THE London Grenfell Tower fire would not have been a big surprise had it happened in a Third World country. That it occurred in a first world capital is shocking. As such, British Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a full public inquiry into the fire that has killed at least 17 people, with that figure expected to rise.
No. 10 confirmed the public inquiry would be led by a judge who like in any case will expose the truth and apportion blame. The inquiry, at least in part, should indeed be conducted in public and televised for all to see. It should not drag on for years or months or cost millions of pounds. May said people deserve answers. They do and they have many questions: How did the fire start, why did it spread so quickly, why weren’t there fire alarms and sprinklers, did renovation of the 24-story building affect its safety, was official advice to stay put correct, and how will other buildings be affected?
The biggest question on everybody’s lips continues to be how could this happen in a city like London? As it turns out, it might not be that difficult. It has much to do with oversight around public housing. May’s government did not own or run Grenfell Tower. Instead, it is owned and managed by a tenant service organization (TSO), a nonprofit company run by professional managers and overseen by residents and local politicians.
The TSO in turn employs private companies to service and maintain the building, putting contracts out to tender in a process that encourages those companies to complete that work as cheaply as possible.
In other words, responsibility for keeping buildings such as Grenfell safe has moved further and further away from the state and thus from the politicians who answer to the people for the actions of that state. Putting management at arms’ length and the responsibility in the hands of the lowest bidder became popular but sometimes risky. Private companies may not have spent the money they should on Grenfell.
Labor, which saw surprise gains under Jeremy Corbyn in last week’s general election, would take private utility companies back into public ownership, and the state would provide services directly again. Under May, the Conservatives are also promising a more active role for the state after practicing a recent hands-off approach.
In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the public horror and the anger at the system of management and will have both parties touting the idea that big government is better.
Furthermore, one third of MPs in Westminster are in fact landlords. The majority of those, from the Tory Party, a year ago defeated a bill that would have had regulations keeping buildings and properties fit for human habitation. MPs, whether businessmen or trade unionists, used to come to serve, but the last few decades it’s more about getting rich and looking after oneself. In the old days, tenants elected council members who supervise buildings like Grenfell Tower, so they paid attention. Now that accountability is gone.
Residents had complained about the Grenfell’s safety for several years. A group’s blog post argued that only “a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord…” It was a chilling prediction that came true.
May’s government is facing growing questions about why ministers did not act on recommendations following an earlier fire in London which led to calls for sprinkler systems to be installed in residential blocks and for a full review of Britain’s fire regulations.
Charges should be brought against those held responsible for the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Fire can happen in the most advanced places but it feels wrong that one of this magnitude with such dire consequences is allowed to happen in a country like Britain.