Grenfell representatives say ‘we’re still being let down by authorities’

BY YANN TEAR
yann@slpmedia.co.uk

A feeling of growing disillusionment among survivors and the bereaved will mark tomorrow’s second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire.

Commemorations planned this week include a church service, a vigil near the block and a silent evening march through the surrounding streets.

But representative groups say not enough has been done to convince them that the tragedy is a priority for the Government or that there is a will to tackle the root causes of the fire.

Families affected by the 2017 tragedy say failures to drill down quickly to the key causes could lead to further disasters, with tens of thousands still living in dangerous homes.

This week, housing secretary James Brokenshire met some of those affected by the fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people and injured 70 more.

Resident Michael Paramasivan and his daughter Thea Kavanagh, 5, who managed to escape a fire that engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London.

They expressed dismay that the public inquiry has endured delays, while promises to give council tenants a bigger voice have not yet been delivered.

Some of the survivors and bereaved are so disappointed by the slow pace of action that they have floated the possibility of boycotting the second phase of the inquiry, which is due to start next year.

The public inquiry report into what happened on the night of the fire has been delayed until October.

A police investigation into possible manslaughter, corporate manslaughter and health and safety offences is not expected to conclude until late 2021, meaning any trials would not start until about five years after the fire.

Grenfell United, the group of bereaved and survivors, has spent most of the past two years talking with cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister, and has concluded that “in most cases those in power simply aren’t interested in acting on our concerns”.

The group said: “They go through the motions of meeting us so they can say they have listened and then fail to take the action necessary to bring about change.

“We are not naive and are prepared to be patient. But it is becoming increasingly apparent not only that the system isn’t changing fast enough but that it’s not even going in the right direction.

“The community is still suffering, justice has been delayed and it seems the government appears to be backing off from making the changes to social housing needed to prevent another Grenfell.”

Two years on from the fire, 17 families remain in temporary accommodation, in spite of initial promises by Theresa May that all would be rehoused within three weeks.

Tens of thousands of high-rise residents are still living in towers wrapped in banned Grenfell-style cladding. A new report says only a fifth of high rise buildings covered in highly flammable material have had dangerous cladding removed since the fire.

Water being sprayed on Grenfell Tower after the fire at the tower block.

Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) panels were widely blamed as one cause of the rapid spread of the fire at Grenfell, and have since been banned by the government.

But ministers have been criticised over the pace at which the material is being removed from the buildings, with more than four in five yet to have the cladding taken down – a figure that rises to more than nine in 10 for privately-owned blocks.

Labour’s shadow housing minister, Sarah Jones, has written to Mr Brokenshire, saying: “Almost 60,000 people are still living in buildings wrapped with deadly ACM cladding.

Countless more may unknowingly be living in dangerous buildings covered in ‘non-ACM’ flammable materials as your department has still not properly tested suspect cladding of this type.

“Progress has been too slow at every stage, lives are at stake, and we must do better.” Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has slammed the outgoing Prime Minister, accusing her of letting down those she had promised to help.

In a letter to Mrs May, he said building regulations remained largely unchanged and a promised new social housing policy remained unpublished.

“Your claim that your response to Grenfell was one of your biggest achievements as Prime Minister is far from the truth,” Mr Khan said.

“Rather, it is a legacy of your premiership that vulnerable people in our society have been let down, continuously neglected and clearly ignored.

“The social housing green paper, lauded as the government’s answer to the institutional indifference that social housing residents have faced for years, is still not published. This is unacceptable.”

John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, called for councils to seize high-rise blocks from owners who had not replaced Grenfell-style cladding by the end of this year.

“Many private tower block owners have shown zero sign of replacing their cladding and ministers are letting them drag their feet,” he said.

A government spokesman said everyone from Grenfell had a permanent home reserved for them, and 92 per cent had moved in, and more than £100m had been spent supporting the community.

“In addition, the government has made £600m available to replace unsafe aluminium composite material cladding from high-rise homes in this country,” the spokesman said.

Elizabeth Campbell, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea council, said: “Council staff have never stopped caring and never stopped working, and this will continue to be the case when every family is in their new home and starting to rebuild their lives.

The council will never ignore its duty to those affected by the Grenfell tragedy.” But a lack of faith in the government approach, or the inquiry, has also led to a determination to seek other lines of redress.

According to a BBC report, more than 100 Grenfell survivors and relatives are taking legal action in the US against three firms they blame for the fire.

The lawsuit will target the cladding maker Arconic, insulation maker Celotex and fridge supplier Whirlpool. A successful action in the US could cost the firms involved tens of millions of dollars in damages.

A Whirlpool spokeswoman said: “We extend our deepest sympathies to everyone affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and we honour the extraordinary courage and dignity of the survivors and those who have lost loved-ones.

“Everyone touched by this event deserves answers, and it is entirely appropriate that the public inquiry is entrusted with finding those answers. We are committed to assisting the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in any way we can as it continues to investigate all the potential origins and causes of the fire and how it spread. While the inquiry is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

“Separately, we would like to reassure owners of these products that they are safe and they can continue to use them as normal.

“Nothing matters more to us than people’s safety. That’s why as soon as we were made aware of this incident, we launched an investigation into the model of fridge freezer that was in the flat where the fire began.

“Two separate investigations have been carried out – one by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and another by Whirlpool. Both investigations independently found no evidence of any fault with this model and confirmed that it fully complied with all safety requirements. These conclusions have also been verified by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.”

US lawyers representing Grenfell survivors and victims’ relatives are expected to file the lawsuit this week in Philadelphia, under product liability law, which is meant to hold firms responsible for injuries caused by the goods they sell.

A number of Grenfell residents have refused to sign up to the action, however, saying they believe it could become a “distraction” from the ongoing public inquiry and criminal investigation.

MPs are due to debate the tragedy in Parliament today, on the eve of the two-year anniversary.

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