On 14 June 2017, flames engulfed a residential block of flats in West London. Seventy-two people lost their lives and many hundreds more were traumatised as a national ‘cladding crisis’ unfolded. Yet the Grenfell Tower fire was a disaster foretold – the culmination of successive decades of deregulation, corporate greed and institutional failure to learn from the lessons of past multiple-fatality fires. By advocating a historical approach spanning the twentieth century, Before Grenfell deepens our contemporary understanding of the events surrounding the disaster and reveals how past decisions taken by governments and industry bodies created the conditions under which the fire occurred. Drawing upon unexplored archives as well as extensive use of published records, Shane Ewen’s book traces the underlying causes of the fire through more than four decades of deregulation of fire precautions, scientific governance and building regulations by successive governments in thrall to the ideology of neoliberalism. In drawing upon several previous, and often forgotten, multiple-fatality fires, the book sheds light on the historic failures of policymakers to heed the lessons of the past in protecting vulnerable communities, arguing that good policymaking necessitates learning with history as well as learning from history.

Table of contents

Introduction: Multiple-fatality fires, deregulation and the value of ‘thinking with history’

  1. From byelaws to building regulations: recasting building control in Britain since the nineteenth century

  2. How red tape saves lives: the law on fire precautions in Britain since the 1970s

  3. The mixed economy of ‘scientific governance’ in twentieth-century Britain

  4. The path of least intervention in the ‘great unswept corner of English housing policy’: multiple-fatality fires in houses in multiple occupation in the 1980s and 1990s

Conclusion: The need to learn before and after Grenfell