When fire engulfed Grenfell Tower nearly six months ago, with the loss of 71 lives, many were astonished that a London tower block could burn so quickly and with such devastating results. But one of the building’s residents foresaw it all too clearly – he just couldn’t find anyone to listen to his warnings.
Last November, on a grey Sunday with the rain drizzling constantly outside his window, a man sat at his computer on the 16th floor of his West London tower block and began to write a blog.
“It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block… is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO [Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation] will be found out and brought to justice!”
Six months later, on 14 June, London woke up to the news that a fire had blazed through Grenfell Tower on the Lancaster West estate in North Kensington, killing dozens of residents. By the following night the blog had received more than two million hits.
“You know when you just get the pen and just write?” says the blog’s author. “That’s what happened that day, and looking back it’s like a premonition that’s so awful. I would never have written that had I known what was going to happen.”
The man behind the blog is Edward Daffarn, a 55-year-old social worker who had lived on the estate for 16 years. He was in his flat two-thirds of the way up Grenfell Tower when the fire took hold. Luckily, a neighbour called him in time and urged him to get out. He wrapped a wet towel around his head and ran into the smoke that had already filled the building. That night he lost his home, all his possessions, and the community he loved.
Daffarn is understandably emotional when reflecting on the last few months, but more than that he is angry. Angry with the way he feels Grenfell residents were treated by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation – the people who were entrusted to maintain the estate and keep its residents safe. Angry with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council, which was meant to scrutinise the KCTMO. Angry with a society which didn’t seem to care about people like him – people who live on housing estates – until it was too late.
“The reality is if you’re on a housing estate it’s indifference and neglect, two words that sum up everything about the way we were treated,” he says. “They weren’t interested in providing housing services, keeping us safe, maintaining the estate. They were just interested in themselves.”
Daffarn and fellow Grenfell resident Francis O’Connor had been blogging on behalf of the Grenfell Action Group since 2012. They wrote about issues that concerned their tight-knit community – air pollution, the closure of the local public library, and their fears that corners were being cut during the refurbishment of the tower.
“We wanted to record for history how a community on a housing estate in the fifth richest country in the world could be ignored, neglected, treated with indifference. We never thought we could make change. We just wanted to record what was happening,” he says.
Daffarn and O’Connor shared a theory that Kensington and Chelsea – a London borough more widely known for its museums, designer shops and flower shows – actually wanted its council estates to go into decline, so that the residents would leave and expensive flats could be built in this sought-after location. For this they were described as fantasists.
“We weren’t fantasists,” he says, visibly hurt. “We were trying to raise genuine concerns about how our community was being run down.”
The natural consequence, he concluded, would be loss of life. Which is why on 20 November 2016, frustrated and desperate, Edward wrote the blog post KCTMO – Playing with fire!
“It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”
A few months earlier a fire had ripped through five floors of a tower block in Shepherd’s Bush, just down the road. Edward was worried that if a fire broke out in his tower block residents wouldn’t know what to do. They had been given no proper fire safety instructions from the KCTMO. There were no instructions on individual floors on how residents should act in the event of a fire, there was only a recent newsletter saying residents should remain in their flats – advice which in the case of the Shepherd’s Bush fire would have led to fatalities.
In March 2017 the KCTMO installed fire safety instruction notices in the entrance hallway to Grenfell Tower and outside the lifts on every floor of the building, again urging residents to “stay put” unless the fire was “in or affecting your flat”.
It wasn’t the first time the Grenfell blog’s authors had raised concerns about fire safety.
Before the blog began, when a school was built on the only green space the residents had, they wrote to the borough pointing out that access for fire and emergency vehicles had been compromised.
Later they blogged about the blocking of a fire exit with mattresses during the refurbishment and the power surges in 2013 that manifested in flickering lights, computers and stereos blowing up, and entire rooms filling with smoke. These continued for three weeks, Daffarn says.
“We were tenants we weren’t fire safety specialists but we were switched on enough to feel this was important and it was not being dealt with on our estate and that’s why we were blogging. It wasn’t for us to tell the council what they should be doing., We were just trying to raise an alarm.”
An alarm that went unanswered. The November 2016 blog post represented the last moment at which something might have been done to avert the disaster which followed six months later. But why didn’t anyone heed or investigate Daffarn’s claims?
Hidden within the story of the Grenfell blog is another story of the decline of local media. There simply was no local press on the ground in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea scrutinising the authorities and helping to amplify the voice of people like Edward Daffarn.
The last time he had the attention of a local journalist was in 2014 when Camilla Horrox, the reporter for the Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle ran front page stories about Grenfell residents’ concerns regarding the possible presence of asbestos on the site of the new school and about the power surges.
She had met Daffarn several times, and had been concerned about KCTMO’s dealings with the residents of the properties it managed.
But when the newspaper was closed down later that year Horrox was made redundant and all her Grenfell articles disappeared from the web. The Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle was incorporated into a website that reports on 29 west London districts. Horrox’s replacement was expected to report on three boroughs – Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham – while based in Surrey, an hour’s drive away.
Some residents of the borough might have been under the mistaken impression that they did have a local newspaper. In 2015 a free paper, The Kensington and Chelsea News, was established to fill the gap left by the closing of the Chronicle. But when I tracked down its reporter he explained that he was the sole reporter working on the paper, and on two other local newspapers – his salary was £500 a week and he did almost all his reporting from home in Dorset, 150 miles away. He made it to the borough only twice in two-and-a-half years, and the one story he ever published about Grenfell was from a council press release about the installation of the new cladding.
Find out more
Local News: What Are We Missing? was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Listen again on iPlayer.
Though he always searched for a “good front page splash” for each of the three editions, he also made sure to find two pages of royal stories and two pages of entertainment stories.
Edward Daffarn didn’t take his concerns to the media in November 2016 because he no longer thought anyone would listen. But the blog was out there for everyone to see, he points out, if only they had been looking.
“We’d been blogging for three or four years and you go back over that time there’s a lot of abusive behaviour evidenced forensically about what was happening to our community, but it wasn’t sexy so it never got picked up.”
For Edward, what was going on at Grenfell wasn’t just a local story, but a national one. A story about invisible people in a society that cared more about celebrity and wealth than its most vulnerable residents.
Close to tears, he admonishes the nation’s journalists.
“If you look back now our whole community of North Kensington, the policy that the local authority was taking every public space and privatising it, that that could be missed by the BBC, by Channel Four, by these wider news agencies… The question should be for you, why did you miss it?
“Why aren’t our lives important enough for you?”
‘Our residents deserve answers’
Responding to Edward Daffarn’s allegations, a spokesman for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council said:
“The Tenant Management Organisation was responsible for managing and maintaining Grenfell Tower. Our residents deserve answers about what went wrong and the public inquiry will help provide these.
“We’re changing our Council and the way we work with our communities, ensuring residents are at the heart of everything we do. We will provide all households from Grenfell Tower and Grenfell Walk with the best offer of new housing possible – and we are listening to what they want and moving at their pace.”
A spokesman for the Tenant Management Organisation declined to respond to specific allegations because of the public inquiry and police investigation into the tragic events at Grenfell Tower.
He added: “As a resident-led organisation we want to fully understand what happened at Grenfell Tower. We recognise our responsibility to ensure that the public inquiry and police investigation processes are not hampered or undermined in any way; to that end we are co-operating fully with them and are determined to continue to help with these processes.”
Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-42072477