What caused the Grenfell Tower fire? An independent public inquiry into the blaze, which killed at least 79 people in London earlier this month, is slowly getting started, so we won't have a complete answer to that for a while. But one major culprit is already coming into view: a local government pushing "green energy" renovations at the expense of safety.
Preliminary analysis of why the fire spread so rapidly points to the flammable aluminum composite cladding that was installed during a recent renovation project. The renovation was undertaken by the Kensington-Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO), the non-profit that managed the tower for the Kensington-Chelsea Borough Council. (The council does not merely contract with the KCTMO but selects a portion of its board.)
According to Jim Glocking, technical director of the Fire Protection Association, a U.K.-based safety organization, this flammable cladding is "often being introduced on the back of the sustainability agenda, but it's sometimes being done recklessly without due consideration to the consequences."
That's not just idle speculation. Documents from the Kensington-Chelsea Borough government and the KCTMO confirm that a "sustainability agenda" was directly behind the decision to install the material. The borough's 2013–2017 housing strategy invokes "the importance of seeking reasonable alterations to the existing building stock to mitigate the causes of and adapt to the effects likely to occur due to climate change," then announces that it "recently agreed to clad a high rise block in the north of the borough, which will improve the energy efficiency of all the properties within it."
That high-rise block was Grenfell.
In a 2013 statement about the renovation project, the KCTMO praised this "upgrade of the cladding" as a way to "greatly enhance the energy efficiency of the tower." The KCTMO repeated this rationale for the new cladding while announcing the selection of a contractor, and again upon completion of the renovations. Multiple tenant newsletters released during the renovations made it clear that the green-energy-concerned Borough Council was responsible for reviewing the cladding options and for making a final determination on which type to select.
This direct link between a "sustainability agenda" and the Grenfell fire has not stopped commentators from trying to cast the issue as one of state-shrinking austerity. A columnist in the Lahore Nation blamed "the desire for profit and accumulation" for the disaster, claiming that "the cladding used in Grenfell Tower was chosen precisely because it was cheaper than non-flammable alternatives." A Guardian writer took the authorities to task for "hands-off management, contracting out, and cost-cutting." Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that "if you cut local authority expenditure then the price is paid somehow."
This theory ignores the repeatedly stated reason for installing the flammable cladding. It also suggests that the Kensington-Chelsea Borough government endangered its tenants in order to save an estimated £5,000 on a £67 million renovation project, while that same government sat on a reported £200 million in cash reserves.
More broadly, critics have accused the Kensington-Chelsea Borough Council and the KCTMO of a mix of incompetence and indifference in how they manage their public housing properties. If even half of what is being said about them is true, that accusation is accurate. The worst example may be a hamfisted energy agenda that allowed a fire to turn so deadly, so quickly.