In the middle of all the election coverage, one major news story got a lot less media attention than it should have. On 7 May a fire broke out on the eighth storey of New Providence Place, a tower block in London. It spread rapidly over three storeys trapping residents above it. Smoke, which is the biggest killer in most fires, spread over six storeys. It took 125 fire fighters to bring the blaze under control.
After the Grenfell Tower disaster in June 2017, we were told it must never happen again. Robert Jenrick used those exact words about Grenfell as recently as June 2020. The Grenfell fire was four years ago. Something very similar nearly happened again last week.
Cynical manipulation of weak regulations
In the four years since 72 people died horribly, some truly shocking things have been revealed. We have learned that manufacturers of cladding materials cheated on safety tests, lied to regulators, and celebrated how easy it was for faulty products to sail through checks.
We have learned that those who made and manufactured the products would only give evidence to a formal public enquiry if they were exempted from any risk of prosecution because they knew they had taken huge risks with people’s lives and cut corners in order to increase profits.
We have learned that local authorities had their powers to control the quality of what is built in the UK systematically and deliberately stripped away by a Conservative government, obsessed with the idea that safety regulations are just a bit of a nuisance. Few people like regulations, but when they are necessary but aren’t properly enforced, the consequences can be horrendous.
The risk of deregulation
Deregulation of the financial services industry led to a huge financial crash in 2008, followed by ten years of dreadful austerity. Now we have seen deregulation of the building industry caused not just the deaths at Grenfell Tower but also years of misery for hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who live in similarly dangerous homes.
The horrible consequences of living for four years in a home where you know that the building work has been done by lying, cheating developers installing faulty products can scarcely be exaggerated. In the 2008 financial crash the cost of the damage was inflicted on some of the poorest in society, as public finances were used to fix problems created by people who were making huge profits by gambling with other people’s futures.
Guilty parties got away scot free
The investment bankers never paid back the bonuses they received for selling packages of financial investments that they knew to be deeply dodgy. Instead, savings were made on teacher’s pay, hospital services, benefit payments and local government services. The guilty quickly got away scot free whilst the innocent paid long and hard for over ten years.
Exactly the same thing is now happening with the guilty people in the building industry. There is no sign that the companies who made money from consciously dodging fire safety checks are going to be made to pay serious compensation for the damage they have done. None of them have been charged with corporate manslaughter.
Instead they remain free to continue using their profits to make large donations to the Conservative party, which gains them opportunities to meet privately with ministers and persuade them to dump even more of the “pesky” regulations that keep people safe.
The ones who are left to pick up the bill are the residents of tower blocks, the local authorities and the private citizens who worked hard to buy their own homes. Or the taxpayer.
Cost and profit vs fire safety
One of the reasons why combustible aluminium cladding remained in place on New Providence Wharf was that it was estimated to cost £12m to correct the problems in that one block of flats. Arguments broke out over who would pay for what and when, so the combustible aluminium cladding on New Providence Wharf remained in place.
For many building developers, £12m is a relatively small share of their annual profits. For the people who owned their own homes in New Providence Wharf, it was an amount of cash that was life changing in its implications. Those who had taken out mortgages to buy their first home were left to sweat it out as those homes dropped in price, the cost of insuring them shot through the roof and their potential share of fixing the problem mounted beyond anything that an ordinary person could possibly expect to be able to afford.
It is hard to imagine the extent of worry people must have felt as they watched the bills mount up and the value of their property fall. It is even harder to imagine how the people who lived in those homes felt going to bed night after night, knowing that they and their families were living in a potential death trap. It is harder still to imagine how scared they must have been during the hours they had to wait trapped above the fire, knowing that the cladding on their front wall could still burn fiercely, but could have been made safe months ago.
The financial help that has after a long delay, been promised by Boris Johnson is not small. £5bn has already been allocated and that is widely thought to be too little. That money will not be coming from the pockets of those who sold and installed the faulty materials meeting the costs of the consequences. It will also not come from the Conservative government that agreed the irresponsible deregulation rules. Instead, it will come from taxpayers. Money will be wasted that could have been spent on a lot more useful things like schools and hospitals. Or on high quality public housing built to a safe standard. The wrong people are picking up the bill.
Building developers ‘marking their own homework’
Four years after the deaths at Grenfell Tower, Britain remains one of the few countries in the world in which it is possible for a building developer to hire their own regulator to check the quality of their work. Is it any wonder that regulators fail to stop shoddy work when they are paid by the people they are hired to ‘regulate’? In other countries, this job is done by independent local authorities who aren’t subject to the risk of losing their contract if they spot poor quality work and halt work on a site.
Instead of taking on the building developers who have left us with this costly legacy, the UK government continues to be subject to a wave of cosy lobbying by building developers asking for other important regulations to be scrapped such as the planning rules that protect the quality of our local environments.
There is a phrase that easily describes the behaviour of the cladding manufacturers who killed people by knowingly lying about fire safety tests. It is corporate manslaughter.
There is not as yet any phrase in existence to describe the behaviour of a government that lets them get away with it and continues to deregulate in the full knowledge of the damage it has caused. The only one that seems to fit the bill is political manslaughter.