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28/09/2017

Reflections on Grenfell parts 1-3

Words: The Planner
Grenfell Tower

What can we learn from the Grenfell Tower disaster? Nick Hall, Isis Nunez-Ferrera and Ian Davis share their thoughts

Reflection 1: Comparing the humanitarian response in North Kensington to internationally recognised good practice

Nick Hall

Prioritising accountability to the victims of a disaster is a primary driver of good humanitarian practice worldwide. The first responders – police, fire service and ambulance emergency response in London were almost faultless in the support they provided immediately after the Grenfell fire. Similarly, volunteers and the charities have excelled.

But the shameless incapacity of local and central government has exposed the disastrous effects of neo-liberalism that has prioritised profit over people. The safety and security of citizens and residents should be the top priority of government, but this has been downgraded in favour of profit through decades of deregulation and privatisation of public services.

"Whilst the British government has failed at home, its overseas arm – the Department for International Development (DFID) – has been at the forefront of more effective disaster risk management internationally"

Citizens who have been affected have not been consulted except tokenistically and residents of unsafe tower blocks have been threatened with prosecution for trying to warn about fire risks. This paternalistic and arrogant approach of much of government in the UK has cost many lives and left survivors largely reliant on the efforts of volunteers. 

Whilst the British government has failed at home, its overseas arm – the Department for International Development (DFID) – has been at the forefront of more effective disaster risk management internationally. For example, DFID/UKAid has both sponsored and endorsed the Core Humanitarian Standards. These standards guide preparedness and response to emergencies, emphasising accountability to vulnerable citizens and reducing known risks, such as the risk of fire.

The UK's humanitarian organisations working overseas such as Oxfam, Tearfund, Save the Children and MuslimAid have led the world focusing accountability downwards, actively involving every sector of society, including children and toddlers and often using UK taxpayer funds.

Recommendations

  • ‘Downward accountability’, where agencies become accountable, justified by evidence and good practice, to their object of concern, not to an ideology such as Hayekian unregulated markets, has to become the norm in all humanitarian agencies to ensure effectiveness. Local and central governments are, de-facto, humanitarian agencies.
  • The UK government should insist that all humanitarian actors especially local authorities join the thousands of international organisations training their staff and dedicating resources to preventing man-made disasters. A key recommendation places emphasis on the importance of children learning about emergencies at school, this being the foundation for developing a culture of safety across society, now and for the future.  

Further reading

Nick Hall is a North Kensington resident and an experienced planner/ development advisor. Throughout his career, he has worked within the disaster field for organisations that include Plan International and Save the Children.


Reflection 2: Self-organisation as an opportunity for disaster mitigation, greater accountability and dignified responses

Isis Nunez-Ferrera

Reflecting on the self-organisation strategies of Grenfell Tower residents and their many attempts to influence housing and safety issues raises the question of what this means, firstly, for disaster mitigation in a hyper-diverse and unequal city such as London, and secondly, for disaster relief and recovery that is adequate, inclusive and dignified for the affected families.

It is shocking to read the list of occasions on which Grenfell Tower residents felt actual fear for their lives and the urgent need to organise and demand immediate action, and the absence of any reasonable response by the authorities. This dates as far back as 2004-05 and an emergency lighting crisis on the estate. Again in 2012 and 2013, with a damning fire risk assessment report and a power surge crisis, the residents were well aware of some of the fire risks to which they were exposed.

They demanded immediate action to resolve them. Instead of being considered a nuisance and a threat, this self-organisation and proactive approach should have been the starting point to develop better disaster mitigation strategies, more effective accountability and stronger reporting channels building on the actual agency and capacity of the residents. This is particularly important in buildings where many disadvantaged and vulnerable groups are represented, and in which social bonds and support networks play an important role in daily life.

"Equally shocking is the missed opportunity to learn from the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009"

Equally shocking is the missed opportunity to learn from the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009. The inquest into this tragedy should have set a precedent in redefining how disaster mitigation related to fire is implemented in high-rise buildings. Conclusions that emerged from this inquest included how residents lacked knowledge on how to respond to fires in high-rise buildings, and the need for the government to revise and publish appropriate guidance on when tenants should or should not vacate the building. Lack of the latter proved fatal for many of the residents in Grenfell Tower.

Sadly, this contempt and lack of consideration of residents’ agency, and most importantly, this inability to learn from past lessons, is reflected in the inadequate and undignified response after the Grenfell fire. Survivors were dealt with mostly on an individual basis, with council officials avoiding discussions with large organised groups of residents and disrupting even more the bonds and support networks that existed between them.

There are accounts of vulnerable survivors feeling isolated and powerless to deal with the aftermath on their own, simultaneously having to deal with case workers, needing language assistance, housing allocation issues and the traumatic loss of family members and neighbours. In addition, almost 150 families remain in hotel accommodation more than three months after the fire, delaying their recovery and their chances to start a new life.

Nonetheless, and as testament of their agency and strength, residents have created new organisations, such as Grenfell United and Justice 4 Grenfell, building again their own networks and bonds to produce information themselves, demand justice and, most importantly, be included as crucial actors in the development of the response and the enquiry.

Nonetheless, a much-criticised inquiry has opened in September 2017, led by a panel that does not reflect the diversity of the Grenfell survivors and that fails to allocate a role to the residents or their representative grassroots organisations. An inclusive response to the self-organisation efforts of residents should serve as one of the biggest lessons emerging from this disaster.

Recommendation

  • It should be a legal and moral responsibility of the government, local authorities and other relevant stakeholders, not only to undertake an inquest and make the necessary systemic changes but also ensure that accountability channels, disaster mitigation and response are all built on the agency and active collaboration of residents and their capacity for self-organisation.

Further reading

Isis Nunez-Ferrera is an architect, planner, researcher in international development at the University of Westminster and associate with Architecture Sans Frontieres – UK. A Honduran national, she has lived and worked in London for ten years.


Reflection 3: Assessing social vulnerability and capacity

Ian Davis

It has been wisely said that the best indicator of a civilised society is to observe how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. The Grenfell Tower disaster is a tragic reminder of a pattern in both ‘natural-’ and human-made disasters: those who suffer are almost always the vulnerable poor in comparison with other safer, wealthier, articulate and powerful citizens who possess enhanced choices. So, how can the vulnerability of the occupants of buildings be assessed leading to ways to reduce the risks they face?

The diagnostic assessment of risk is normally confined to physical aspects – how a given building plan, structural system or building material is vulnerable to anticipated threats. This well-established process is related to the benchmark of standards set in planning and building regulations. It is rare for anyone to conduct a detailed assessment of the vulnerability of the occupants of these buildings.

"It is rare for anyone to conduct a detailed assessment of the vulnerability of the occupants of these buildings"

However, there are notable exceptions. Some years ago, I visited the Canterbury Emergency Planning Department that had devised an emergency evacuation plan in the event of coastal flooding in the North Kent region. This gave priority consideration to their least mobile citizens by first evacuating those who were on kidney dialysis and, to give them added reassurance during crisis situations, they were to be evacuated by the same people who regularly took them to hospitals for treatment. I wonder whether this well thought-out caring procedure has survived the cuts in local authority spending? Following the Grenfell fire, Liverpool has decided to develop an index of its most vulnerable citizens, who warrant special future protection.

Recommendation

  • Vulnerability’ should never be equated with ‘passive helplessness’ since, when given the opportunity, people at risk display remarkable abilities to protect themselves, their families and their communities, as well as recovering from traumatic events. This is why the assessment of social vulnerability must always be linked to an inventory of strengths or capacities that reduces demands on assisting bodies. The Red Cross calls the process ‘Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment’ (VCA). As a key element in risk assessments, it is essential to secure an accurate and continual assessment of threats posed to the most vulnerable members of any given society as well as their capacities to reduce their own risks. Wherever possible this assessment needs to be conducted with the full engagement of these social groups and their advocates.

Further reading

Ian Davis is a former board member of Tearfund and Traidcraft, and visiting professor in disaster risk management at Kyoto, Lund and Oxford Brookes Universities. Ian is the author of Shelter after Disaster (1978) and edited the first UN guidelines on this topic in 1982.

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