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Fire safety and the free market

THE Grenfell Tower inferno five months ago tomorrow shocked the whole country. Scores of poor people could burn to death because of the greed and indifference of institutions responsible for keeping them safe.

The Establishment tried all the usual tricks it employs at moments of national tragedy to stop people asking awkward questions: any attempt to investigate why the atrocity had taken place was somehow to disrespect the dead, to “politicise” people’s grief.
But the usual tricks didn’t work.

A few weeks earlier after the horror of the Manchester Arena bombing, Jeremy Corbyn had broken with tradition by pointing to the links between terrorist attacks at home and Britain’s involvement in destabilisation and war abroad, and found millions were in agreement with him: fed up to the back teeth of pious hypocrisies uttered by the political class, people were determined to isolate the causes of terrorism so as to stop it.

After Grenfell it was not a political leader but the community itself that insisted on drawing out the lessons of the disaster. For days the appalling truth kept coming — that residents had repeatedly warned that the tower block was unsafe but been ignored, that the building had been insulated with a highly inflammable form of cladding because the fire-resistant version was slightly more expensive, that the families who lived there in social rented accommodation were seen as an inconvenience and an embarrassment by the Tory-dominated authority of Britain’s richest borough.

There was a powerful feeling of “never again,” and more than one commentator spoke of Grenfell as a monument to Tory Britain, a symbol of everything rotten about the system.

This is why we cannot afford to ignore the London Fire Brigade’s call today for regulations to ensure all our buildings are safe — which, as the firebrand MP for Derby North Chris Williamson notes, means turning our backs on years of deregulation and cuts by governments of both Britain’s major parties.

Cuts are directly related to deteriorating fire safety: last month the Fire Brigades Union revealed that the number of fire safety inspectors has dropped by 28 per cent since 2010, while inspections are down by a fifth in that period.

Similarly, a laissez-faire attitude to construction has created loopholes that allow unsafe buildings to be built.

Yet the apostles of Thatcherism are still demanding a bonfire of safety regulations, echoing David Cameron’s infamous call to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.”

George Osborne’s Evening Standard never stops prodding the government to claw its way out of its existential crisis with a new crusade of the free marketeers, not least on housing, where it has blamed the shortage of affordable homes on “socialist planning laws” and recommends an unregulated free-for-all to “let more homes be built” — a recipe for slums and shanty towns to house the working poor, and, yes, a recipe for more Grenfell Towers.

As May’s administration lurches from cock-up to catastrophe, it is all too easy for Labour to restrict itself to mocking Tory incompetence and presenting itself as a “safe pair of hands” that will restore order and coherence to government.

But doing so would be a betrayal of the mass movement for change that is rallying around the party and wants a Corbyn government to end decades of neoliberal economics and drive through a fundamental shift in the balance of power in favour of ordinary people and against big business and the banks.

Fire safety means better planning, tougher regulation and more public investment. The dead hand of the market has failed. The challenges of the modern world require collective and planned solutions.


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