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THERESA MAY’S promise yesterday that the government will fund replacement of dangerous cladding at 158 tower blocks has been forced out of her.
Relentless campaigning by survivors of last year’s deadly Grenfell Tower blaze and the families of those who perished has kept up pressure on a government that has sought at every stage to sweep this atrocity under the carpet.
It took a 150,000-strong petition and the prospect of a parliamentary debate to force the Prime Minister to reverse her earlier refusal to allow an independent panel to sit alongside the government-appointed judge who will preside over the Grenfell inquiry — and even now that merely consists of just two members sitting in on phase two of the inquiry only.
May’s reluctant concessions fall far short of the £1 billion fire safety fund called for by Labour which would both replace inflammatory cladding and retrofit sprinklers in high-rise council and housing association blocks.
Shadow housing secretary John Healey’s letter to his Tory counterpart James Brokenshire is right to demand a “complete overhaul” of a building safety checks and controls regime designed to minimise hassle for business rather than protect the public.
The David Cameron government vowed to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and tore up thousands of regulations.
Current Home Secretary Sajid Javid headed up the Cutting Red Tape initiative which bragged, six months before Grenfell, that fire safety inspections had been cut from six hours to just 45 minutes in duration to allow “managers to quickly get back to their day job.”
Among Labour’s proposals the requirement for full public disclosure of the location, testing status and — crucially — ownership of all high-rise blocks is key, especially when combined with “a presumption that private block owners are responsible for paying to replace dangerous cladding.”
Establishing legal and corporate responsibility for the predicted and preventable conflagration that killed 80 people in Grenfell Tower has involved navigating a labyrinth of outsourced services and third-party suppliers.
A crystal-clear presumption of responsibility devolving on the owner — private, municipal or otherwise — is essential to ensuring this is not the case in the future.
So too are “more robust sanctions” where buildings are found to be unsafe. Giving councils the right to confiscate privately owned tower blocks as Labour suggests would be positive and form part of the party’s wider approach to reviving local democracy, which has been hollowed out over years in which councils have become little more than distributors of ever more limited central government funding.
But clearer criminal sanctions for those whose carelessness or greed result in the deaths of human beings are also required.
Tottenham MP David Lammy was right last year to call out the “corporate manslaughter” at Grenfell, yet almost a year on the only people jailed have been a couple of minor fraudsters who sought to profit from the confusion and a man who shared inappropriate photographs — not one of the councillors or members of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation who were responsible for the tragedy in the first place.
Grenfell was no accident.
The Grenfell Action Group’s warning, seven months beforehand, that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord,” is applicable to hundreds of other towers — as the government’s funding for refitting them proves.
The fire was the consequence of years of Conservative policy aimed at eliminating social housing and cutting regulation of all kinds.
Whatever May might promise when backed into a corner, those policies have not altered. Justice for Grenfell means electing a Corbyn-led government prepared to face down business interests and deliver real change.
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