Study the past to better understand the present

Writing a book during a pandemic is tricky when you can’t visit libraries or archives, so it helps when you have decades of research at your fingertips. Catherine Levin talked to Dr Shane Ewen who has written a lot about fire to find out his most recent book, Before Grenfell.

Shane is an academic at Leeds Beckett University where he specialises in urban history. His new book is an exploration of fire, safety and deregulation in the 20th Century (I review it on page 27).

I was curious. What could a historian contribute to a discussion about fire safety? I read the book and arranged to talk to him about it on a grey morning in August. He starts off by telling me, “The book is about the contemporary crisis we face in fire safety, but it explores it through the past and how we got there. It’s not about the fire, it’s about how it was possible.”

The fire of course is the one at Grenfell Tower where on 14 June 2017, 72 people needlessly lost their lives. He says that books about the fire including those by Pete Apps and former Grenfell resident Gill Kernick are an important addition to our understanding of the fire, but they don’t explore the longer-term history and that’s where he comes in.

“I’m a historian that believes you should study the past to better understand the present.” He goes further by adding with firm conviction, “I have a civic responsibility towards the present by exploring how we got there.”

He says that the role of the historian is to sift through reams of evidence, dealing with multiple perspectives, including from those with lived experience. “Historians are very good at dealing with evidence and coming up with a balanced assessment,” he adds.

“What I bring to the literature is a longer-term perspective and historical contextualisation of the policy, practice and ideology that led to the fire.” He says the Grenfell Tower Inquiry paid lip service to the past and didn’t piece it together in a systematic way; he felt that someone should do it, and that someone is him.

Learning from other major incidents

His book refers to various fires and incidents from the second half of the 20th century. We talk about the Ronan Point building collapse in London in 1968 where four people died and 17 people were injured. I ask him if, through his recent research, he thinks that the response to that incident was different to what we’ve witnessed with Grenfell.

He responds, “It was a completely different era, the height of social democracy. Government had a greater role in managing society, so the immediate response was for the state to take control of the situation. Back then, politicians were much more likely to take the bull by the horns and do something.”

The speed of change was different in the 1980s too, when it took only two years to introduce legislation in response to both the 1985 Bradford City fire and the Kings Cross fire in 1987. Shane tells me, “It showed where there’s a political will and an ability for the state to respond collectively quickly, it does. I think governments now have lost that impetus.”

Although he does say that modern inquiries gather the testimony of survivors in a better way than their predecessors. He adds, “We need to get the balance right between hearing the voices and making the changes. There is only a short policy window open to implement change.”

The place for regulation

The balance between regulation and the role of the market is a theme running throughout the book. This is well illustrated through the history of what is now called the Building Research Establishment (BRE). He explains, “I felt it was an important part of the story as we heard about the failure of testing through the Grenfell Inquiry. I spent a lot of time on the records going back through the decades to understand the origins of the BRE and its contribution to fire safety history.

As a result, he thinks privatisation of BRE was rushed through and created a split between the fire science community and the fire and rescue service. “The commercial interests have created a problem. It’s an important shift from protecting public safety to prioritising their customers. That’s a real problem.

One of the recommendations he makes in the book is for a return to some form of state control of the BRE. The Fire Service Research Station was a precursor to the BRE and was publicly owned. He says, “It was fantastic and served a huge public good. It is a precedent and should be revisited in the light of what we have learned from the Grenfell Inquiry.”

Another precedent that he favours is the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council, abolished under the Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004. He says it was a useful forum for bringing together diverse thought and challenge that has no modern equivalent. He’s not alone in thinking this as the Fire Brigades Union has long argued for it too.

Shane says it would need to be brought up to date by involving more consultation with communities that have lived experience of fire, but he recognises that this would be challenging to achieve. The Building Safety Regulator is trying to do something like this, but it’s early days to know if it will be successful. It might be part of a cultural shift that Shane would like to see – something ‘more human’ as he terms it.

Optimistic about the future

I conclude our conversation by asking him if, through exploring the fire safety regulations of the 20th century he is optimistic that things will be better in the future. He responds, “I’m not particularly optimistic now as policy makers continue to be wedded to the idea that the market knows best. I think there needs to be a recognition within Whitehall that red tape has an important role to play and does save lives.

“Good regulation is not an impediment to business. A healthy workforce is good for national wellbeing and productivity. Investment in fire safety is an investment in people as well as an investment in products and profits. If that can be addressed, then I might be more optimistic.”

He hopes his book is widely read and that it fills in the gaps about the historical context to the Grenfell Tower fire, contributing in a ‘small way’ to the cultural shift he would like to see.