Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Were EU laws to blame for the Grenfell fire?

The Grenfell tower block, which caught fire in a poor enclave in the richest borough in London, cost no-one knows how many lives. It has become a symbol of what is wrong with England, as terrible tragedies do. They become mythology.

The same thing happened with the murder of Jamie Bulger, a 2 year-old boy who was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten-year-old boys in 1993. His murder had nothing to do with John Major, but seemed to symbolise the breakdown of society after fourteen years of Toryism and free market economics. I thought so too at the time.

What does Grenfell show us? Like the Rorschach test, in which subjects' perceptions of inkblots are recorded, it shows us what we want to see. The fire is reported to have been caused by a fridge freezer catching fire in the flat of an Ethiopian, who packed his baggage before leaving. This suggests to some that faulty fridge freezers are dangerous. Undoubtedly they are right. Other people in social media place the blame on Ethiopians.

The fire made some people speculate about how many people in public housing in London are illegal immigrants. Forty-two dead bodies were found in one room, according to a fireman. To others, this meant that cowboy landlords were the problem, battening on the poor (but the poor paid landlords because they wanted to live in the flats). 

The fire was certainly caused by deficiencies on the part of the council, who were repeatedly warned of the risk of a fire. This revealed heartless indifference to the safety of the poor, if you are a socialist, even though many people would have run the risk of a fire to live for a subsidised rent, or in many cases at public expense, in one of the best areas in central London. 

The wisest thing I read about this, as about so many things, was written by Lord Tebbit, who said the cladding, which is the reason why the fire spread rapidly, was authorised by the council on the advice of fire experts. The council, and the management company to which it delegated responsibility for the buildings, can therefore be acquitted of blame for letting the cladding be used, though not for failing to respond to the subsequent warnings.

The left blamed lack of building regulations. Eurosceptics blamed the fire on EU regulations, brought in to save energy because of climate change. This they say was the reason why the block was renovated and the cladding applied.

I want England to leave the EU, but I don't think I am guilty of seeing what I want to see when I say the Eurosceptics appear to be partly right. I think Eurosceptic blogger Richard North, best known Christopher Booker's co-author and collaborator, convincingly argues this in his blog here.

Putting this together, had the EU made the use of enhanced insulation in buildings conditional on the application of tougher fire tests – which was within its power to do – instead of blocking national attempts to make such testing mandatory, then one can state, without equivocation, that the Grenfell Tower fire would not have occurred. The evidence is there for those that wish to see it. 

As to why the EU did not act, one can see that it has been obsessed, to the exclusion of all else, with its climate change targets. As such, with so much effort going into pursuing the targets and creating the legislation and policy environment needed, it simply didn't have the resource (or the political will) to deal with the complex issues of fire safety at the same time.
On the other hand, even if more stringent tests were not required by the EU the UK could have insisted on them, I suppose - or is this something we no longer have power over?

The Grenfell tower fire had the horror of a Jacobean tragedy, amplified by heart-rending texts (SMSes) and conversations on mobiles. The gutted tower can be made into a symbol for inequality, indifference to the poor, privatisation or multiculturalism. Thinking about it weeks after the event, it seems to me to symbolise the failure of top down social engineering in the 1960s and early 1970s, that swept away communities in the name of progress.

I won't say that it has this in common with the European project, because that would be a cheap exploitation of people's deaths to make a political point. I wish leading Labour politician and Communist John McDonnell, who called the fire a 'murder', would be similarly restrained.

I'll just say that the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. Things like tower blocks, urban clearance, hopeless health and safety rules, the Common Market and Nato.  


  1. I don't think the EU stipulates that a particular type of flammable cladding be used. It is possible to insulate a building without using highly combustible materials, as councils are now doing and many buildings already do.

  2. Having spent a reasonable amount of time in a career n environment where specification is king....I could say that responsibility is down to whoever decided to use a material that was known to be unsuitable. A directive to insulate is not wrong, a desire to use less power or to keep people warmer is not wrong. It appears that there is a substantial view that there was known risks using the material and that in not being resistant to combustion rendered it below specification..if in fact that was the specification. In my understanding (and I guess what I see) is an accumulation of decisions that made the tragedy inevitable in case of fire. 40 people in one room may not be obscene multi-occupancy...it may be where people gathered because they thought they were safer? Cyanide poisoning is being mentioned as a potential cause of death prior to incineration. I'm not convinced that we can point a directive from wherever as the root cause. In my experience of Civil Engineering it was the responsibility of the designing engineer to make sure materials were suitable for use...and the site engineer to make sure the materials used were those specified. I rejected many items from sites that would have cost the ratepayer a fortune when there was failure. They weren't even allowed to be offloaded if I saw them on the lorries without correct marking or paperwork. It is not as simple as "lets blame EU targets".

    So targets (from whatever source) in themselves are not to blame. The manner in which those targets are met is where the investigation needs to be focussed...and that is much nearer home than the "blame the EU". The processes of design and specification, material compliance and sourcing, and supervision should be sufficient in this case to be able to apportion responsibility for this tragedy.

    In my experience the only pressure is usually on a contractor (or a sub-contractor) to save money by using cheaper non-complianmt materials. meeting environmental targets doesn't usually direct the material sourcing decisions. Money does.


  3. http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2017/07/05/the-pyromaniacs-ball-the-grenfell-tower-disaster-as-a-metaphor-for-the-west/

  4. Uk building regulations are obsessed with damp, requiring a cavity. Badly fitted fire breaks result in a chimney effect , combine this with flammable elements in either the insulation or rain screen you get a tragedy. The materials used were all probably certified for UK use, the fault lies with the the system allowing their use as there is no allowance for poor installation.

    1. Partially true. The cavity between the back of the insulation and the existing surface produced such a chimney effect. However the combustible nature of the material was quite possibly the major contribution. No flame, no chimney effect. (certainly not to the extent experienced at this tragedy. Non-combustible material would have allowed many more to escape. I'm sure the enquiry will look at specification, actual material used, suitability of actual material used, and method of installation.

  5. The addition of enhanced fire testing to retrofitting of buildings with insulation proposed in the EU was vetoed by one country, the U.K. It is in Mr Farage's voting record that he was against any such legislation as just more red tape designed to stifle free enterprise. I think yes Paul you are guilty of seeing what you want to see

  6. Christopher Booker:

    "In 1989, after a fire in an 11-storey block in Knowsley, the Building Research Establishment was asked to devise a means that could have prevented it.

    "It found that this should be a new “whole system test” covering all the materials used on the outside of buildings to see how they interacted when installed together.

    "But in 1994 the European Commission called for a new EU-wide fire test which was exactly what the BRE had found so inadequate with existing practice: a “single burn” test applied only to each material separately.

    "But after 2000, when a Commons committee investigated a high-rise fire in Scotland, MPs recommended that the BRE’s “whole system test” should be adopted as the British standard, BS8414.

    "By 2002, however, the EU had adopted its inadequate test, incorporating it in a European standard using EN 13501. Under EU law, this became mandatory, leaving the UK’s BS 8414 as only a voluntary option.

    "The EU had also become obsessed with the need for better insulation of buildings to combat global warming, which became its only priority. All that mattered was the “thermal efficiency” of materials used for insulation, for which none was to prove better than the polyisocyanurate used in Celotex, the plastic chosen in 2014 for Grenfell.

    Fire experts across Europe have pointed out that the lack of a proper whole system test was ignoring the risk of insulation fires, not least in Germany, where there have been more than 100.

    Strangely, the maker of Celotex has stated on its website that the material used in Grenfell has been tested by the BRE as meeting fire safety requirements. But the BRE has tartly responded that this test referred to a different installation; and that “Celotex should not be claiming that their insulation product can be used generically in any other cladding system”.

    "Had the Grenfell installation been properly tested under BS 8414 it would not have met the standard, and thus the fire could not have happened. The ultimate irony is that China and Dubai are now adopting mandatory systems based on BS 8414. They can do this because they are not in the EU. But, because Britain is still in the EU, it cannot legally enforce the very standard which would have prevented that disaster."


  7. But it makes no sense when we read elsewhere that the materials used are banned for high rise in Germany..if this is indeed the case. I think the key phrase in the article is "it was the combination of 6in of combustible Celotex insulation foam behind it with a void creating a “chimney” effect, sending the flames roaring up the building." Combustible..and the BRE response to the Celotex statement. So in this instance it was a specific material that was not suitable (the presence of the chimney certainly did nothing to prevent flame mobility). The insulation material was not non-combustable...and it should have been. So individual tests on materials IS good in this instance....or at least it should have been. Someone said "yes" when they should have said "no". Was it the designer, the author of the specification, the materials supplier, the contractor? Was there money involved? Not bribes, but savings on the contract price thus increasing the contractors profit margin.

  8. If the UK test under BS 8414 can indeed only (currently) be a voluntary test on the grounds that there is an EU test system which is mandatory, then yes, being in the EU is unhelpful.

  9. Regardless of anyone's view on climate change..it is not wrong to improve the insulation and lifespan of a building built when insulation was poor. It is not wrong to try and make a building more efficient thermally. It is not wrong to reduce people's fuel bills by improving the insulation, and it is not wrong to use less electricity and gas in heating buildings. However it is well known that the mainland are SO many years ahead of us. The fault at Grenfell was all about the discrepancy between design, specification and procurement....and human nature to make more money by using less expensive (but substandard) materials. That's wholly a Brit problem. Our building industry is riddled with cost cutting, Max profit making etc. It happened in my day and it still happens.. It is not the same in Germany.

    1. << Regardless of anyone's view on climate change..it is not wrong to improve the insulation and lifespan of a building built when insulation was poor. >>

      No, this is incorrect. It can easily be wrong, and often is.

      Economics is all about trade-offs (which is why moral absolutists like those on the left struggle with the subject) and if you are assessing improving the insulation of a building it's completely wrong to say << it is not wrong to improve the insulation and lifespan of a building >>.

      It depends on _how_ much better the insulation, and what the costs and dangers are. A 10% improvement is wrong at a certain price and danger point, and a 20% improvement is wrong at another price and danger point.

      It's also _not_ << regardless of anyone's view on climate change >> either.

      That's clearly false too. What the evidence for and forecasts of climate change are factor into the price and danger calculation - and obviously so.

      Resources used for project A are always taken away from projects B, C, or D.

      Mark G

  10. Chris Cook investigative reporter on BBC Newsnight: "If fire tests had been done properly the Grenfell cladding would not have been placed on the building."