THE primary function of the state is to protect the citizenry. There are arguments that during the current crisis it has been over-protective to the extent of damaging lives and livelihoods. However today I am writing about some under-protection.
Part of the way the state protects the citizenry is through health and safety legislation. A whole raft of insidious bureaucracy exists to protect people from themselves. Some of it is well-meaning. A lot of it is paranoid, based on fantasy risk assessments that hit the headlines from time to time because of their ridiculousness. Nevertheless there is a reason for all this.
From the mid-1980s until the early 1990s, there was a rash of disasters that in total killed hundreds of people, including crushes and fires at football grounds, rail crashes, a blaze at an Underground station, an explosion on an oil rig and a capsized cross-Channel ferry. Schoolchildren drowned on a coastal canoeing trip with their teachers. We also had major food poisoning scares including a horrific disease that seemed to migrate from cattle to humans through the food chain. It seemed as though the safety culture prompted by disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic and the fall of the Tay Bridge had somehow collapsed.
It had not. What seems to have happened is that existing infrastructure and safety processes which had previously prevented disaster were not sufficiently reviewed and diligently maintained after being established. A mass of inflammable litter built up over decades under a wooden stand at a football ground and under wooden escalators at an underground station. More efficient transport links meant a greater density of crowd arrived much faster at another football ground which was not built or modified to cope with the rush. The spread of disease in animals was not checked. A ferry had to run to a tight schedule and safety procedures were missed for commercial reasons. An activity manager was negligent.
All these disasters and more prompted what amounted to a cultural revolution in this country where risk assessments for numerous aspects of daily life became the norm. ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety’ became the new catch-all reason to curb some activities that met with tenuous official disapproval.
That the Grenfell Tower disaster is the biggest health and safety failure of the past two decades seems beyond reasonable doubt, although this is not how it is reported. Residential tower blocks are not the prettiest of buildings and that seems especially so if they were constructed at the behest of local authorities. Grenfell Tower was refurbished using materials which are hazardous in a fire. That this was done despite all of the risk assessments and employment of enthusiastic health and safety officers up and down the land, as well as the imposition of legislation that restricts previously lawful activities, is an indictment on the entire culture. The zeal with which health and safety officers apply themselves to interfere in people’s activities was absent here.
The inquiry into the disaster has promised immunity from criminal prosecution to witnesses associated in the refurbishment of the tower so it may get at the truth. But there is a wider impact which is not receiving proper attention.
Grenfell was not the only building clad in these dangerous materials. Other residential blocks now have 24-hour fire marshals patrolling as the alarm systems appear to be recognised as insufficient, and no fire brigade can get to a fire before there is loss of life. The fire marshals are in the buildings as a result of a health and safety assessment of a kind which does not seem to have been done on the materials that clad the buildings they patrol. This is an indictment on the whole health and safety culture that has pervaded this country for the past three decades. How did these safety commissars miss this? There are no good answers, and the bad answers suggest certain practices we do not normally associate with state officials in this country.
The biggest scandal is that the liability to remedy the provable incompetence of health and safety officials is falling on the residents of the affected buildings. They are to be required to pay for replacement cladding, and in the meantime their dwellings have zero value on the property market. This is not what Margaret Thatcher wanted to happen in a property-owning democracy. It seems quite clear that liability should instead fall on a building industry that is able to make massive profits from the perpetual housing shortage.
State officials and inspectors failed the people by not protecting them from the installation of hazardous materials on their dwellings by the building industry. This is failure of officials, not politicians, who had to rely on official technical advice. This is also a failure of the private sector, and the private sector should remedy this. No resident should have to pay a penny to make their properties safe, and the residential building industry should also have to pay before the taxpayer gets involved.
A failure of the private sector in this case to make good on a disaster of its own creation will only encourage enemies of the free market. Perhaps market forces have nothing to do with honourable action, but there seems a clear liability here on the behalf of builders and regulators and it is they who should make good before homeowners.