(I wrote this post following the horrific fire at Grenfell. Two years later and it’s emerged that over 200 tower blocks across England still have unsafe cladding, with work still to start on its removal.)
The tragedy at Grenfell Tower is still raw, a cacophony of anger and grief and heroism and apathy played out in the shadow of a highrise, a beacon for a country struggling with inequality and terrorist outrages and an inconclusive election, drawing the focus to the very real testimonies of those who have lost everything: first their safety, then their voice, then homes, possessions, loved ones.
Stories of those loved ones are emerging: a Syrian man, Mohammed, who fled the civil war and who was studying civil engineering; an artist, Khalifa, whose work is currently on display in Venice; Isaac, a five year old boy. Firefighters wrote their names on their helmets as they walked into the fire; communities pulled together to provide shelter, supplies, support. All this took place in the face of a murderous injustice; while full details haven’t yet emerged, it seems that Grenfell Tower wasn’t safe, built with unsafe materials and no sprinklers and no answers. This tragedy shouldn’t have happened.
“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” St. Paul once wrote, and profit margins and unit costs often show us where our hearts lie. The cost of a sprinkler system, or £2 extra per metre of cladding becomes a stake, a gamble that a fire won’t break out, with odds that apparently made it worth playing. I doubt anyone wanted these deaths to happen, but there’s a risk register somewhere that’s now exposed as a moral, even a spiritual document.
Millenia ago, an ancient law was handed down on top of a mountain. And among the commandments and liturgies and rituals, there’s a simple piece of construction advice – if you build a house, make sure the roof’s safe so that no-one falls, no-one dies. Elsewhere, there’s provision for priests to get involved in an environmental health situation. And yes, that’s a Bronze Age culture and I don’t think health and safety should be ecclesiastical, but justice persists, and the safety of the places we live and work is a justice issue. Lives are at stake, lives have been lost, and spreadsheets sometimes triumph over humanity.
But spreadsheets are spiritual. Building regulations are spiritual. Our homes should be safe and Grenfell shouldn’t have burned. We pray and mourn with the survivors, we honour the heroes. But let’s always remember that how we build and what we spend are moral decisions; humanity should triumph over portfolios.