A Disaster Made in Whitehall

This week, this blog is slightly different.  Following the horrific fire at Grenfell tower in London, I wrote an article for the New European Newspaper.  You can obtain a copy of the newspaper at most newsagents but I thought it would be worthwhile publishing it on this site as well.

It would not be an understatement to sat that I am angry about the Grenfell tower disaster.  As each day passes and more information about the cause of the fire is released, I become increasingly apoplectic.

The causes of my anger are two-fold; that safety regulations appear to have been breached on an industrial scale; and that the system of local government regulatory enforcement seems to have broken down completely.

I have worked in the field of public protection for twenty-five years.  In that time I have only seen cuts to staffing and budgets.  The austerity measures introduced by David Cameron only accelerated the process of resource decline.

In my view, the disaster at Grenfell tower was a disaster waiting to happen and austerity cuts imposed on the local authority played a significant role in its inception.

Much attention in news reports has been given to the exterior cladding fitted to tower blocks and it is increasingly apparent that incorrect construction products were used.  The cladding fitted to Grenfell tower was Reynobond PE which is manufactured in France by an American firm, Arconic.

Arconic’s brochure for their range of exterior cladding is informative.  There are three types of cladding in the Reynobond range; PE, FR and A2.

The brochure states: “As soon as the building is higher than the firefighter’s ladders, it must be conceived of an incombustible material”.

A diagram shows that Reynobond PE should not be used on buildings at a height greater than 10 metres.  Where the building is greater than 30 metres in height, Reynobond A2, which has an incombustible mineral core, should be used. (Grenfell tower is 62 metres high)

Reports regarding the evacuated Camden tower blocks are also worrying.  There are reports that up to 1000 fire doors were missing; that gas pipes had been incorrectly installed; that walls had been removed compromising fire containment; and that highly flammable insulation materials were used.

These reports point not only to shoddy building practices but failures in the enforcement regime intended to protect the residents and the wider public.

John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, is wrong in law to state that the deaths at Grenfell tower are, “murder by political decisions”; murder requires malice aforethought. But his sentiments ring true.

The decisions of successive governments to reduce the resources available to local government enforcers has had a direct impact on their ability to enforce complex legislation.  This reduction in resources has no doubt played a direct role in the unlawful killing of more than 79 individuals.

There are three council services which are closely involved with the construction industry; planning, building control and trading standards.  Planning approves the development.  Building control enforces the building regulations and ensures construction standards are met.  Trading standards enforces the Construction Products Regulations 2013.  My personal experience lies with the third of these functions.

I began my career in the product safety team of a large local authority.  I had significant resources at my disposal.  I had full access to legal texts, case precedent and product safety standards.  I had a small laboratory to carry out screening tests.  I also worked closely with the local public analyst who was part of the same council department.  The biggest resource was the scale of the trading standards team.  It was large enough to allow officers to develop specialist knowledge of particular enforcement functions.

Shortly after I joined the team, the first set of EU-wide construction product regulations came into law.  One of my colleagues was immediately tasked with their enforcement.  His sole role was to develop links to the building components industry and to ensure that products complied.

In today’s local authority environment, such specialist roles are extremely rare.  Officers are expected to be Jack of all trades.  Increasingly they are masters of none.  Take the example of my last local authority role.

I was the senior officer in a team of six.  Officers had to enforce the full gamut of trading standards law.  To show the scale of that task, trading standards professionals enforce over seventy acts of parliament and approximately 2000 statutory instruments.  Often officers were seconded to other enforcement functions such as fly tipping and taxi licensing.

My team had an annual product safety budget of £5000.  That would cover the cost of four heavy metal content tests of toys.  There was no capacity to test complex products such as those controlled by the Construction Products Regulations.

I was made redundant from my supervisory role in 2010.  Since that time the reduction in trading standards provision has accelerated. Of the six officers in my team, only one is still in employment.

London Boroughs have had to bear an even heavier burden of cuts.  The cost of living in the capital has made it all but impossible for them to recruit experienced and fully qualified enforcement staff.  I know of one council close to London where staff are commuting 160 miles per day as they cannot afford to live within the council’s boundaries.  Increasingly London is reliant on freelance inspectors on short-term contracts.  The rate of pay for these officers has fallen by approximately two-thirds in the last five years.

There is also an extremely worrying attitude in government towards regulatory enforcement.  On five occasions I have written to government ministers imploring them to use their considerable oversight powers to ensure that local authorities are allocating sufficient resources to enforcement services.  Every time the response from government has been to rebuff my pleas and to absolve themselves from responsibility.  They respond that resource allocation is solely a matter for individual local authorities.

Then there are the comments to the Brexit select committee of Jacob Rees Mogg.  He said that following Brexit, health and safety legislation could, “be rolled back a long way”.  He went further and proposed that the UK should consider safety standards similar to those of India.  He was following the mantra of many in tory ranks that public safety is a price worth paying for economic gain.  I wonder if Mr Rees Mogg is willing to repeat his opinion following the Grenfell tower disaster.

Safety laws and standards are not created out of thin air.  Each and every one of them is a response to actual events: deaths, scandals and disasters.  The first duty of the government is the safety of the public.  The decimation of local government provision is a clear breach of that duty.