The Grenfell High-Rise Fire: A Litany of Failures?


At this writing, the London (Kensington) Grenfell high-rise fire has taken a confirmed 58 lives, with an unknown number missing and many more sent to hospitals. The 24 story low income housing tower block caught fire on Wednesday, June 14. It was virtually all consumed, as shown in the photograph above.

There is much to be concerned about here. This building was not owned by any of those private developers who politicians seem to blame for every all that's wrong with housing in severely unaffordable Britain. The building, now a burned out shell, is owned by the affluent Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (a local government unit within the Greater London Authority).

This is how the structure appeared before the recent refurbishment (photo by R Sones).

Government Failure?

It is not as if the council had not been warned. The Grenfell Action Group has been monitoring problems at Grenfell Tower on behalf of tenants for years. On June 15, they published a blog with links to their previously expressed concerns about fire safety in the building, including one entitled KCTMCO Playing with Fire that details the frustrations of dealing with the Council's tenant manager. The post, from last November included called the conditions, including the management of the KCTMO (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) and the Borough "a recipe for a future major disaster." Of course, that's how it turned out.

There is talk of criminal proceedings, and doubtless the private contractor who installed the cladding (exterior building facing) currently thought to have spread the fire quickly will be at greatest risk. However, the installation was procured by the KCTMO, the agent of the RBKC Borough Council, including an approved award to the contractor. Further, all of this was related to a refurbishment of the building, in which the RBKC did not require include installation of sprinklers, which would have "prevented the fire from developing." The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council is being barraged with criticisms, including from members of Parliament, for its administration of the Grenfell Tower over recent years.

A Great Planning Disaster?

Worse, in a larger sense, the Grenfell fire may turn out to be one of the world's great planning disasters. One headline put it this way: "Report: Grenfell Tower Fire May Have Been Caused By Panelling Installed To Make Rich Neighbors Happy." Only slightly less incendiary was The Independent headline, which read "Grenfell Tower cladding that may have led to fire was chosen to improve appearance of Kensington block of flats."

According to planning documents obtained by The Independent:

“Due to its height the tower is visible from the adjacent Avondale Conservation Area to the south and the Ladbroke Conservation Area to the east,” ... “The changes to the existing tower will improve its appearance especially when viewed from the surrounding area.”

The Independent also reported that the planning document made repeated references to the "appearance of the area" and that this was the "justification for the material used on the outside of the building, which has since been claimed to have contributed to the horror." The materials were chosen, according to the planning document "to accord with the development plan (our emphasis added) by ensuring that the character and appearance of the area are preserved and living conditions of those living near the development suitably protected,”

One expert indicated apparent frustration at the use of flammable cladding materials: "We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down."

The extent and spread of the fire was unusual for a high rise building. London Fire Commissioner Dany Cotton told The Engineer: “This is an unprecedented situation, with a major fire that has affected all floors of this 24 storey building, from the second floor up. In my 29 years with London Fire Brigade I have never seen a fire of this nature.” According to the Evening Standard: "...flames engulfed the block from the second floor upwards “within seconds”

Concern in Australia

While the Grenfell fire's severity has been attributed to the flammable cladding installed during renovation, similar cladding is being used on new high rise buildings elsewhere. For example, according to The Age the Melbourne Fire Brigade found that the fire at the contemporary LaCrosse building ignited external wall cladding, which quickly spread to the top of the building through the "combustible material located in the wall structure." Two days after the Grenfell fire, The Guardian ("Former fire chief says Melbourne's Lacrosse Tower still poses risk") reported that the cladding had still not been replaced, though the building has been reoccupied. Peter Rau, a former Melbourne Fire Brigade Chief told The Guardian that "he would not allow his children to live there."

Australians may have plenty of reason to be concerned. Planning policies throughout Australia have sought to convince households to live in central city high-rises, seeking to entice them from their preferred suburban detached housing. In a June 15 story, The Age ("London tower fire could happen here: Australian buildings cloaked in flammable cladding") reported that Australian buildings are clad in "millions of square meters" of flammable cladding. This is not a new problem. According to The Age building code authorities were advised of the problem seven years ago.

Tony Recsei, President of Save Our Suburbs in Sydney expressed concern in a  Sydney Morning Herald letter. Referring to the New South Wales government policy that seeks to increase high rise living, Recsei said "But this calamity starkly reveals there can be long-term consequences. It is to be hoped that the Greater Sydney Commission will seriously consider all the implications of its current strategy of imposing density quotas onto local neighborhoods."

The extent of the concern in Australia is indicated in this video and article from

New Zealand and the United States

Even in New Zealand, where officials recently strengthened external materials fire regulations, the government asked local authorities to check buildings constructed before the regulatory reform to see if there are any with combustible cladding.

According to the Times of London, the cladding used on Grenfell Tower has been illegal in the United States for five years.

Further Developments in London

Meanwhile, back in London, there remains considerable anger. London Mayor Sadiq Kahn visited the site on June 16 was questioned and heckled by survivors. On the same day, Prime Minister Theresa May also visited the scene and was criticized for meeting only with emergency services personnel, but not with any residents.

The fatality count could go much higher. Fears of a building collapse are slowing inspection efforts. Metropolitan Police Commander Stuart Cundy told The Independentthat "he hoped the death toll would not be in “triple figures”.

No Clean Hands?

Of course, final assessments will have to await more formal inquiries. But there is plenty of reason to be concerned. Save the fire brigade, which has been roundly praised for its work, including being on the scene within six minutes, there may be no clean hands. Cities, from the days of ancient Rome, have been vulnerable to fiery disasters like this one; policies that encourage densification while failing to provide adequate safety procedures are creating the potential for more such disasters.

Grenfell fire photo by Natalie Oxford.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.