The Grenfell Tower fire is one of the worst housing incidents in this country in living memory – at least I can’t remember anything worse. For those concerned, it is just terrible. Our hearts go out to them.
There is also much anger.
Anger because this was a wholly unnecessary tragedy, caused by human error and mismanagement.
So who should bear the blame?
- Is it the Council, desperate to save money at any cost?
- Is it the suppliers of the material – someone there surely must have known it was unsuitable and dangerous?
- Or is it the government for failing to review the fire and building regulations after previous fires threw up these issues in the past?
I think it is a culmination of all of these. But I think the real problems are more fundamental and go back further.
Is it Austerity?
I have no doubt that austerity has a big, a very big, part to play in this. However one of the bigger problems, caused in part by austerity, is the gradual dismantling, over many years, of the expert staff and services in Councils.
I was very impressed by this letter in the Guardian from Dr Richard Simmons, Former chief executive, Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment:
Another vital question must be how government gets advice about buildings. Since the privatisation of the BRE in 1997, government has moved further away from employing construction experts in-house and relied more and more on industry advice. Few professionals remain in government departments. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the statutory adviser on architecture, was abolished in 2011 to save money. In 2015 the chief construction adviser was axed. Locally, the city architect is an endangered species.
Government should have access to ideas and innovation from outside its ranks, but problems arise when there is too little expertise inside the civil service: generalists cannot weigh complex technical advice and counter commercial lobbying with hard data.
The dangerous pretence
There seems to be a general tenancy nowadays, in all fields, for people to disrespect knowledge and experience and assume that people with no knowledge and no experience can – with advice – do as good a job as the experts.
It is also a fact that you can’t change things by wishing. Which means that
- If you have no experience whatsoever in government, you are probably not going to be a very good President
- If you do not have proper legal representation, you are going to find it very difficult to succeed at Court (even if you are in the right). And
- If you have no training in construction (not an easy subject) particularly if you are under enormous pressure to save money, there is a strong probability you will make wrong decisions when dealing with the maintenance and upgrade of an elderly tower block.
The trouble is – even if you get good advice from outside – a generalist staff member will not be able to understand it fully if there is no-one within the organisation with the technical knowledge to translate that advice (which will inevitably be couched in technical terms) into understandable language.
If you don’t know something, you can’t take it into account.
Meaning that decisions are being made, up and down the country, by Councillors and other politicians, without a proper understanding of the full facts – arguably an abrogation of their duty as an elected member.
Further, and worryingly, if there is corruption involved, no-one will be able to spot the signs of this, signs which would have been apparent to an expert employed by the Council and whose loyalties are to the Council and public service.
A public tragedy
It is a tragedy that so much experience and knowledge have been lost to our public services due to cuts and austerity.
In the past, many people worked in the public sector, often at a lower salary than they would have got in the private sector, because they believed in public service, as a vocation. Outsourcing and reducing things to generalism (‘lean working’) has undermined this, and our public services themselves.
This is surely an element which has led to this tragedy. Lesser qualified persons are incapable of recognising inherent (but inapparent) dangers.
I doubt whether any of the employees or members of the RBKC actually wanted a tower block in their borough to go up in flames with massive loss of life.
No doubt some on the Council had attitudes towards the working class poor in their area that others would find offensive. However, it is possible that all concerned genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing and making the right decisions – in the context of their personal knowledge and understanding and the situation within which they made those decisions.
They weren’t of course – otherwise, the tower block would not have gone up in flames.
This tragedy is partly down to Austerity and the squeeze on funding.
However, I think it is also an outcome of the general feeling – endemic in society today – that you can do things without proper training and expertise, and that it is acceptable for important public services to operate without expert input and proper staff training.
It is also the outcome of the destruction of the public service ethos caused by getting rid of expert public servants and replacing them with outsourcing to the private sector – who do not and cannot, care in the same way – and who may indeed adapt their advice to suit what they perceive their customer wants.
If this does not stop, this will not be the last scandal and tragedy facing us.
With thanks to Graeme Gee for his help with this article.