London Grenfell Inferno: Who’s to Blame?
The Grenfell Tower Block fire in London is a predictable consequence of policies that can be traced to Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as those of David Cameron and Theresa May, says former financial regulator Bill Black
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. As of Wednesday, 80 people have been presumed dead in the Grenfell Tower block fire in London and police say that the final number will not be clear until the end of the year. With this disaster still smoldering in the hearts of grieving families, activists, and policymakers, they’re asking who is to blame? Despite calls by some people not to politicize the Grenfell disaster, activist groups on the ground believe that this tragedy is indeed greatly political, as does our next guest, Bill Black. Bill Black believes that those to blame for the Grenfell fire victims include Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
Bill is an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He’s also a white collar criminologist and former financial regulator, and author of the book, “The Best Way To Rob A Bank Is To Own One.” Thanks for joining us, Bill.
BILL BLACK: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, let me first play two short clips for you which relate to the arguments that you were making regarding the neglect. The first is Pilgrim Tucker, a member of the Grenfell Action Group, and then the second clip is an activist by the name of Becka Hudson, and she’s with the Radical Housing Network of London, which is an alliance of grassroots housing campaign activists. Here we go.
PILGRIM TUCKER: When the tenants took action to physically prevent the contractors coming in and putting in this unsafe equipment into their buildings, they were threatened with legal action. People were picked out as troublemakers, nasty rumors were spread around them in order to discredit these really, really valid concerns that the tenants had here.
BECKA HUDSON: Nationally and locally, this government and many before it have subjected public housing to attack and deliberate neglect. Demolishing estates, leaving them in states of disrepair, evicting tenants, breaking up families, privatizing land, and carrying out shoddy building work which has now cost lives.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Bill, that last activist speaking, Becka Hudson, is saying that the disaster in Grenfell is a product of years of policy going back over many governments. Why do you see the governments of Tony Blair and even Margaret Thatcher as being responsible for this disaster?
BILL BLACK: Well, I said they were among those that are responsible for it. Margaret Thatcher, there’s no debate about this. Under her government, as a result of policies she strongly supported, they gutted key aspect of building safety, and that was that when you have an exterior of the building, it should be resistant to fire, and give the tenants at least an hour of survivability so that they can exit or so that the fire services can put the fire out and ensure that there won’t be a loss of life.
They got rid of that requirement, and that allowed directly the thing that caused the tragedy at Grenfell. We need to describe that, that’s basically the exterior that was added around the existing exterior. This is what in the clip they were talking about, the tenants knew this was unsafe, actually tried to prevent it. In jargon, it’s called “cladding,” as in the building is clad with this what seems like metal, and it includes some metal, but it’s very thin. Within it, it has insulating materials and those insulating materials are sold in two forms.
One is flammable, it burns. The other is nonflammable, it won’t burn. As you might expect, having flammable things in what’s supposed to be your protective barrier is a terrible idea. No one prudent would do it in the United States, for a building of this size. It would have been absolutely prohibited. It would have been prohibited under the rules prior to Thatcher, so her change was critical to that. But also, any responsible government would have banned this cladding, as is done in many countries if it’s flammable. And by the way, we’re talking about tiny price differentials. The estimate that it would have cost less than 5000 more pounds, period, total, to have the nonflammable cladding instead of the stuff that burns at this tower estate where the tragedy occurred.
For tiny amounts of money, this could have been done, and again, forget the regulators, this tells you that these councils, these quasi public private beasts have perverse incentives in the leadership and that they ignore the lives of their typically relatively poorer tenants. That too is a major problem. People knew about this. There have been prior fires in this kind of building, and this kind of building accentuated greatly the risk by not having a sprinkler system to suppress the fire, and having only one stairwell that people could escape or that firefighters could use in the event of a crisis.
You’ll see of course immediately there’s a problem. People can’t simultaneously escape if the firefighters are coming up with their heavy equipment as well, so it’s outrageous to have only one stairwell. It’s a combination of decisions that everybody knew were making these things into fire traps. There were warnings from the firefighters, there were warnings from the professional association that looks at these risks. Those warnings went to every one of the councils. This problem doesn’t exist only at Grenfell. It exists at most of these similar structures in England, and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
There were prior fires that had been analyzed where this cladding material burns the insulating material, it drips down, molten, very hot, can start secondary fires, but the cladding which is basically an enclosed area of metal also acts like a chimney, and it therefore allows the fire to spread rapidly. Again, pre-Thatcher, the whole idea was you wouldn’t let a fire spread, you wouldn’t let it invade through the exterior. You would give people time to get out, people time for the fire services to save them. All of that was eliminated with this kind of cladding and on top of that, when the insulation burns, it creates toxic smoke. It’s utterly outrageous.
Now, what is Tony Blair’s role in all of this? Tony Blair of course, A, and Gordon Brown, were the Labour Party prime ministers for many years after Thatcher and some major in between and such. They had over a decade to fix this. They not only didn’t fix this, Blair in 2005 gave his infamous speech on risk in which he mocked people for being risk averse. He mocked them for not being willing to be injured without getting compensation from the [tort feezers 00:09:04] who injured them. He called that a compensation culture, acted like people were being wussy and silly and American, type of thing.
He said that workers, remember, he ran the Labour Party, he said that laborers were unduly worried about having safe working conditions, and that it was critical for British industry to have less safe working conditions so that they could compete with places like Bangladesh, where factories might kill 1000 people because they were so negligently designed and operated. But in particular with regard to these kinds of major risk and crises, he said, “We just have to accept the fact that accidents happen and we have to stop when there is tragedy, thinking we should change things, and investigating them.” That was a terrible dynamic.
Now, the regulatory literature on safety at the time he was speaking and even more since is exactly the opposite. For example, if you are an employer and you go, “Oh well, injuries happen in a plant,” well you get lots of injuries. The thing that works, that everybody in the literature says this, is to have a zero tolerance policy as to workplace injuries, or where people sleep with their kids and families, right? You must approach it in that fashion and if you do, that allows you to dramatically reduce these kinds of injuries. Every life lost was totally preventable easily with known technology that cost barely anything more to put in place in many cases like the cladding. This was a decision for the equivalent of about 6000 US Dollars, that it was better to let people die.
SHARMINI PERIES: Bill, what do you say to those who would argue that the central government can hardly be held responsible for tragedies such as these which are after all, in the purview of local governments?
BILL BLACK: Okay, so local governments of course have responsibility as well, but they’ve been set up in a situation where everybody knows they have perverse incentives. Yes, of course, whether it was public or private, if somebody makes an unsafe building, it burns down, they have some culpability, but the reason we have building codes, safety codes, at the central level, is we know these kind of perverse incentives will be common, to save even as little as 5000 pounds if you’re cash strapped. Remember, this is in the context where the Tories have been deliberately cutting the number of firefighters.
We know that you’re going to create perverse budgetary incentives and that the default position of way too many people is, “If I can save 5000 pounds, I’ll save 5000 pounds. Hey, fires aren’t very common, unlikely anything will happen.” That’s why we don’t allow it at the central government level. That’s why places like the United States, even under very conservative Republicans, have banned this kind of flammable cladding.
SHARMINI PERIES: And what do we draw on in terms of lessons from this kind of a disaster? What kind of alert levels should the policy advocates be at in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening again?
BILL BLACK: This is something where we knew it was a major risk, we knew how to prevent that major risk, we knew how to prevent that major risk in a way that would have, of course, actually saved immense amounts of money, because different changes would have prevented this fire from destroying this structure as well. It’s cheaper, it’s more humane to do it right. We have to get away from this fixation from the new Democrats, new Labour, because we know the Tories will always have that fixation. What we need to do is to gut regulation. These safety regulations are there to keep people alive and they would have kept people alive if they hadn’t been gutted.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Bill. Good lesson to take away. Watch out for deregulation motives on the part of any party. Thank you so much.
BILL BLACK: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.