How can we prevent another Grenfell disaster?
Tessa Shepperson reflects on the factors contributing to the tragedy and the practices and attitudes that need to be changed to avoid it happening again
Where were you on the morning of 14 June 2017? I had a committee meeting in London that day and got up early to get my admin done. I then turned to the news and was transfixed by the horrific picture of a burning tower. It haunted me all that day and will probably haunt many of us for a very long time. It was the most terrible thing.
I, like many other people, am also angry. Angry that things had got to such a state that an estimated 80 people had to die in what was clearly a wholly avoidable disaster. Was it down to greed? Contractors raking it in while supplying sub-standard materials? Was it stupidity, with no one realising or understanding the effect of serial failures of safety measures? Or was it a lack of respect for “poor people”? The authorities disregarding the protests of worried residents forced to live in a death trap? We won’t know for some time.
In this article, I want to consider just three things – red tape, accountability, and outsourcing. These issues are important to consider – not just in the context of Grenfell, but also generally.
“Red tape” has been a bit of a bogeyman for years. Politicians proudly declare in their manifestos that they will be making a bonfire of red tape – because, “as we all know”, excessive regulation impedes progress and productivity. Donald Trump, when elected US president, announced that for every new regulation passed he would insist that two would be repealed, and he is not alone in this. It is generally accepted among many that red tape is bad.
But the question, flagged up so terribly by the Grenfell disaster, is “bad for whom?” Bad for business, yes. It is cheaper to manufacture goods if you don’t have to worry about all those pesky health and safety rules. But what about the consumer? Is it bad for them? As RH Tawney so rightly said, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”
With the Grenfell disaster, we have seen why we need red tape and what can happen if regulations fall short. It is to be hoped that long overdue amendments will now be carried out to our fire and building regulations as recommended in the past by judges and coroners after previous disasters.
Hopefully this negative attitude towards red tape will also end. We, the consumers, need its protection.
While the function of the Grenfell inquiry is not to apportion blame, it may consider individual responsibility for the tragedy. But I think I can see how it might go:
Architects: We recommended product X which is fire safe. We cannot be blamed if the council, against our advice, used product Y which is not.
Supplier: Yes, we know that product X is the best, but we also have product Y which is fully within the scope of the regulations but £X cheaper. It was only right that we drew this to council’s attention.
Council: We have a duty to reduce expenditure and be careful when spending tax payers’ money, particularly in view of government funding cuts. If a cheaper alternative is offered it is only right we give this serious consideration.
And so on. All understandable and justifiable views. The culmination of which is a terrible outcome but with none of the individual parties believing it was their fault.
Then there is the sheer number of different organisations involved. As well as the lead contractor, Rydon, there were, it seems, at least eight other contractors and subcontractors. Who was in overall control? Who had the responsibility for ensuring the safety of the block? It may be hard to say. It is fortunate that the judge leading the inquiry, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has expertise in contract law. He will need it if he is to find his way through the maze.
But hang on a minute, you may be saying. What about the inspections? We are told that the renovation works were inspected 16 times by Kensington and Chelsea Council. Shouldn’t this have flagged up any problems?
Well, apparently not. According to Barry Turner, director of technical policy at Local Authority Building Control: “What we need to know is what was inspected. You can go on site 16 times but not necessarily see everything you need to see. They may have inspected the fixings, the fire barrier, and the cavity, which are equally important but are useless if you put a flammable material on the front” (‘Grenfell Tower: 16 council inspections failed to stop use of flammable cladding’, Guardian, 21 June 2017).
He also commented that it is difficult to tell the difference between fire-resistant and non-fire-resistant panels once they are installed.
So, the value of inspections depends on what is inspected and when the inspection is carried out.
But generally, if there are a lot of parties involved in a project, there is a tendency for each to deal with just their own specific job, without considering the overall project. That is always someone else’s job. After all, they are just being paid to install widget Z, nothing more.
This can result, as in the Grenfell case, in the ludicrous situation where a building, described as being “designed according to rigorous fire safety standards”, and where building control officers had made regular visits “to ensure that all technical aspects of the work met the requisite regulations”, flared up like a tinder box, engulfing the entire building and killing at least 80 people after a relatively minor fire on the fourth floor.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, surveyors and buildings experts were employed by councils and the civil service as a matter of course. Working in the public sector, often at a lower salary than they would have got in the private sector, they believed in a proud tradition of public service and working for the public good.
However, over the years, these staff and services have gradually diminished until few are left. How has this affected our public services?
Dr Richard Simmons, former chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, writes: “Another vital question must be how government gets advice about buildings. Since the privatisation of the [Building Research Establishment] 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” (‘After Grenfell Tower, councils and experts need to take back control of housing’, Guardian, 16 June 2017).
Dr Simmons goes on to point out that it is difficult for people with insufficient expertise to “weigh complex technical advice and counter commercial lobbying with hard data”.
There seems to be a touching trust on the part of both the government and local authorities in the private sector. But this is often misplaced. Private sector companies are governed more by the need to make a profit for their shareholders than the public good espoused by advisers in public service. It is also not unknown for them to vary their advice to suit the perceived needs of their client, and there may be hidden conflicts of interest.
As well as this faith in the private sector, there also seems to be a general distrust of “experts” (look what happened with the Brexit vote) and a belief that untrained individuals can carry out tasks formerly done by experts, so long as they have “proper advice”.
The trouble is, if there are no longer any professional experts employed in house, there may be no one with sufficient knowledge to properly understand that advice and translate the inevitable technical terms into understandable language.
Which means that there must be decisions 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.
There is also the worrying fact that should there be any corruption involved, there will be no one qualified to spot the signs of this – signs which would be apparent to an expert employed by the council, whose loyalties are to the council and public service, but which would not readily be spotted by anyone else.
These three issues – the general negative attitude towards red tape, the splintering of accountability with a plethora of organisations and no clear chain of command, and the replacement of in-house experts with outsourced services – all paint a worrying picture. A picture which could look very like Grenfell Tower as it stands today.
Let us hope that this terrible tragedy will result in changed practices, which will help prevent anything like this happening again.
Tessa Shepperson is a lawyer specialising in landlord and tenant law and publishes the Landlord Law Blog