In the wake of such a disaster, one of our most important priorities is to establish how to prevent it happening again. To do that, we need to know why the fire happened. Treating this fire as an isolated incident, we would have a very hard time figuring out where to begin. There are many potential causes, and it’s difficult to pick out exactly which ones to focus on. Fortunately (or perhaps, unfortunately), we have numerous examples of similar fires from the past. What this means is that we can look into each case and search for a common theme running through them. A recent BBC article on the Grenfell fire provided us with this handy list:
First things first, let’s look at the Grenfell fire itself. One of the best signs of a correct theory is that it has predictive value, so a good way to start looking for explanations is to see if anyone saw this fire coming. As it happens, yes they did. A tragedy like this was warned against multiple times by a residents’ association known as the Grenfell Action Group (who we will refer to by the unfortunate acronym of GAG). As a GAG blogger posted in 2016:
“We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.”
“It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the KCTMO will be found out and brought to justice!”
From this, it looks like our primary suspect should be the KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation), in collusion with the RBKC (Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) local council. It is also somewhat damning to note that the RBKC threatened legal action against GAG campaigners in 2013, accusing them of “defamation” and “harassment”. Earlier, I mentioned how much simpler this all becomes when you stop looking at the fire as an isolated event, but in the context of the many similar fires in recent times. Returning to the BBC list points to an underlying problem:
2001 fire in Ramsgate, Kent – Council owned building
2009 fire in Lakanal House, Camberwell – Owned by Southwark Council
April 2010 fire in Shirley Towers, Southampton (no thanks to the BBC for this info) – Council owned building
July 2010 fire in Madingley block, Kingston upon Thames (props again to the BBC) – Council owned
2011 fire in Deptford, South London – Council owned
2012 fire in Swiss Cottage, Northwest London – Council owned
2016 fire in Brixton, South London – Privately owned (!)
2016 fire in Shepherd’s Bush, London – Council owned
2016 fire in Portsmouth – Council owned
It doesn’t take a genuis to see a link between council ownership and unacceptable safety standards. Digging deeper into our only example from a privately owned block reveals that, in hilariously slapstick fashion, the fire was caused by a man who decided to bring his motorbike up on his balcony and start having a barbeque next to it. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in the motorbike exploding. We can’t really attack the private landlord for this; it’s a bit much to blame profiteering for the detonation of what is effectively a large petrol bomb.
Badly Regulated Fat Cats?
Jeremy Corbyn and those close to him have been quite vocal in the aftermath of Grenfell, and many others have been blaming the fire on a lack of regulation. This argument is pretty weak. If bad regulation alone is really the problem, then why is it that negligence related fires only seem to happen in council owned buildings? Privately owned buildings aren’t magically immune to the effects of insufficient regulation. If regulation really was the culprit we would expect to see a similar rate of fires in privately owned tower blocks to government owned ones, but this is not what we see. If regulation is to blame, why is it that the private sector has been able to prevent its buildings burning in droves all these years, whilst local councils haven’t? Quite clearly, there is an underlying factor at work here which is related to these buildings being council owned.
The second argument that’s been bandied about is one which seems a lot more reasonable. It’s that years of Conservative cost cutting measures have resulted in councils simply not having the money to keep their buildings up to scratch. As such, this tragedy is exclusively the fault of the Tories and not Labour. This is a more convincing argument, as it explains why these fires only happen in council owned buildings and seems to be backed up by the BBC’s timeline. Note how our list shows three fires during 9 years of Labour government, compared to twice that during only 8 years of the Tories. However, some digging revealed two more tower block fires in the 2000s, on Labour’s watch. I will not resort to clichés about the biased BBC, but it is certainly very odd that they neglected to include these fires in their list, despite both of them being reported on the BBC’s own website. Including these shows both parties to be just as disastrously incompetent as each other:
2 dead and 70 evacuated after tower block fire in Hertfordshire, 2005 (6 tower block fires under the Tories, 4 under Labour)
60 firefighters tackle tower block blaze in Glasgow, 3 of which are hospitalized, 2008 (6 tower block fires under the Tories, 5 under Labour)
Admittedly, as the motorbike barbeque happened in an upmarket, privately owned block, we can’t really hold the government responsible. With this in mind, the count becomes 5 fires under the Tories and 5 under Labour. As such, it doesn’t seem correct to leave Labour off the hook here; both parties are equally guilty. There is still an argument about severity, though. The Grenfell fire was undoubtedly the most devasting of all those we’ve discussed so far. A recurring theme in the press coverage of Grenfell has been how low price cladding was used during a recent refurbishment, as opposed to a more expensive, fire retardant version. The purpose of such cladding is to reduce heat loss, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings so they can comply with various environmental regulations. The first point to note here is that our old friends the KCTMO were the ones responsible for the decision to use this cladding. The KCTMO’s board of directors demonstrates the strength of the link between it and the Tory dominated local council, with said council nominating 3 of the 15 members. However, with these nominees containing 1 Labour and 1 Tory councillor, we once again see both parties with their fingers firmly in the pie. It’s also worth noting that the incumbent Labour MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, sat on the KCTMO board for 4 years until 2012 (although she has wasted no time in attacking them for the fire).
So, was penny pinching by the KCTMO responsible for the fire? It doesn’t seem so. Though it is true that a cheaper option for cladding was used, the difference in cost between this and the fire retardant version was only £5,000. Given that the total cost of the refurbishment was a hefty £2.6 million, and that this was part of an even larger £8.6 million project, it seems like the blaze was more a result of bad decision making rather than backs-to-the-wall cost cutting. Factoring in the context of a combined salary of £760k a year for the top 4 KCTMO bureaucrats, we are hardly shown a climate of brutal austerity. One must remember that Kensington is the richest constituency in the country, with the highest property prices and by extension council tax receipts. It is very much not a council in crisis. Indeed, it has recently emerged that the building was in fact over insulated and already met the energy efficiency regulations. Far from resorting to cheap cladding in a desperate attempt to bring the building up to standards with poor funding, the building was having an excessive amount of cladding put on to “avoid having to repeat the job”. On top of this, there is an argument that all such cladding can cause a “chimney effect”, and that it is this effect responsible for the blaze rather than the cheapness of the cladding itself. This evidence points strongly to sheer incompetence as the cause, rather than underspending.
Reasons for Incompetence, and Potential Solutions
The discussion so far might point to the incompetence of local councils and their affiliated organisations, but it doesn’t explain why these groups are so supremely useless in a way that their private equivalents are not. In this section, I will give a few explanations and hint towards some solutions.
- The current incentive structure for government is messed up
One of the key ways in which government differs from the free market is what happens when things go wrong. Consider for a minute what would have happened if the Grenfell Tower had been privately owned and the legal system had been properly employed. If such a disaster had happened, we would already have seen images of the tower’s owner being led into the back of a police van, attempting to cover his face with a jacket. The lawsuits would be mounting up and, in an ideal world, the remainder of the owner’s estate would be getting auctioned off to compensate the victims. In fairness, some of this would happen to a private landlord in our present society, and that fact goes a way in explaining why these kinds of fires don’t seem to happen in private buildings.
When the Lakanal fire happened, the result was that the council got fined £570,000 for failure to comply with regulations. These fines were, of course, ultimately paid by the taxpayer. The actual bureaucrats responsible are always let off the hook; no one ever serves any time or bears any real personal responsibility. The most sickening part of all of this is that there will be widespread calls for local government to be given yet more funding to “prevent a reoccurence”. When you suffer a crime committed by someone in the private sector, that someone gets punished. When you suffer a crime committed by government, you yourself are punished. You are first punished by being forced to pay for a grandstanding inquiry, conducted by your assailants into themselves. You are punished again as the government levies fines against itself which you have to pay. You are punished a final time as your assailant seizes even more of your money for itself, under the guise of “preventing future incidents”. In short, an incentive structure that rewards failure with additional money is one which is beyond defective.
2. Lack of accountability
Linked to the previous point, it is extremely unlikely that the democratic checks in place will cause the responsible councillors to lose their positions, especially considering turnout in these elections is typically under 25%. The KCTMO itself is a hilariously corrupt organisation, receiving a North Korea-esque 98% of the ballot in favour of its continuation at the last AGM. The clearest piece of evidence of how far beyond the public’s reproach these people are is the previously mentioned salary paid to the board of directors; what accountable organisation could get away with such sums whilst its constitutency quite literally burns?
3. Lack of expertise
Given recent events, it is fair to say the members of the RBKC and KCTMO are not experts in the construction industry. One of the useful things about voluntary enterprise is that people who engage in it tend to be at least vaguely familiar with their field. This is not the case when you have a bunch of stuffy, middle-aged functionaries, many of whom have spent their entire lives living at the taxpayer’s expense, making far reaching decisions on topics they don’t have a clue about. Grenfell Tower’s overinsulation, and its disastrous results, are testament to this fact.
4. Land prices are an important factor
Kensington is known for having some of the highest housing prices in the country, and many properties in the constituency are left unoccupied by people who want to profit via “land-banking“. Kensington councillors benefit from these prices in a variety of ways, from increased council tax receipts to the personal benefit of their own properties increasing in value. If you’re wondering why the council was so obsessed with splashing millions of other peoples’ money on refurbishing the outside of the building, all whilst legally mandated sprinklers (which could have been installed for £200k) were absent from the inside, you could do worse than looking towards the ways in which councillors benefit from artificially inflated property prices. When you have a vested interest in keeping property prices high, large sums of public money at your disposal and bear no responsibility for the disastrous effects of not spending such money properly, it is not a surprise that millions will be channelled towards environment beautifying vanity projects as opposed to vital safety equipment.
The small morsel of consolation from all this is that the charred skeleton of the Grenfell Tower isn’t going to be doing local property prices any favours. It isn’t enough, though. There will be no true justice for the victims of this fire. The culprits will once again walk free, with maybe a financial slap on the wrist ultimately paid for by their own victims. This could have been avoided if we had a legal system which was capable of properly holding government to account. It could have been avoided if we had communities genuinely owned and governed by the members of those communities, not dicated to by corrupt and unaccountable TMOs imposed by central government. This could have been prevented if we took away the incentive for people to profit from land banking. Simply opening up social housing to market forces by replacing housing benefit with an unconditional UBI (see) would have helped. As it happens, we can do none of these things. In 10 years’ time, the inquiry will finish and the guilty will go unpunished, with nothing changed to stop other councils from making the same mistakes.