Why Grenfell Tower matters for EHPs

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, 2017O’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

Note: Please click on reference links in blog. 

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2 thoughts on “Why Grenfell Tower matters for EHPs

  1. “Nothing ever crumbles in a day…….” – it might burn down in a day, but I’m talking about something more complex altogether. Your piece about the Grenfell disaster is well-said. But it takes time for all the checks and balances of regulation to be so under-mined…..it’s never one thing, on one single day, but a progression of smaller things over a long period. I qualified in 1979, when Thatcher came to power as PM, and ever since then there seems to have been a mantra from central government, almost regardless of political colour, that local government is bad, bureaucratic and over-zealous. But as Trump would doubtless say, this is ‘fake news, people….fake news’. This was a mantra to oversee and arguably excuse a gradual dismantling of local government, it’s power, it’s effectiveness – a mantra to support privatisation, enhance private responsibility, and orchestrate a rolling back of the state. Never mind a century and a half of building good local administration, schools, public health, housing, roads, utilities and so on; works that still have their legacy today as a monument to local dedication, effort and professionalism. The privatisation of services has been the priority led by arguably false-thinking and a false proposition, that the ‘market’ would sort it all out; government intervention is unnecessary at best, at worst – misplaced.
    But countless events, both on the world stage and at national level has shown the serious short-comings of this type of approach. Our values as a country have become diluted and confused, and politics has changed the most in that regard. Integrity, and duty, and notions of honour, public service, and self-sacrifice, have been left to erode, or have been neglected, or ignored.
    Grenfell appals, embarrasses and angers because it holds a mirror up and reflects how we all, as a society, have tolerated this gradual slide into mediocrity.
    I sometimes wonder with such a slide, how as a nation we ever managed to administrate an Empire covering the majority of the globe. I’ve concluded that we must still have the same skills as a people group – the same capabilities, the same technical knowledge….what’s changed is our sense of national identity. What’s changed is a lack of good leadership; we’re confused about our future role in the world, and where we fit. We have somewhere along the journey, lost our pride, and our collective agreement about how we do things better, together.
    The slide in national political integrity has been core to this, in particular. We now have a public who are distrustful of politicians, of their promises, and now even their ability to ‘sort things out’. That’s at a local and national level.
    How do we change things? Well, not through a Public Inquiry, welcome as that may be. The Inquiry will only confirm things that we already largely know. We change it by challenging anything, everyday, big or small, that continues to erode values worth holding dear. Challenging dishonesty. By promoting public education and a national debate about all those things that hold our society together, and that are worth protecting. That would be a fitting legacy for Grenfell; it’s crossed my mind that the burned out and blackened tower block, which I can see from my office as a write this, should be kept preserved and standing, not as a shrine, but as a reminder of what will happen, when we lose our way. Perhaps when anyone in the future, argues about ‘over-regulation’, or questions the essential need for good local government, we can point to the blackened façade and ask: ‘Remember Grenfell…?’. That might stop the self-seekers in their tracks; because at the heart of this, is a question of social values and even morality (justice); public responsibility v. private interest.

    Time perhaps to wake up, and let our professional voices add to those calling for change right through ‘the system’. If the shock of Grenfell doesn’t shame us into action, then frankly, nothing will.

  2. Dear Martin, thanks for taking the time to respond and for your thoughtful comments. I particularly agree with your final sentence. We must all keep trying. Best wishes, Jill

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