The consequences of the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower continue to unfold, whilst speculation about its multiple causes continues and becomes ever more complex. Media coverage has been widespread and sometimes very informative, notably by Inside Housing magazine, but the voice of EHPs still remains largely silent apart from an open letter from health and safety professionals (supported by the CIEH) to the Prime Minister. After the initial horror, we suspect some EHPs may have thought ‘we don’t do fire safety in tower blocks’ or ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’, but as public health professionals Professor Michael Marmot would argue that to prevent such tragedies in the future we must address the causes of the causes. Therefore we offer some early reflections about why Grenfell Tower matters for us:
Questioning the law/standards – the law and its associated standards/guidance provide us with an operational mandate, but research (Hutter, 1988) and our own experience suggest that we rarely question its uncertainties, or brush them off as problems or ‘quirks’ to be overcome in the field. But Grenfell Tower is already raising fundamental questions about the law/standards, particularly around the installation and standards for cladding materials and fire doors and resistance towards legislation requiring sprinkler systems. This reminds of the importance of constantly revisiting the assumptions behind the law and how it’s made, particularly when making decisions about ‘safety’ and ‘risk’ in the homes and businesses we visit every day. Further, if we suspect the law/standards aren’t ‘safe’, surely Grenfell Tower (and Lakanal House) remind us why we must lobby more effectively for its improvement?
The complexity of regulation – Grenfell Tower is raising important questions about the complexities of fire safety regulation. Like so many areas of environmental health, in recent decades fire safety has seen a move away from ‘command and control’ type regulation, characterised by prescriptive standards enforced by fire authorities and other public sector bodies, towards systems of ‘enforced self-regulation’ characterised by risk management developed by businesses themselves, subject to external regulatory approval. These reforms have coincided with huge changes in the responsibility for social housing, including the replacement of council housing departments with new registered social landlords who have attracted widespread criticism at Grenfell Tower from tenants and one former employee. As EHPs we’ve seen good and bad examples of both approaches to regulation and management. Inter-agency working remains integral to our work, but has also become ever more challenging with services outsourced and ever more complex contractual arrangements. But Grenfell Tower keeps raising critical questions about communications, responsibilities and accountabilities that we would be wise to regularly revisit in all our work.
Engaging with the politics and money – Professor Martin McKee recently commented how those on the left are highlighting the political dimensions of Grenfell Tower (e.g. David Lammy MP commenting: “If burning in your home isn’t political, I don’t know what is?”), whilst those on the right continue to condemn the tragedy’s politicisation. We have described previously how EHPs often describe their work as non-political and such attitudes date back to Victorian times, historian Tom Crook describing its association with a ‘scientific’ justification for our work and its professionalization via self-proclaimed values like independence and impartiality and a desire not to denounce, as public servants, those institutions upon which our status depends. We suspect this might explain why EHPs have largely remained quiet so far, but navigating these politics has always been an essential part of our work. Further, as Professor McKee argues, as public health professionals surely we have a duty to more effectively make the ‘invisible’ homes and workplaces where we operate more ‘visible’ and to challenge the forces that maybe subverting our work. We therefore acknowledge here the individual EHPs (e.g. Gibson, 2017), journalists (Toynbee and Walker, 2017) and academics (Minton, 2017; O’Neill, 2017; Tombs, 2016) who are consistently raising concerns about the breakdown of our protective role in society and what could be done about it.
Giving the voiceless a voice – Much recent coverage has focused on relations between the landlord and tenants of Grenfell Tower, particularly how the warnings and fears of the tenants’ Grenfell Action Group were apparently ignored, with catastrophic consequences. Cuts in legal aid are also thought to have acted as a further obstacle to drawing meaningful attention to the issues tenants were raising. The forthcoming public inquiry will no doubt focus on these issues, but as EHPs working with the private rented sector and in social housing our skills include communicating the voices of tenants to powerful landlords, our superiors, other departments and government agencies in the interests of public health. We’re sometimes not good at listening, we’re not always successful and our failures can have dire consequences that often don’t make the headlines (e.g. retaliatory evictions), but our knowledge of who to speak to and how can prove critical in improving public health and is amongst our greatest strengths.
What kind of society do we want? – Perhaps the greatest challenge of Grenfell Tower for us as human beings, and EHPs, returns to this fundamental question. In time could the Tower, and all those who perished in their homes, come to symbolise how we tolerated social inequalities and forgot the value of the public’s health? We hope Grenfell Tower will become a defining moment for us all but, as the Hillsborough families would probably warn, the struggle for justice (and safe housing) for all could be a long and painful one. As EHPs we have an important role to play in creating more just and safer societies for all, Grenfell Tower provides the most powerful reminder of the importance of this and the consequences of our failure to be ‘friends of the human race’. Our thoughts remain with all those affected by Grenfell Tower.
Rob, Caroline, Jill, Alan & Surindar
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