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Cladding dangers highlighted as Grenfell play comes to Birmingham Rep

Seventy two people died in the Grenfell fire in London in 2017, after flammable cladding installed on the tower block between 2015 and 2016 caused the fire to engulf the whole tower.

Thomas Wheatley in Value Engineering
Thomas Wheatley in Value Engineering

Despite the public outcry, 700,000 people in the UK are believed to still living in housing with dangerous cladding. In the West Midlands, 30,000 people are estimating to be living in these dangerous buildings.

Value Engineering is a new play at the Birmingham Rep trying to make people aware of the organisations complicit in this tragedy.

The production is a verbatim play about the Grenfell Inquiry, which started in November 2017 and is still ongoing. This means that everything that is said in the play was said in the inquiry and - excluding giving a victim a new name - nothing has been changed.

Journalist Richard Norton-Taylor 'edited' the play together by watching the inquiry, much of which was online because of the pandemic.

Mr Norton-Taylor said: "The more you learn about why this cladding was chosen, you realise it was a disaster waiting to happen. It was completely unavoidable.

"The legacy is still there and will continue for a long time - hundreds of tenants are still there in these flats."

Watching the play, it is clear that each party is keen to pass the blame to someone else, as Mr Norton-Taylor said: "One of the big things wrong with British society is the buck-passing and lack of responsibility - as well as the unconscious racism and classicism.

"Lead Counsel to the Inquiry, Richard Millett QC, told the inquiry not to indulge in a merry-go-round of buck passing, but there's been a tremendous amount."

Sarah Coates and Ron Cook in Value Engineering

The journalist has written nine plays, eight of which are inquiry plays in collaboration with director Nicolas Kent - including The Colour of Justice, about the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

He added: "I spent many years as journalist and after my first tribunal play I realised that theatre is almost an extension of journalism - it's a good platform for journalists.

"Putting bums on seats in theatres - it's a way of people learning about what the event was all about and helping them to understand their future and the significance of it."

Suresh Grover is director of the anti-racist organisation The Monitoring Group, and provided support to survivors of the fire.

Mr Grover said: "It wasn't a disaster, because disasters are natural. This was a decision. They were totally oblivious to fire safety regulations - people were conscious of it but didn't blink an eyelid.

"We're not living in the third world, we're living in the UK. It was painful to realise that poor people don't count.

Derek Elroy in Value Engineering

"And there's been a normalisation of this corruption which doesn't factor people's safety into account. It's deeply worrying.

"I want people to go to the play to see it and discuss it - you can sit in Birmingham and make a difference to the inquiry.

"I want the audience to become more responsible for decisions their politicians make - to become more active and concious. We're all complicit because we didn't shout loud enough.You can't say it won't happen in Birmingham, because it could."

Contractors of the Grenfell Tower had to cut costs of £800,000 to get the project approved - this involved swapping out fire-resistant zinc cladding for flammable aluminium composite material with a polyethylene core - which has the flammable potency of petrol.

The Birmingham Leaseholder Action Group, also known as BrumLAG, said: "In the West Midlands alone, an estimated 30,000 residents are caught up in the nightmare of feeling unsafe in their own homes and being left to bear the costs of regulatory and industry failures for which nobody has yet been held to account.

"Thousands of Birmingham residents are still living in unsafe buildings, facing enormous bills and the prospect of bankruptcy and homelessness.

"The impact on their mental health and wellbeing is severe, with affected leaseholders reporting high levels of anxiety and depression.

"We hope that Grenfell: Value Engineering will help to expose the great injustice at the heart of the building safety crisis and the need for urgent action to ensure that the tragic events of 14 June 2017 never happen again."

Value Engineering is on at the Birmingham Rep until Saturday November 20. It is a not-for-profit production, with a donation from each ticket going to BrumLAG.

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