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Four years on from Grenfell and the deregulation that caused it still hasn’t been addressed

It was political decisions in the name of profit that lay behind the tragic 2017 fire that killed 72 people, writes Fire Brigades Union leader MATT WRACK

IT HAS been four years since the fire at Grenfell Tower claimed 72 lives. 

This was the worst loss of life in a domestic fire in recent British history. 

Accounts from the night are both horrifying and moving — it is still shocking to read the experiences of residents that fateful night, and we remain proud of the heroic measures firefighters took to try to save lives. 

Yet, four years on, we are still so far away from seeing the changes that need to be made to ensure that something like this can never happen again. 

But it should come as no surprise that this is the case. The scale of the fire was not some act of God or the convergence of a series of random and unfortunate freak accidents. 

There were warning signs from other fires in Britain and elsewhere in the world. 

A humane and rational system would have researched those threats and identified ways of removing or mitigating them. 

The truth is that those at the highest level of decision-making chose to ignore the warning signs — and created systems which allowed them to be ignored. 

Those of us who worked in the fire service at the turn of the century will well remember the senior civil servants, the ministers and the chief fire officers telling us consistently that fire — and especially fire in domestic premises — was a declining risk.   

That narrative was used to justify a programme of deregulation which is the reality behind the horror of Grenfell. 

This approach undermined every aspect of building safety. It led to the ending of serious public funding for research into building safety, the privatisation of the testing regime, the undermining and privatisation of local authority building control; regulations which allowed developer to avoid real safety testing of their products; the huge reductions in fire safety teams in the fire and rescue service; the demand for ministers for a “business-friendly” approach to inspection and enforcement. And these factors caused the failure of building safety at Grenfell. 

It is sickening that developers were able to wrap a building in flammable cladding but, in fact, that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Grenfell’s safety failings, which were extensive. 

Fire doors failed, the firefighters’ lift did not work, the smoke extraction system did not work, windows and doors failed. 

We now know that virtually every aspect of building safety failed, placing residents and firefighters in an impossible and deadly position on June 14 2017. 

Deregulation can be seen across all areas of policy relevant to these building safety failings: research and testing of construction materials, risk assessment, inspection, enforcement, the setting of standards and decision-making. 

In other words, almost everything that was experienced by residents and firefighters on June 14 2017 — from flames skyrocketing up the side of their building, to being forced to escape through narrow, smoke filled corridors — will have some root in deregulation. 

Deregulation is an approach rooted in the idea that there is a need to “reduce the burden” on business. 

When we cut through this, it is about one thing and one thing only: profit. 

Housing developers, construction firms, and building product manufacturers all exist for one purpose; to make and maximise profit for their owners and shareholders. 

Anything which increases costs may reduce profit, and it doesn’t matter whether such costs arise from unionised workers who want decent wages or from regulations which require safe building materials — so-called “burdens” should be removed. 

It is this drive to reduce business costs and to boost profits which lies behind the deregulation approach of the past four decades.  

From Thatcher’s “supply-side” drive, to New Labour’s Third Way, to David Cameron’s “red tape challenge” — deregulation has been with us throughout that period, despite changes in government. The label changes, but the content remains the same. 

That fire safety was ever included in this long march of deregulation should therefore come as no surprise. 

Governments have even explicitly laid this case out, with Thatcher and Major’s governments both consulting on reducing fire protection on the grounds of “burdens of business,” and in 2011 minister Bob Neill praised the Fire Safety Order, with a description of it as “well received by many in the business community.”

In the Fire Brigades Union, we warned about the risks. We warned against the various steps taken to deregulate building safety. 

We warned about the abolition of standards within our own service and the resulting fragmentation.  

After a fire in 1999, we warned explicitly about the risk from external cladding systems. 

We warned about cuts to our own service and about the privatisation of building control. 

The decisions to ignore us and others who gave warning, and to plough on  with deregulation, were political decisions. 

So Grenfell has always been a political issue. As, of course, is the deregulation that caused it. 

Political issues require political solutions. To find a way forward in the interests of workers we need an alliance of trade union, tenants and residents and community campaigners. 

The call for “decent, safe homes for all” should not be seen as unreasonable in one of the richest countries in the world. 

But to achieve it will require a mass movement for fundamental change.

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