A matter of public knowledge? Inquiring into the Grenfell Tower disaster

John Clarke

By John Clarke

An extended version of this post was originally published in Discover Society on 4 October 2017.

The continuing controversies about the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire point to real conflicts about how we – the public – are supposed to know about such matters. At the heart of these controversies is a crisis of knowledge in which different ways of knowing (and their social and political implications) are in dispute: who gets to ask the questions and what questions get asked? What information should be included, what knowledge is considered valid and invalid, and who gets to make those judgements?  Bundled up in these arguments are problems about the relationship between evidence, expertise and experience, as survivors and nearby residents demand a form of inquiry that is responsive to their needs and concerns. The problem is that public inquiries are rarely designed in such terms: rather they aim to be evidence-based, legal in approach and formally authoritative. This classic public inquiry model seeks to impose a cool and dispassionate gaze on the horrors of Grenfell.

The controversies began with the appointment of the inquiry’s chair, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who was immediately perceived as socially, culturally and emotionally distant from those affected by the fire. Both he, and the potential advisers to the inquiry, have been a focus of controversy because of who they are, what they represent and the sorts of ways of knowing that they embody. The desire to see ‘people like us’ involved in the inquiry process reflects the deep suspicion that the experiences of being excluded, disdained and denied by ‘the authorities’ have engendered among Grenfell survivors and many others.

The second issue was the problem of scope: the original proposal was that the inquiry would focus narrowly on the immediate causes of the fire and its travel. This constrictive framing was challenged immediately, such that its boundaries have been loosened.  But even these expanded terms of reference limit the inquiry to local matters, as if the local council’s social housing policies and practices were separable from wider government housing policies, the sustained demonization of public housing (and its tenants), the contracting out of public services, the fiscal austerity imposed since 2010 and the endless desire for ‘deregulation’. The limited legal and forensic conception of the immediate ‘cause of the fire’ has given way, grudgingly, to a more contextual understanding, but ways of engaging with the full context that made this disaster possible are still being resisted.

We have yet to encounter the inquiry in practice, but the formal legal style of public inquiries suggests that there are further difficulties in store. These will centre on the form and tone of the inquiry – a process that will be public, rather than popular, so to speak. The legal model tends to draw a sharp distinction between what can legally be grasped as ‘evidence’ and the murky world of experience and emotion. These things tend to be categorised as the stuff of ‘stories’, which can be set against the ‘facts’ of the matter – and in such legal jurisdictions the ‘facts’ will always override ‘stories’. It is already clear that what counts as the ‘truth’ of Grenfell Tower fire will be profoundly contested.

The problem – as the Hillsborough victims’ families discovered – is that the public inquiry model so cherished by the British establishment is not fit for purpose. More precisely, it is not fit for any popular purposes, in which the people affected (directly and indirectly) are desperate to know matters of truth and to understand the distribution of both guilt and responsibility.[1] This is not just a matter of knowledge: those living in and connected to the Tower already know a lot about the flats, the risks, the council, the impacts of austerity and so on. But they want know more – especially about the relationships, the connections, the disconnections, the refusals and the responsibilities that created the conditions for the disaster.

It is here that the limits of the legal style of investigation are most sharply revealed. It will not be hard to have forensic findings about the cause of the fire and its spread; it is even possible that the police may find evidence of acts that constitute corporate manslaughter. But an equally forensic analysis of how responsibility was distributed, dispersed and denied through ‘arm’s length’ organisations, through layers of sub-contracting, through budgetary preferences and through political and cultural dispositions will be much harder to achieve. Laying such processes bare is absolutely central to accounting for this horror, but whether a public inquiry can deliver remains open to question. The process is unlikely to be simple or straightforward precisely because it invokes profound problems about our ways of knowing and the forms of knowledge that are valued and validated in our world.

[1] See the comment by Phil Scraton on ‘learning from Hillsborough’: http://theconversation.com/the-grenfell-tower-inquiry-learning-from-hillsborough-79505

John Clarke is emeritus professor in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the Open University.

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in What ever happened to asset-based welfare? Shifting approaches to housing wealth and welfare security.

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