Terrible accidents do happen. They happen all over the world; in developed and developing countries. They can just happen with no-one or no organisation to blame. They can just be freakish acts of god. Natural disasters. Extreme weather. Fire and floods. Yet there is something about the horrific events overnight in west London that – aside from the deep sadness of the loss of life and distress caused to so many – is making me feel very uncomfortable.
As commentators are so keen to say on awful days like this; “it is too early to draw conclusions”, which is of course right – after all, as I write this the fire has still not been fully put out – but it is not too early to start asking questions and raising concerns. My level of discomfort was heightened when representative after representative kept evading the key questions being asked by the media; “that is not something I am in a position to discuss…….I can’t comment on that……..that is a matter for the council/the fire service/the building contractor”. This initial response does not bode well.
I have been listening hard to, and reading carefully, the variety of statements and comments from those involved in this tragedy and I remain confused. Who is responsible for the safety of the building and for the hundreds people who lived there? The Council? The contractor who ran the building – there will surely be questions about the wisdom of outsourcing this responsibility? The fire service? The Mayor’s office? Central government?
Who is going to answer for what has happened? Judging by this morning’s communication to residents and citizens, there is going to be a lot of sloping shoulders to help slip the blame from various backs.
There are obvious echoes with a similar awful incident in Camberwell in 2009 – not just the nature of the incident – a fire in a block of flats – but the victim voices we are now hearing from. Voices of people and communities often left behind in this country and left at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords and left reliant on the state – locally and nationally – to support them. It will be a double tragedy if alongside the awful loss of life, injury and distress, we find that these residents have been let down by those who should have be there to help, protect and support them.
There is no doubt that when a government is in trouble – and there is no doubt that this government and this Prime Minister is in trouble – they seem to be inundated with bad news and the sounds of chickens coming home to roost. We do not know what has happened yet but we do know, judging by the number of different voices from different involved organisations heard on our airwaves this morning, that it feels like one of those incidents where many hands did not make light work.
We will no doubt hear about a failure of regulation and are already hearing about the delay to the publication of a report on building safety. I am struck by comments made by the superb author, Adrian Tempany, in his book on football and the culture of football, who highlighted the lassie faire attitude to regulation that existed in society when we were blighted by public safety tragedies in the 1980’s; Hillsborough, King’s Cross and Clapham to name just three. Are we seeing evidence of a repeat; regulation and oversight failures as a result of reducing budgets, the complex structures of management of services (with a heavy reliance on outsourcing) in a drive to cut costs and a lack of focus on what really matters; people and their safety?
Who knows. But as the death toll rises and the stories of life-changing awfulness emerge, we are left with lots of questions. The communicator in me is wondering when someone will step forward to start some straight talking; telling us what happened; taking responsibility. So far, I am deeply underwhelmed, with only Mayor Khan stepping up to the plate to show leadership, although he appears to be several steps removed from responsibility. The Royal Borough (as it insists on being called) of Kensington and Chelsea Council would do well to take note of the Mayor’s impressive conduct.
It makes no odds that Mrs J and I lived around the corner from this scene of devastation and despair but we did – I have spent the morning with the images of the local area running through my head. A place we lived in when first together and first married – somewhere that holds wonderful and special memories for us. For some of our former neighbours, their memories of it now will forever be dominated by what they saw, heard and smelt last night. They deserve nothing less now than some answers. Some straight talk. Some respect. Someone to speak up for them. Sadly, on the evidence of this morning, I am not holding my breath.
Photo is from Getty Images – taken from the BBC website; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40272984