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Grenfell Families 'Still Waiting For Answers' After Three Years Of Fighting For Justice

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Grenfell Families 'Still Waiting For Answers' After Three Years Of Fighting For Justice

"It's crazy," says Karim. "Three years on and we keep having the same conversations over and over. Cladding. Justice. Closure."

Karim Mussilhy, 34, is the vice chair of Grenfell United, which represents the victims and the families affected by the fire three years ago.

His uncle was killed in the blaze, and the London tower block came to represent the mass danger of flammable cladding routinely used in similar schemes.

The community around Grenfell found itself in the middle of a tragedy and a talking point. Vast swathes of social housing had become a ticking time bomb. Three years on, however, Karim says, nothing has really changed. He also worries it could be 'decades' before the families get answers - and justice.

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"Cladding was at the centre of every conversation for weeks after the fire," he says. "Taking cladding off buildings up and down the country. It was all people talked about. The Prime Minister - Theresa May at the time - came down. It was supposed to be the government's top priority."

A wall of tributes close to Grenfell Tower. Credit: PA
A wall of tributes close to Grenfell Tower. Credit: PA

Three years down the line, Karim says the government has 'lost its appetite' over Grenfell.

The second phase of the public inquiry reopens next month. Grenfell United wants answers - and a commitment from the Prime Minister to show he cares.

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Karim continues: "The problem for the government is they don't know how many buildings have dangerous cladding on. It's at least 1,000. They just didn't know the scale of the problem.

"We have communication with Number 10 [Downing Street]. But we've never sat down with Boris Johnson. He's never offered. Would we like to? Of course. He was the Mayor of London. He should understand the impact on this community. But he doesn't, because he hasn't been here."

The latest figures from the government's Building Safety Programme, released earlier this week, show that anywhere from 300 to 450 high-rise residential and publicly owned buildings still have the same aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding that was on Grenfell Tower.

Last year, the government said all flammable ACM cladding would be removed by June 2020. That target has been missed. The Fire Brigades' Union called the government's inaction 'atrocious'.

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Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said: "Last year, the government said that they would remove all ACM cladding by the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. But the latest figures show that 300 buildings - equating to tens of thousands of homes - still have the very same cladding that caught alight at Grenfell. It's an utter disgrace.

Credit: PA
Credit: PA

"The government have tried to spin their way out of dealing with this crisis, but their record speaks for itself. The glacial pace of cladding removal continues, and the government still has no idea how many homes are at risk from other flammable materials. We cannot see another year of this atrocious inaction."

The quest for answers has been less than simple for the Grenfell survivors. In February, the public inquiry was delayed after corporate witnesses - from the architects, builders and the client - said they would not give evidence unless they were protected from criminal prosecution.

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Cladding manufacturer Arconic has spent £30m on defence lawyers and advisers as it tries to fend off the inquiry - up to £50,000 a day. More than the cost of the panels and just £10m short of the cost of the inquiry to the taxpayer so far.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which owned the tower, has set aside more than £6m for legal costs. Its decision to swap fire resistant cladding to the cheaper ACM alternative in 2014 saved just £300,000 on build costs.

The fire resulted in the death of 72 people.

"You see amounts of money get thrown around," says Karim. "The government is putting £1bn towards the removal of cladding. That's a lot of money and a bit of a win but it's a £15bn problem.

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"They make big announcements. But we're not actually getting anywhere. Nothing is really happening. They wanted us to choose 15 people to talk to the inquiry panel, from the 658 people affected.

"Some of the companies involved... it took us getting Stormzy to talk about Grenfell at the BRITs to even get them to acknowledge us."

The rapper criticised Theresa May for her reaction to Grenfell at the BRIT Awards. Credit: PA
The rapper criticised Theresa May for her reaction to Grenfell at the BRIT Awards. Credit: PA

When the inquiry reopens, Karim says the families want answers from the private companies involved in building the tower, after three years of 'poor' communication.

He says: "We want to work with them, but we don't trust them. There are some big corporate players involved. We need to listen to what they have to say. We are uncovering a rotten construction industry, and the government has played a part in creating that."

The supposed scrutiny of a government inquiry doesn't fill the families with hope. Karim sees comparisons with the three-decade struggle of the families of those killed at Hillsborough, who are still locked in a fight for justice, despite the fact The Taylor Inquiry into the football stadium tragedy sat for 31 days across May and June 1989.

It took 30 years for court charges to be brought again central figures in the police force.

"We have to look at their experience as a reality for us," says Karim. "We talk to the Hillsborough families. They have been so supportive and have given us advice on how to engage and navigate the process. But you look at how long they have had to fight and it does cause concern."

Karim also says that the recent coronavirus pandemic and unrest around racial tension spilling over from the US has amplified the anxiety and grief felt by many of the Grenfell families. The virus has claimed lives from within that community. They are united by loss once more.

This weekend, London has been focussed on fights over statues and footage of nationalist protesters fighting with police. Grenfell has been forced into the background.

But for Karim and his family - and hundreds more - today will be about remembrance. It will also mean trying to put the frustration of a push for justice aside for a day.

Karim and his family. Credit: Tom Cockram
Karim and his family. Credit: Tom Cockram

"I'll keep myself busy. I'll try to reflect. It will be difficult."

Karim has children. Being a father is a difficult job at the best of times, but trying to raise children in the aftermath of such tragedy has been a huge challenge.

"My son was 9 when Grenfell went up," he says. "He's 12 now. I see how it's affected him. He lost his confidence. He developed a stammer. My daughter doesn't like candles in the house. She says she doesn't want our home to end up like Grenfell.

"I don't know how to confront my kids with what happened because I'm not sure I can confront it myself.

"It's hard to tell them that everything will be OK, because I don't know that it will be."

People all over the country share that view. Despite more than £1bn having been committed to the removal of flammable cladding, hundreds of buildings - and their residents - are still waiting. Some have been saddled with huge bills and told to do it themselves.

All Grenfell United can do is keep applying pressure. Lockdown has impacted planned events but instead, they will campaign through their social media channels. An appeal for people to turn their living rooms green in the night sky. A sign that despite everything, people remember. People care.

But really, it's the people who really matter that Karim wants to see some action from.

"The reality is that three years has passed and nothing has really happened," says Karim. "The government needs to step up.

"We need Grenfell to be a line in the sand. We need to stop putting peoples' lives before profit."

Featured Image Credit: PA

Topics: Grenfell Tower, Boris Johnson, London

Simon Binns
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