The first report from the Grenfell Inquiry makes for sober reading. It shows clearly that the public concern which followed this disaster was not misplaced. Mistakes had been made in a number of areas – mistakes which could have been avoided. These covered both the way that the emergency was handled, and also a system of building regulations which is supposed to ensure that our homes are fit and safe to live in.
What is particularly stark is that many of these mistakes are not new issues but have been repeated despite earlier warnings. The report is a reminder that Parliament must step up to play a more proactive role in the scrutiny and enforcement of inquiry recommendations.
Responding to the Grenfell Tower fire was an extraordinary challenge for the London Fire Brigade (LFB) and the other emergency services. As the report sets out, the cladding used in Grenfell meant that the fire spread horizontally around the tower – in contrast to most tower block fires which tend to progress rapidly towards the top of the tower. As a result, the fire was far more intense than expected, and quickly became far more deadly.
But while the scale of the challenge was daunting, it wasn’t unprecedented. The inquiry report points to numerous failings that had also occurred during the response to the 2009 Lakanal House fire in South London. Nearly eight years later, “mistakes made in responding to the Lakanal House fire were repeated” at Grenfell, with the LFB’s control room policies failing to reflect “important lessons that should have been learnt from the Lakanal House fire”.
This is far from the first time that a disaster has led to an inquiry which makes recommendations or offers lessons that are not adopted by the relevant organisations. The coroner’s inquest into the 7/7 terror attacks in London noted that there had been communication issues between the emergency and transport services, an issue that had been highlighted by the inquiry into the Kings Cross Fire nearly two decades earlier in 1987.
Public inquiries are supposed to protect the public from repeated harmful and costly failures. To do so, each has to answer several questions: what happened, why did it happen, who is responsible, and what can we do to stop it ever happening again? They have been broadly successful at addressing the first three, even if they often take time to do so.
But while it is harder to deliver change, it is not impossible. The Grenfell Inquiry can look to historic examples like the Piper Alpha Inquiry, which followed a deadly fire on a North Sea oil platform in 1988, to see how lasting systemic change is possible.
So what can be done to ensure that inquiry recommendations are acted on? If recommendations are to be turned in real changes on the ground, there needs to be ongoing support for, and scrutiny of, the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations.
We have argued previously that parliamentary select committees should follow up on the recommendations developed by inquiries, and use their influence to hold the government accountable for the implementation of those recommendations. In the case of the Grenfell inquiry, this means that the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee needs to use its position to see that the government implements the 43 recommendations presented in the report.
Years from now, a future inquiry should not be warning that the Grenfell Inquiry’s recommendations were ignored.