster was not the first, and neither will it be the last public disaster, where legal duties of care may have been broken (Gross 2017).
This report highlights who was legally to blame for the disaster. It discusses both a public duty of care, as well as any potential private liability of individuals including tenants, contractors, and associations.
The Cause of the Grenfell Tower Disaster
Reports show that the fire broke out in the early hours of Wednesday on the 14th June 2017 (BBC NEWS , 2017). Investigations later revealed that this was a result of a resident’s fridge which, as a result of faultiness, had caught fire. One resident related that a small fire was visible in the kitchen of the affected house through an open window (Dearden, 2007). Consequently, those who saw this started to alert their neighbours of the problem. It only took 30 minutes for the fire to get out of control. Residents acted first by alerting the London Fire Brigade, with the first crew arriving six minutes after a call for help was made (BBC NEWS 2017). Within a few minutes, the fire-fighters had managed to put out the fire. However, when the crew decided to leave the building, thinking they had managed the situation, fire-fighters outside saw fire rising up the outer wall of the building. These flames started to spread at a terrifying rate. Residents did their best to alert their neighbours with an aim of evacuating the building. The fire occurred during Ramadan and as such, many observing Muslim tenants were awake, something that helped many residents to escape (Lusher 2017).
According to Kirkpatrick, Hakim and Glanz (2017), as the fire on the exterior spread and moved upwards, it re-entered the building. Fire-fighters tried their best to control the spread while at the same time searching for people who might have been trapped in the building and saving them (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). Three hours after the fire started, a new crew of fire-fighters had replaced the original teams in an effort to reinforce the fight. The riot police also joined the efforts by helping the fire-fighters as they tried to control the fire as well as save lives. By morning, the following day, the efforts to fight the fire were still underway with people being seen still trapped in the building especially in the top apartments. Gross (2017) relates that in the end, over 250 fire-fighters from different fire engines endeavoured to control the blaze. Frequent explosions of gas lines were reported as the efforts to control the flames continued. This worsened the situation as it accelerated the rate at which the fire was spreading and in the process made it hard for fire-fighters to execute their roles. It was not until 24 hours later that the fire was finally controlled (BBC NEWS , 2017). By then, almost the entire building was destroyed, with many people worrying that it could collapse, although this did not happen.
According to an article by BBC NEWS (2017) before the fire was out of control, fire-fighters adopted the ‘stay put’ advice to residents. Basically, residents were advised against trying to leave the building and instead, they had to wait for rescue. In due time, this advice was recanted and people were allowed to use any means available to them to try and save their lives and those of others (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). After realizing that the fire was spreading first and getting out of control, the emergency team realized that the initial advice for people to stay put could have resulted in the loss of lives. Some residents, who survived the fire, later related that it was by ignoring the initial advice that they were able to survive. Reports from the London Fire Brigade show that fire-fighter managed to rescue 65 people and reached all the 24 floors of the building (Gross 2017). A number of residents said that no fire alarms went off after the start of the fire and that they came to know what was happening through the knocks on the doors and screams from their neighbours. Others were alerted by the sound of alarm and smoke. Survivors also related that the smoke from the fire and lack of lighting was a major impediment to their escape (Pasha-Robinson 2017).
The Impact of the Disaster
The Grenfell Tower disaster had both social and economic impacts. For one, the fire’s nearness to the Latimer Road tube station resulted in a partial closure of the London Underground’s Circle and Hammersmith and City lines. Bus routes within the area were also being rerouted or diverted inconveniencing many travellers in the process (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). Transport services were suspended for fear of wreckages falling from the tower bringing injury to the by-passers. Approximately, 151 homes were damaged in the tower and its neighbourhoods (BBC NEWS 2017). Many people living near the tower were evacuated to other areas for fear that the building might collapse. The Kensington Aldridge Academy was also closed and students temporarily relocated to other schools within the area (Gross, 2017). Property worth millions of euros was destroyed as a consequence of the fire. However, the financial impact of the fire can go over one billion euros. This includes a combination of compensation for injuries and deaths, litigation, the cost of demolition and reconstruction, and rehousing and rehabilitation. Many businesses in the area also experienced low business (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). Definitely, people living in the area were unable to go on with their daily activities as they tried to cope with the devastating effects of the fire tragedy.
Other than the economic effects, theGrenfell Tower disaster also had devastating social effects. Official reports show that at least 71 people lost their lives (Dearden, 2007). The National Hospital Service (NHS) confirmed that 74 people were injured and taken to different healthcare organizations across London, including the King’s College Hospital, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, St Thomas, King’s College, and St Mary’s Hospital (BBC NEWS 2017). 20 out of the injured were a critical condition at the time they arrived at the hospital. Among those hospitalized, at least three victims were treated after being poisoned by hydrogen cyanide (possibly released from the combustion of facade compounds) (Gross 2017). At least one person died while undergoing treatment in the hospital after inhaling fire fumes. Some of the survivors of the tragedy struggled to cope with life after the incidence. Inquests have shown that some even went to extent of wanting to take their lives. Many people in the area and the entire London region rallied to help the victims of the fire through donations such as food, clothes, toys, and water among others gifts. The government coordinated the efforts to help victims of the fire and especially the relocation of those who were directly affected by the fire outbreak (Wright 2017).
Who Was Legally To Blame For The Disaster?
To determine who was legally to blame for the disaster, one has to understand the legal duties of the owner of the building and the public duty of care. It is also essential to analyse the private individual liability of individuals including tenants, contractors, and association. In tort law, the public duty of care is viewed as a legal obligation imposed on an individual or entity requiring observance of standards relating to reasonable care while executing acts that could predictably harm others (Gross 2017). Essentially, an individual is expected to act as a reasonable or responsible person given certain circumstances, and therefore the deviation from the same can lead to negligence (Cornford 2016). As such, to determine who was legally responsible for the disaster, it is imperative to understand whether the actions of the stakeholders associated with the Tower neglected their legal duties in taking the necessary actions to prevent the disaster from occurring. This includes the owner, third parties, and the government. Nevertheless, in this case, the owner of the building (Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council) carries the greatest liability.
Any potential private liability of individuals must also be analysed. Individuals such as tenants, contractors, and associations also had a role to play in ensuring the removal of any hazards that could later contribute to a disaster (Cornford 2016). The law provides ways through which such individuals can help in dealing with the problem. For example, tenants can raise their concerns to the authorities should they come to the conclusion that a building is a safety risk. However, it is upon the authorities to take the necessary actions to ensure the concerns raised by tenants are addressed and that the problem at hand is resolved. Associations also play a similar role as they can also air their disquiets to the authorities alerting them to any foreseeable problem. In the same way, contractors are also expected to take the necessary measures to ensure the materials used in the building are certified and do not cause any hazard to the environment and the eventual inhabitants of a building (Lunney, Nolan, & Oliphant 2017). In the Grenfell Tower disaster, all these stakeholders had a legal role to play in either reducing or removing hazards that eventually led to the tragedy. Nonetheless, as a result of different issues and problems, this was not done (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017).
The Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council was the owner of the Grenfell Tower. However, it was managed by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO). The construction work of the Grenfell Tower started in 1972 and was completed in 1974. The building was operational until 2012 when it underwent a major renovation. This renovation was revealed in 2012 and was later completed in 2016. During the renovation, the KCTMO made some decisions that have resulted in many coming to the conclusion that it is legally liable for the disaster. The later was expected to practice in public duty of care by ensuring that the renovation process did not pose any hazard that could later lead to a disaster (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). The KCTMO allowed the use materials that helped in the spread of the fire when it broke in the following year. Specifically, the cladding materials used to fix the outside walls of the building were flammable. In fact, KCTMO dropped its original contractor in favour of another contractor who offered a cheaper price. In essence, the organization managing the building for the council opted for cheaper materials even when it was clear that such cladding materials were unsafe for a building of such a stature (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017).
As stated by Kealy (2017), during construction, the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council also failed in its public duty of care as, during construction, the building was equipped with only one staircase. In the United Kingdom, unlike in most countries, it is not mandatory for a constructor or owner to provide a second staircase for a building such as the Grenfell Tower (Hayman, 2017). Nonetheless, with the number of tenants who were to occupy the building in mind, it was only logical for the owners of the building to include a second staircase. This could have made it easy for occupants to exit the building in the event of the fire or any other tragedy (Hindmoor 2017). Some survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire explained that they encountered difficulties trying to escape as result of the building having only one staircase. One can argue that during the construction, this was of less concern to the owner. However, it is hard to believe that this escaped the mind of the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council during the renovation period. It can, therefore, be concluded that, to some extent, the council along with its tenant management organization (TMO), KCTMO, ignored a hazard that later proved dangerous. Presumably, more lives could have been saved through the decision to construct more than one staircase.
Another area where the KCTMO failed to honour its public duty of care was addressing the concerns raised by residents’ organization at the Grenfell Tower. Reports show that Grenfell Action Group (GAG), a residents’ organizations had highlighted significant safety problems at the tower to the KCTMO (Gross, 2017). For example, it stated that the building was a safety risk as it only had one entrance and exit. Moreover, the building’s corridors were filled with rubbish. GAG went on to cite that in the event of a fire outbreak, this could result in a disaster. The former also complained about on-site fire extinguishers being expired and some having not gone through any testing for a long period of time (Kennedy 2017). Surprisingly, the KCTMO ignored calls to take action to remove the hazards. The criticisms levelled against the landlord were founded and it would only have been wise if the organization took action to remedy the situation as opposed to waiting for a problem to occur. GAG’s worries came true as many people struggled to exit the building when the fire broke out considering it only had one exit. The rubbish in the corridors such as mattresses may also have contributed to the spread of the fire (Booth & Wahlquist 2017). In general, KCTMO and the council could have done something to reduce the likelihood of a fire outbreak as well as the consequences.
Even though the KCTMO, as the landlord, had the authority to make decisions regarding what was best for the tenants, Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council also had a role to play in this regard (Kealy 2017). For example, it was within its mandate to check the excesses of the landlord and ensure all the decisions are in the best interest of the tenants and the public at large. On the contrary, the council did less to control the actions of the landlord. As a consequence, one can also conclude that the council failed in ensuring the public duty of care. The council, for instance, allowed the landlord to contract contractors that offered poor materials that posed a hazard to the residents (Ulrome 2017). The fact that the KCTMO was fired after the fire disaster means that their decisions caused the fire and hence are responsible for the loss of lives. The council should also take the responsibility for waiting until it was rather late before taking the necessary steps to ensure compliance. The council might have hoped that nothing bad will happen and thus choose to turn a blind eye. All in all, both the former landlord and the owner of the building are to a greater extent to blame for the Grenfell Tower Disaster (Gross 2017).
The government has also been faulted for failing to take the necessary actions to ensure active compliance among landlords, contractors, and homeowners in ensuring the safety of tenants. Calls for the tightening of rules that govern the safety of tower blocks have met deaf ears. The government has for many decades failed to take action to curb non-compliance among builders. Some rules, governing building safety already exist. For example, the use of flammable cladding materials is prohibited by the law (Kealy 2017). However, such rules have not been implemented to the latter. In this regard, the government has also ignored its public duty of care. Specifically, government agencies in charge of inspecting, for example, the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, tower blocks have failed in their mandate. These agencies could have helped in avoiding the Grenfell Tower fire through inspection (Pasha-Robinson 2017). Particularly, through inspection, they could have found out that the tower had safety problems and take action against those responsible for the safety. In the process, some of the hazards could have been removed and hence the reduction in the likelihood of the fire (Lombard 2017).
As argued by Pasha-Robinson, (2017), the government has also failed in its public duty of care by eviscerating the very departments that should be controlling safety in the building. Building control departments, as evident in many authorities, lack the resources required to implement their obligation in the desired manner (Lombard 2017). Furthermore, some functions have, in part, been privatized. This is why companies such KCTMO find it easy to ignore the law and still dominate the market. Broadly, organizations with a reputation for getting easy approvals dominate the market. This further undercuts the council’s building control. The motivation among many council building control workers is extremely low. The government needs to show concern for its employees and ensure they have the resources required to execute different roles and responsibilities. This problem has also affected the fire officers who also play an important role in ensuring that fire regulations are met when buildings are being constructed (Pasha-Robinson 2017). Building control acts mandate such officers to carry out checks aimed at establishing whether building meets the safety measures as set forth in the law. Nevertheless, it is also hard for such officers to deliver when they lack the resources and morale. Generally, the government does not seem to be taking all the necessary measures to equip its department with the right resources and control to execute their mandate (Gross 2017).
Contractors, alike, failed to carry out their duty of care. During the renovation, KCTMO contracted Rydon to improve the building. KCTMO dropped its initial contractor in favour of Rydon as the latter quoted a higher price for the completion of the work (Booth & Wahlquist 2017). This implies that the landlord was more concerned with reducing the cost instead of focusing on the people’s safety (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). Rydon, as a contractor, has the responsibility of providing services that do not harm its customers (Hindmoor 2017). The company used flammable cladding materials even with the knowledge that this was a hazard in the event of a fire outbreak. As discussed earlier, the materials used in cladding during renovation played a major role in the fire spreading at a high speed. This made it hard for fire-fighters to control the fire leading to the destruction of property and fire. One could have foreseen this happening. The fact that some cladding materials have been prohibited means that the society already knows the dangers associated with such materials (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). Rydon should have used the right provisions and in turn, protect residents from what befalls them when the disaster struck. On the contrary, KCTMO should have maintained its initial contractor. All things considered, the contractor was also responsible for the disaster (Booth & Wahlquist 2017).
The major thing that caused the fire was a faulty Hotpoint fridge. After multifunctioning, the fridge started a small fire that later consumed the entire Grenfell Tower. Fridge manufacturers also have the duty of public care to ensure their products do not pose a hazard to consumers. Hotpoint has since the tragedy taken the necessary actions to avoid a repeat of the same in the future. For example, it has asked its customers to check their models and contact the company at any time should they be concerned (Monaghan 2017). Nonetheless, it is only after thorough investigations have been carried out that it will be established on whether or not the company neglected its duty of care. This is because one can easily argue that poor maintenance on the part of the user can also cause a good product for a company to malfunction. Plus, the fire-fighters had managed to control the fire when they first arrived at the scene (Gross, 2017). Nonetheless, it was after it had spread to the external cladding that it went out control. All the same, the main source of the fire was the fridge. If it did start the small fire, maybe the building would still be standing at the moment (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017).
Residents at the Grenfell Tower carried a private liability. The law provides citizens in a country with a guidance on what is considered lawful and unlawful. The government tries its best to ensure the laws are implemented and that its subjects are enjoying their rights and freedoms (Hayman 2017). However, the citizens also have a role to play in ensuring the implementation of the established rules and regulations that govern their behaviours. For example, citizens play the role of alerting the authorities whenever other people are violating the law. In the Grenfell’s Tower case, the residents, therefore, had the liability to inform the law enforcement agencies any violation of the set rules governing construction and building. Inquests into the case have revealed that residents tried to raise their concerns regarding safety prior to the fire (Lusher 2017). They were also the view that in the event of a fire, escaping could have been a problem as result of the building having only one staircase and exit (Hindmoor 2017). Moreover, tenants were also concerned with the exposed gas pipes that remained exposed even after the renovation was done. Some residents wanted to move to courts but were prevented by a lack of legal aid. The government had recently cut its legal aid making it hard for low-income earners to afford legal representation. By and large, residents tried to play their role regarding private liability but their efforts were not responded to as expected (Gross 2017).
From the above analysis, it is clear that different stakeholders had a role to play in ensuring the avoidance of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster. As a result of negligence on the part of some of the stakeholders, the tragedy becomes inevitable (Gross 2017). Nevertheless, the greatest blame falls on the landlord (KCTMO) and the owner (Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council) (Kirkpatrick, Hakim, & Glanz 2017). They two institutions failed to take the necessary actions to reduce the fire hazards in the building as well as to respond to concerns raised by residents and residents’ organizations. On its part, the government also failed in implementing building rules and regulations to the end. It also failed to provide its institutions with the right resources to execute their roles and responsibilities as expected.
The Grenfell Tower disaster lead to the loss of lives and property. From an expert’s point of view, the tragedy was completely avoidable. Negligence on the part of different stakeholders including the owner, landlord, the government, and residents contributed to the fire and its consequences. The landlord and the owner ignored their public duty to care and instead focused on costs and as a consequence made decisions that later contributed to the spread of the fire and destruction of lives. Residents and residents’ organizations tried to prevent the problem by raising their safety concerns. Regardless, no action was taken to address their concerns. The government also did not play its part in preventing the disaster.
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