We should sing the praises of the trade publication Inside Housing. Peter Apps is the deputy editor and he exposed the dangers of combustible cladding on tower blocks in the magazine 34 days before the Grenfell Disaster.
Before that, the magazine led the way in exposing issues around fire safety in tower blocks, following the Lakanal House fire in south London in 2009 which killed six people.
Peter Apps and Grenfell Tower reporting
Since the fire on 14 June 2017 which claimed 72 lives, 17 of them children, he and a team of journalists from Inside Housing have worked closely with the Grenfell community and reported on the 400-day Grenfell Inquiry which finished on 10 November this year.
Apps kept watch on the five-year time span of the inquiry when interest from the rest of the media waned. The stunning outcome of all these journalistic efforts is this tremendous revelatory book.
The reader is pulled quickly into the opening chapter describing a fire in a block of council flats where a faulty electrical appliance sets fire to panels recently installed on the external walls which turned what should have been a minor incident into a tragedy.
You think he’s talking about Grenfell but he’s not: this is the Lakanal House fire in the London borough of Southwark, the lessons of which were wilfully ignored.
The book’s structure then has alternate chapters centred on either the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute account of the night of the fire and what happened to residents, or on the decade-by-decade, year-by-year story of the progressive dissolution of the safeguards that were meant to prevent such a thing.
Show me the bodies
The book’s title, Show Me the Bodies, is taken from remarks made by Brian Martin, the civil servant responsible for fire safety guidance at the privatised national research laboratory, BRE, to justify not tightening up regulations in response to a series of devastating fires at home and abroad.
There were simply not enough deaths to justify new restrictions on businesses.
But Martin was a willing servant, part of a deregulatory push by successive Tory governments epitomised by David Cameron, who in a New Year’s Day speech in 2010 brazenly vowed to “wage war against the excessive health and safety culture for good” on behalf of “UK plc”.
It meant that an official culture of cost-cutting and eliminating as much red tape as possible led to the use of cladding, which contained petroleum-derived plastic, in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower and widely elsewhere on tower blocks.
But what was revealed in the inquiry was the fact that companies involved in the refurbishment of tower blocks knew that the materials they used were not safe. Richard Millett KC, lead counsel for the inquiry, rounded on the building companies involved for their “incompetence”, “cynical” and “possibly dishonest practices”, accusing them of engaging in a “merry-go-round of buck passing”.
Grenfell Tower disaster: accepting responsibility
Kensington and Chelsea Council, which managed Grenfell Tower and oversaw its unpopular refurbishment a few years earlier, insisted that cheaper combustible cladding be used in order to save money.
The London Fire Brigade is criticised too. The firefighters’ heroic attempts to rescue residents are acknowledged but the Brigade’s performance lays bare the results of successive cutbacks in the service, culminating in the closure of ten fire stations by Boris Johnson in 2010 when he was mayor of London to save £100mn.
Lack of equipment, faulty communication devices and the absence of any plan for an out-of-control fire meant that it was wrong-footed from the beginning. It enforced a ‘stay put’ policy when a full-scale evacuation was needed early on.
The people who emerge with dignity and respect out of this terrible story are the surviving residents of Grenfell Tower. Their complaints about the building’s safety were ignored before the disaster but the author pays tribute to their determination to seek the truth.
Grenfell Tower inquiry report
The Grenfell Tower inquiry report will not be ready until, at the earliest, October 2023. Only after that will Scotland Yard move towards criminal charges which could range from corporate manslaughter to fraud.
The inquiry has cost the public purse more than £150mn in legal costs, but the true legal bill is far higher. The cladding manufacturer, Arconic, for example, was spending as much as £3.4mn every three months on lawyers, according to corporate filings.
Peter Apps won a Press Gazette British Journalism award in 2018 for his reporting on the Grenfell disaster. Show Me The Bodies deserves to win accolades too. The author David Peace is spot on when he writes “this is the most harrowing, moving, powerful and important book of the year”.
Article first published in Media North: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (North). For more from Media North, and to subscribe to their newsletter, visit their website.