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Deregulation and austerity: public safety is still at risk post-Grenfell

The fire regulatory system is broken and requires a radical overhaul, says KAREN LEE

IN THE aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, the public expected urgent action from central government. While the public inquiry is now under way, it was initially vital that the government permanently rehomed those affected and addressed the immediate fire safety threat. 

Despite the Prime Minister claiming that “no stone would be left unturned,” the government’s approach to the public’s safety in the 15 months since Grenfell has been characterised by inaction.

A proactive government response to the public’s safety post-Grenfell would have urgently prioritised fire prevention and the fire service’s response capacity. As Jeremy Corbyn put it: “Every single one of those deaths could and should have been avoided.”

The Tories’ ideology of privatisation, austerity and deregulation has driven down standards and led to the prioritisation of private profit over public safety. 

A series of fire regulatory failures led to the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Sprinklers were not installed, fire doors failed, cavity barriers created a chimney-like effect and the cladding used was highly flammable. 

Deregulation of fire safety and cutting costs had allowed Grenfell Tower to be transformed, after its refurbishment, into a tinderbox. 
Countless inquiries, inquests and investigations have been ignored.

The Grenfell Tower fire was not the first time that fire regulations, notably cladding, had failed. 

As recently as 2009, deregulation of fire safety led to the Lakanal House fire and its recommendations were not heeded. 

Deregulation in the 1980s created a performance-based system.

Rather than prescriptive rule-making, the system outlines required outcomes, left open to industry to decide how they are met. 

Successive governments have scrapped regulations at the expense of public safety, with the coalition government lauding its reckless “one in, two out” red tape cutting policy. 

Former Tory fire minister Bob Neil alleged that regulations hurt business and the economy, therefore putting profits before people. 

Fire regulations have failed to hold industry accountable for their products.

Building regulations relating to cladding assert that “external walls of the building[s] [should] adequately resist the spread of fire.”

However, large-scale system tests and desktop studies allow for flammable cladding to be used despite this regulation.

The Fire Brigades Union, the Local Government Association, the housing, communities and local government select committee, and the Royal Institute of British Architecture have all raised concerns with testing methods which allow the use of flammable cladding and insulation.

The fire regulatory system is broken and requires a radical overhaul. Nevertheless, government inaction means regulations are identical 15 months after Grenfell.

The government commissioned the independent Hackett review and presented it as an opportunity for fire safety reform following Grenfell. 

In reality, Hackett’s recommendations offered no change to regulations. The review acknowledged that existing regulations have caused the industry to “race to the bottom” but did not ban flammable cladding or the methods enabling its use. 

It is important to note that the expert panel advising the Hackett review had members who had signed off the use of flammable cladding, such as the Building Research Establishment which delivers the testing that allows for installation of flammable cladding.

The Hackett review failed. The government then pushed the issue into another consultation on banning the use of flammable materials on external walls of high-rise residential buildings. 

While I welcome the consultation, I do not believe that residents across Britain living in residential buildings wrapped in the life-threatening cladding should have had to wait over a year after Grenfell for their safety to be consulted on. 

The urgent risk to public safety has not changed the government’s approach to cutting public services. 

While deregulation risks public safety, austerity has degraded the ability of the fire service to respond to emergencies.

Meanwhile, the Tories have continued to slash central government funding to fire and rescue services, despite the rise in fire fatalities and the Grenfell fire. 

The initial 30 per cent funding cut between 2010 and 2015 is expected to be followed by a further 20 per cent forecasted to be slashed by 2020.

Not only have the resources available to fire services been reduced, but there has also been a severe loss of front-line firefighters and support staff. 

Nearly 12,000 firefighters’ jobs across the UK have been cut since the Tories came to power. This equates to one in five jobs cut and has affected whole-time, retained and control firefighters.

The combination of the increased threat created by weak fire regulations and the reduced fire service capacity creates a ticking time bomb situation. 

As of August 16 2018, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has identified 466 buildings that still have Grenfell-like cladding installed. The threat to these buildings mirrors that of Grenfell.

The FBU’s research has found that, as a result of the threats to fire safety and the reduced fire service response capacity, the public faces a postcode lottery when they call the fire service to a tower block fire. 

Depending on the local area, the response capacity can range from eight fire appliances and one high-reach appliance to only three fire appliances. High-reach appliances are crucial when responding to fires like Grenfell, where the fire has spread to the exterior of a building. 

The FBU notes that, due to reduced resources, over 70 per cent of aerial appliances in England are not permanently crewed. 

The government must recognise that cuts have consequences. Its reckless lack of urgency has only prolonged the immediate threat to public safety. 

A fully resourced fire service, with nationally recognised standards, combined with a robust fire regulatory framework, would improve the safety of our communities. 

Another disaster like Grenfell should not need to happen for lessons to be learned. The time for warm words has long passed, now is the time for urgent action.

Karen Lee is shadow fire minister and MP for Lincoln. She is a supporter of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.

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