Today we have a lesson which should help provide you with some English-speaking practice and maybe help save your life. Now it’s rarely you get to put those two valuable benefits into a single sentence. With more people living in blocks of flats its important to know about the Grenfell fire.
My eldest daughter is back in the centre of London looking for a place to live as we finally see the end of lock-downs and the end of travel restrictions being talked about more positively. She wants to get out of our house and start running her own life again, and who can blame her, we are all a little cabin crazy right now.
However, the property search has resulted in a couple of interesting things. Fewer people want to live in the city. The rental prices in the city have dropped over 10% and the prices of modern flats in tower blocks is even cheaper. People in London don't want to live in blocks of flats. After a little digging about why we discovered the impact of the Grenfell fire is having on properties in the city of London, and we suspect in every part of the UK.
This English lesson is an everyday English conversation, using contemporary English vocabulary. When you listen to the English in this lesson and you comprehend 70% or more of the English that you hear, you know you are ready to practice speaking English. You should understand much more than you don’t understand. When you at this level of automatic English comprehension, you know you're ready to engage in English conversations, you will follow and understand English speakers and be able to join in.
|In The UK
|Block Of Flats
|And I Think
|A Difficult Subject
Hi and welcome to this podcast from Adept English. We are here to help you with your English language learning. And I talk about all kinds of subjects. Today I’m going to talk about a difficult subject, one that is complicated, which has lots of aspects, but which is an issue ongoing in the UK at the moment. And I think it might affect other countries too. We’re here to help you practise English of course, but my hope is always to give you something which is worth listening to in its own right. So this is a difficult subject, but here goes.
In June 2017, there was a fire in a block of flats in North Kensington, an area of London. And the block of flats that this happened to – you may have heard of the name – Grenfell Tower. That’s GRENFELL and TOWER. This block of flats, or tower block was 24 storeys high – and when fire engulfed Grenfell Tower on 14th June 2017, 72 people died, 70 were injured and 223 people escaped.
This was the highest number of deaths for a fire in the UK since World War Two and this event utterly shocked people. It was as though something which was unthinkable in our era had happened – as though this was an event, which you might read about in history, not now in the 21st century. Of course, fires can always happen – but it is the number of lives lost which is shocking. How could this have been allowed to happen? What went wrong?
So of course, there have been lots of questions since this disaster. You might expect to hear that people died in a fire like this in a history lesson as I say, in times before there were adequate controls on buildings, before laws were introduced to ensure fire safety.
This event shows a need for a big change in house building in the UK. But it’s complicated, so let’s explore some of the issues today in this podcast. It will perhaps be a bit of a challenge – but there is lots of vocabulary, lots of words here that you will meet when you listen to the news and which you might meet in an English language test. And I think this is a story worth telling. People need to know about it.
On the night of the fire, a resident, a person living in Grenfell Tower, found smoke coming from his fridge. The time was 12:50am and by 12:54am, the resident had called the fire service. He also told everyone on his floor, the fourth floor about the fire. So the resident did everything he could. And the fire service arrived at 12:56am – just six minutes after his telephone call.
That’s quick. But the policy of the fire service in the UK, for tower block fires is to tell people to ‘stay put’, to remain in their flats, in their apartments. This ‘stay put’ advice proved fatal for many – it’s seen as causing many of the deaths at Grenfell.
20 of the 24 storeys were above where the fire started on the fourth floor. If everyone had been evacuated at the start of the fire, the building may have been lost, but no one would have died. By 1:15am, so just 25 minutes after the smoke was seen coming from the fridge, the fire had reached the outside of the building and was spreading at a speed that no one had expected. By 1:30am, just 15 minutes later, the fire was up to the roof, above the 24th storey.
So in just over 20 minutes the fire on the outside of the building travelled 20 storeys to the roof. The advice to ‘stay put’ is standard in the UK for fires in tower blocks, buildings of this type, as it’s expected that fire doors and fire safety measures will prevent the fire from spreading.
Obviously this didn’t happen here. Another problem then became apparent - the fire service only had equipment to reach 32 metres high. Grenfell Tower was 67 metres tall. Only after several hours, was a device which could reach 42 metres high brought in from a Fire Department in nearby Surrey. But of course by then it was too late.
A photograph of a firefighting operations truck in the middle of action. As we talk about tower block building safety in our English speaking practice.
After the fire, attention turned not only to the fire service, but also to central government. How was a disaster like this allowed to happen? Theresa May was Prime Minister at the time and people’s anger was initially directed to her, though clearly she wasn’t personally responsible.
Theresa May is not ‘a natural’ at speaking to ordinary people. Her first visit to Grenfell after the fire was carefully managed and she didn’t actually meet any of the residents.
So she seemed aloof – that’s ALOOF. Her response was seen as part of the problem, not something which made the situation better. I think that Theresa May is a good person, but her difficulty relating to ordinary people meant that she appeared out of touch, uncaring.
More seriously, it appeared that central government ministers had refused to hold meetings and had blocked change, after a similar fire in 2009 at a tower block called Lakanal House in Camberwell in London. In this fire, six people died.
And an enquiry made it clear that the building’s construction was part of the problem, but the UK government didn’t address the problem. Given the speed the Grenfell fire travelled up the side of the building, it was clear that again, the building itself was part of the problem.
Grenfell Tower was constructed in 1967 and contained 129 flats, to house up to 600 people. People tend to live in housing which reflects what they can afford. And housing in the UK generally, but more particularly in London is expensive. That’s whether you’re renting or you’re buying. So housing of this type, like Grenfell Tower is the least expensive option for people. Some people like it, but most people don’t live in a tower block because they want to.
So many of the residents of Grenfell Tower were people who didn’t have lots of money. And many of the Grenfell residents were immigrant families. You can imagine – if English is not your first language and you haven’t been in the country for many years – you don’t necessarily know well how things work. And these factors make it harder to ‘advocate’ for yourself.
That means ‘to argue your case or to have influence in a situation’ and this played a part in the Grenfell story. In the years before the fire, there was a history of Grenfell residents association calling for improvements to fire safety.
The ‘residents association’ means a group of people within Grenfell Tower, who came together to try and change things. A ‘resident’ RESIDENT just means someone who ‘resides’, who lives in a place – and an ‘association’ is a group of people with a similar interest who form an organisation.
The history between the residents and the council and the public organisations responsible for managing Grenfell, do not show local government in good light. An example? In 2013, two Grenfell Tower residents were posting messages online about their fire safety concerns. And they were threatened with legal action by the local council management organisation, if they didn’t stop posting. They’d go to court! The two women, Mariem Elgwahry and Nadia Choucair later lost their lives in the Grenfell fire.
The area around Grenfell Tower contains some of the most expensive houses in the UK but also has the biggest gap between rich and poor people. So the local government, the local council is well-funded – it has lots of money. And the local council is the organisation responsible for both fire safety inside buildings – and for the changes made to the outside of Grenfell Tower, which seemed to have affected fire safety.
If you’d like more understanding of the local government system in the UK, you could listen to last Thursday’s podcast – the one dated February 11th. If you haven’t heard it, don’t worry – it’s not just about local government – that might be boring!
The podcast actually describes the system local government in a particular context and it’s something that may make you laugh and smile – I hope! The point about this local council – when the material was chosen to refurbish, to re-cover the outside of the Grenfell Tower building, the council chose to save money instead of going with material that was fire-safe.
The aftermath of the disaster continues still. Obviously, this is at a personal level for those people who lost family members and loved ones. The 72 deaths included 18 children. For those who survived, it was traumatic. They lost their homes – and the rehousing of the Grenfell survivors was also a long-running saga, told by the British press. Beyond those immediately and tragically affected, are all those people who continue to live in tower blocks, blocks of flats similar to Grenfell Tower.
The word ‘cladding’ CLADDING has never been so much used. It appears to be this ‘cladding’, this material which had been added to the outside of the building between 2015 and 16 ‘to improve its appearance’ and improve insulation.
This is what seems to have caused the rapid spread of the fire. Since the Grenfell Tower disaster, fire safety tests for cladding have been redone many times. I’ve seen examples of this on the news. Cladding material which was supposed to be fire safe actually burns very quickly indeed.
So the local council approved the cladding used on Grenfell Tower as ‘safe’. But it later was found that the material underneath the cladding in combination with the cladding material was not safety approved - it shouldn’t have been used. Saving money appears to have influenced the council’s decisions about which material to choose.
The difference in cost between fire-safe and non fire-safe cladding - £2 per square metre. Obviously over a large area, this mounts up – but it is believed that about 30% of that cost saving went into the pocket of the private building company doing the work anyway.
There are around 600 tower blocks in the UK, which have similar cladding to that at Grenfell. They’re either new builds, or buildings where the cladding has been added on. For people living in these 600 tower blocks, this is the sort of thing which plays on your mind as you try to go to sleep at night. There are also believed to be many buildings belonging to the NHS – our National Health Service, which are at risk because they have similar cladding.
Who will be responsible for changing these buildings, for removing the cladding and for making them safe? Who will pay for it – who will ‘foot the bill’ as we say? People living in these tower blocks cannot sell their flats – and it’s difficult to get a mortgage to buy one.
A ‘mortgage’, MORTGAGE is when you borrow money, usually a large amount to buy your home. And the residents themselves cannot afford to pay – so who will? Meanwhile the risk of another fire, perhaps somewhere else in the country continues to be there.
Is this a problem in your country? There have certainly been similar fires in France and in Dubai. It’s perhaps important to spread this message about fire safety. More and more people are living in flats and apartments these days. Perhaps we assume too readily that they‘re safe, when they may not be. Sorry to be so serious today, but it’s a serious issue.
If you like our podcasts, and you would more podcasts to listen to, to help improve your English, then go to our website at adeptenglish.com to find out how you can access even more English language learning podcasts like this one.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
- The great fire of London
- More English lessons
- The FT
- Inner London rent prices
- Cabin crazy/fever
- Thursday’s podcast on UK government
- Grenfell Tower fire
- Grenfell enquiry
- Video of a similar tower fire in France
- Last practice speaking English lesson
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