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Grenfell Tower: scapegoating won’t get to the truth

Paul Finch

There is only one way to respond to disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire: gather evidence, analyse it and take actions on that basis, says Paul Finch

Some really rather nasty people leap on to self-devised bandwagons in the wake of hideous events such as major fires. All sense of proportion is deliberately abandoned in a race to show how they are more outraged/angry/empathetic than anyone else. I am not talking about the wretched victims themselves, nor their families, but those who see an opportunity to project on to tragedy their favourite prejudices and world-views.

I regret to say that some broadcasters have fallen prey to this tendency. The repellent inquisition of the prime minister by a journalist who appeared to be auditioning for a role as Witchfinder General, was a good example of transference: if you do not react as I expect you to react, then somehow the tragedy is all your fault.

There is only one way to respond to man-made disasters (or organisational response to natural disasters): adopt an Enlightenment approach, which is to say, gather evidence, analyse it, and take action on that basis. If that includes criminal prosecutions, so be it, but let it be after the evidence has been gathered, not on the basis of head-banging political opportunism.

Blame-merchants thrive on rumour and partial evidence. At the time of writing, the clearest piece of information about the reason for the external spread of the fire at Grenfell Tower has come from the Department of Communities and Local Government, which carries responsibility for Building Regulations.

Those arguing that building catastrophes are the consequence of ‘deregulation’ or ‘cuts’ offer little evidence

According to a statement reportedly issued by DCLG, the type of over-cladding used on Grenfell Tower did not conform to regulations. If that is true, it would be remarkable, since the ‘saving’ in using the relevant system as opposed to an alternative fire-resistant type was a few thousand pounds against a budget of £8 million-plus. I suspect there is more to this than meets the eye, but will reserve judgement until we have all the facts.

Reserving judgement is not something that finds favour with those who hate high-rise buildings, of course. The suggestion that (a) all blocks are unsafe and (b) that no one should live in them is akin to saying that if an aeroplane crashes, nobody should ever fly again. 

And whatever happened to a sense of history? The people who argue that building catastrophes are the consequence of ‘deregulation’ or different building inspection systems, or ‘cuts’, offer little evidence for their conclusions. That is because they are not conclusions in any meaningful sense of the word; they are outpourings of world views masquerading as objective truth.

The reality is that fire is far less a problem than it used to be, for a variety of reasons: better regulation (and in particular the bringing up to standard of a greater proportion of building stock to meet those regulations); better materials; better technologies. That is why there are relatively few fires these days in London – the city that invented a powerful regulatory regime in the wake of the Great Fire more than 350 years ago. It is a fact that we had more fires in the days when there was a different sort of inspection regime.

It is also questionable as to whether the work at Grenfell was a cheap project. This form of over-cladding is relatively expensive, so the suggestion that the contract was a race to the bottom needs much more rigorous analysis.

Finally, I confess that I had an unworthy thought in the immediate aftermath of the fire, which was to criticise ‘green’ insistence on improving insulation standards to meet climate-change targets. This was quite unreasonable on my part – but it was a private thought.

We must wait for the public inquiry. And, of course, the outcome of that police investigation.


Readers' comments (6)

  • Paul Finch’s argument is off-key on a number of fronts. Calling the people who suffered ‘wretched victims’ – the language of 18th century patriarchs – and criticizing commentators for losing ‘all sense of proportion’ is being tone-deaf to the pain and sense of powerlessness widely-felt across the country.

    He takes a pop at a woman journalist without being brave enough to name her. But he is missing the point. Where are the resignations from the people in power? Has the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council Nicholas Paget-Brown set an example here, or the chairman of the Tenant Management Organisation, or ministers or the aides or the civil servants? No, they will argue on another day, in interminable inquiries which can drag on for years (as the Mayor has warned), in small print, with severance packages, with lawyers. The police have promised to bring those responsible to justice – we hope so. But there is not enough shame in British society – perhaps that’s why people get upset.

    And his point that fire is far less of a problem than it used to be – well, in a world awash with data, we should be on edge when a new trend threatens – this material is being manufactured and sold, specified and installed – it’s out there and so is relentless cost-cutting, in the public and private sector. Follow the logic of Finch’s argument and you could persuade yourself that such an event could never happen. But it did.
    Catherine Reading

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  • Would it really have been 'brave' to name the journalist involved? What a peculiar thing to say. Before the facts are established in any objective way, it is intemperate and wrong to start demanding the heads of individuals who may or may not be personally responsible. How 'brave' to identify them in advance; but then those who are certain of the truth because it conforms with their world-views are rarely in doubt. My only surprise is that the Prime Minister has been left off this nasty little hit-list.

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  • Finch seems unable to take comment but just to throw the word ‘nasty’ around. It’s slippery to attack the journalist but not name her – it allows him to puff up his rhetoric without giving readers the opportunity of checking the interview out – not such a peculiar point.

    In a classic conflation he applies my use of ‘brave’ to rehashing his original argument. And he slips ‘personal’ into responsibility. But these people were doing a job, paid a salary, and consequently had a duty of care – that’s why they should take responsibility.

    In the case of Nicholas Paget-Brown, see the government’s decision to relieve Kensington and Chelsea of the ongoing management of the disaster. If, as reported this afternoon, he has offered to resign, then that seems honourable.

    To call this a ‘hit list’ – is yet another a lapse of tone – the subject is not an entertainment.

    Catherine Reading

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  • Because I dare to respond to an unpleasant attack, I am 'unable to take comment'. I continue to object to scapegoating, and conflating post-fire response with responsibility for the fire is extremely unpleasant. No doubt I will get more criticism from someone who sounds as though they are often wrong, but never in doubt. Anyway, my last word on the subject, which I am writing about elsewhere.

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  • The basic principle that information must be brought forward and published is absolutely right. Unfortunately in the rush to apportion blame the relevant parties will go into lock down and will take defensive positions - as a result information must be teased out through lengthy inquiries. First and foremost we need information to come forward, conclusions to be drawn and we need this information published fast, so we can use it to innovate for the good of future generations. Trying to apportion blame and hunt down guilty parties may provide catharsis, but there is unlikely to be one clear offender, or clear offence for that matter. Most importantly a witch hunt is going to slow down the rate at we as a profession - or humanity even - can learn, innovate further, and move forward fully understanding what went wrong and what we will do to prevent it happening again.

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  • This has been an appalling - and avoidable - tragedy. Rushing into apportioning blame is not the way forward, but in depth analysis is - along with taking sensible immediate precautions to minimise the likelihood of a recurrence in the meantime. The aircraft industry leads the way in analysis of failures - even the smallest failure - with a real culture of learning and growing from every mistake; rather than passing the blame. Matthew Syed writes and talks eloquently about how we can all learn from this mindset.

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