Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Grenfell tower fire

The Grenfell tower fire, with its still rising death toll, not to mention the injuries and homelessness it has caused, is one of the most shocking disasters in Britain for many years. It is a stark and tragic illustration of many of the themes I have written about on this blog and in my book. Although more precise details and explanations of what led to it will emerge in due course, it is already clear that these will include the nexus of organizational and political issues around de-regulation and sub-contracting.

As with many other disasters – from the flooding of houses due to the removal of planning restrictions right through the banking crisis that grew from financial deregulation – the roots go right back to the 1980s, in this case with the relaxation of building and fire regulations. Layered on this was the shift from local authority management of social housing to outsourced companies, itself layered upon numerous further sub-contracting. At each stage costs are cut to the bone and with each stage the chain of accountability becomes more and more elongated.

This situation, which would anyway be precarious, has been stretched to breaking point by the policy of austerity which has hit local government especially hard. In other words, it’s the coming together of two different but related things – de-regulation and austerity – each dangerous in themselves which multiplies the risks of disastrous events. We are not talking here about the inevitable and never fully avoidable issue of ‘human error’, but systemic issues of how we organize and fund the public realm in particular. Which is why those who have argued that the Grenfell tragedy should not be ‘politicised’ are, whether knowingly or not, missing the point. The way we organize and fund the public realm can’t be anything other than political.

As with other cases I have discussed on this blog, such as cuts to legal aid and in the prison system, all of this bears most heavily on the poor and the socially marginal, especially – as can be seen from what we already know about the Grenfell tower casualties – immigrants and asylum seekers. But the consequences are happening right across the piece. Sometimes these consequences are direct: roads fall into disrepair, libraries close, the court system clogs up or the armed forces can’t fulfil the basic requirement of protecting the nation. Other times the consequences are indirect: social care provision disappears creating ‘bed-blocking’ in hospitals. As for outsourcing, this has been at the heart of every case of failure public sector that I can recall for many years now.

The issue of building regulations and their enforcement also goes to the heart of the problems of the all-out assault on ‘bureaucracy’ that has characterised organization theory and practice in both the public and private sectors. The former Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in 2012 of his desire to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” is typical, but very similar sentiments have been expressed by many politicians and journalists for many years.

Bureaucracy is important both as a preventative measure but also in the way that we respond to disasters, as I have discussed on this blog before. This has also emerged from Grenfell. Whilst it is generally recognized that the emergency services did a fantastic job in dealing with the immediate crisis of the fire, the follow up in terms of looking after those made homeless (both from the tower itself, but also from surrounding buildings that have been evacuated) has been weak. In large part, local residents and volunteers have had to fend for themselves without much official support or coordination. It’s exactly at times of crisis that much maligned ‘command and control’ organization is most needed.

The shock of Grenfell comes from the fact that it is, mercifully, highly unusual (although it is by no means the first tower fire in London, even if it is the worst), but that should not disguise the way that it is an extreme consequence of a much wider set of longstanding problems – organizational, economic, social. The now blackened and hideous hulk of the tower is a symbol of these and, it can only be hoped, will be a catalyst to begin to address them. At the very, very least, I hope that we no longer hear the lazy cliché, much beloved by journalists, bemoaning ‘health and safety gone mad’. Grenfell is the very harshest and most heart breaking of reminders that red tape saves lives.

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