Sunday, 18 June 2017

"The laissez-faire, speculative attitude helps to create a shoddy culture in which the mindsets of estate agents take priority over the resourcing of local authority departments that are supposed to plan and regulate construction."

Patrick Cockburn in the Independent focusses on the damage the handling of the Grenfell disaster will wreak on this government:

Grenfell Tower is Theresa May’s Katrina moment – her political career cannot survive it

Natural and man-made disasters have frequently been the last nail in the coffin of governments that were already tottering

It is a dangerous moment for any government when the public suspects that it is incapable of preventing a great disaster like the Grenfell Tower fire. Angry people see the state as failing in its basic duty to keep them safe. Politicians in power, in such circumstances, are embarrassingly keen to show that there is a firm hand on the tiller, calmly coping with a crisis for which they are not to blame. Above all else, they need to dissuade people from imagining that a calamity is a symptom that something is rotten in the state of Britain...

It is already known that the cladding that encased the tower was inflammable and led to the building igniting like a torch within 15 minutes. It is likewise established that this material is banned in buildings of any height in the US because it poses a fire risk and that it was chosen in preference to fire-resistant cladding because it was cheaper. A sprinkler system, which would have suppressed the original blaze before it spread, was never installed because it would have cost a small amount of money. The Government is quoted, in words that it may come to regret, as saying that “it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire-sprinkling systems effectively”.

What I find so shocking and disgusting is the way in which the Government has deregulated the building industry with the excuse that it is “cutting red tape”, while at the same time it is strangling the weakest, poorest and most vulnerable people with “red tape” in order to deprive them of meagre benefits they receive from the state. Compare the enthusiasm of successive governments to increase regulations for claimants in the name of austerity with their laggard performance when it comes to protecting the public.

Everything about the disaster conveys a sense of total failure in which the whole political system is implicated.

Natural and man-made disasters have frequently been the last nail in the coffin of governments that were already tottering.

But commentators are probably right in seeing the closest parallel to the burning of the Grenfell Tower as being the devastating floods in New Orleans 12 years ago when Hurricane Katrina sent a 9m-high surge of water into the city on 29 August 2005 that led to the death of 1,464 people. The disaster had been repeatedly predicted by experts, but nothing effective was done so the levees and flood walls were too low or too weak or had been built out of clay that rapidly disintegrated under the impact of the rising water. The victims were mostly poor African Americans without the influence to get adequate flood defences.

As New Orleans was being engulfed, President George W Bush was on an extended holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he remained for several days. He finally flew back to Washington on 31 August, his plane making a detour over the stricken city. It was a picture of him looking distant and disengaged as he viewed the wreckage of New Orleans that destroyed his reputation forever.

It is curious that Theresa May should make much the same mistake as Bush by not meeting survivors in Kensington while appearing cold and uninterested. Even the photo editors have turned against her and mostly chose to contrast her chilly appearance with a cuddly looking Jeremy Corbyn comforting a victim. She appears to be somebody who cannot handle pressure, which makes it look particularly odd of her and her advisers to have sought to win re-election as the unshakeable national leader. Corbyn, on the contrary, seems to thrive on crisis and adversity.

Grenfell Tower is Theresa May’s Katrina moment – her political career cannot survive it | The Independent

In fact, others are seeing this as a 'Chernobyl moment':

This isn't an article about what a bad man Tony Rice is. It's an article about the systemic failures of unregulated capitalism when governments take a Laissez-Faire attitude to public safety.

FRIDAY, JUNE 16, 2017

The fact that Tony works for the homelessness and housing charity Shelter and runs a health and safety products company (Halma) suggest that he actually cares about issues like housing, poverty and public safety. Tony probably thinks of himself as an upstanding citizen who has devoted much of his valuable time to make the world a better safer place, and he's probably right. But on the other hand the private equity group Xerxes that he chairs is the sole shareholder in Omnis Exteriors, which is the company that manufactured the flammable cladding that was stuck all over the surface of the Grenfell tower block...


turricaneda day ago

Frankly, if even half what I'm reading is true, we could be looking at nothing less than "free-market" ideology's Chernobyl moment.

Tony Rice is not a bad man, but he's cashed in on a shockingly dysfunctional system

What is clear is that the promises of cutting all that Brussels red tape and creating an offshore tax-haven
Brexit is a once in a lifetime opportunity to sweep away red tape and free Britain's economy - Telegraph

... do not make sense:
LSE BREXIT – Brexit and free trade fallacies, part two: bonfire of EU red tape will not facilitate trade

... and might well back-fire:
Small businesses fear most red tape post Brexit

This is from a prescient piece in today's Malay Mail on the paralysis of the 'invisible hand':

EU overcomes the invisible hand’s paralysis

Sunday June 18, 2017
Andy West @andywest01

Life became a little cheaper for millions of European people on Thursday after mobile telephone companies were forced to scrap roaming charges for customers who use their phones within European Union (EU) territory.

The main significance of this development is that it was very much a political victory rather than a case of consumers benefitting from the supposed “invisible hand” of the marketplace.

That famous phrase, coined by the hugely influential 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith, claims that inefficiencies or inequalities within a free and open market will always be ironed out. If something is wrong with the system, according to the theory, it will quickly be put right by a producer who would benefit both himself and purchasers by providing a better deal. The idea that the market “looks after itself” has inspired generations of laissez-faire policies, with champions of the free market believing the chief task of government is to encourage open commerce by staying well out of the way.

The world of commerce often follows this path, meaning that products become better and cheaper for consumers as years go by. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t always work so cleanly because no market is truly free, open or efficient. In the case of telecoms, giant operators have colluded to manipulate prices ever since mobile phones became commonplace.

The European Commission has hailed the move as one of the institution’s greatest successes, stating: “The European Union is about bringing people together and making their lives easier. The end of roaming charges is a true European success story.”

I agree. Political organisations, such as the EU, are at their most meaningful when they are able to make a direct impact upon the lives of ordinary people.

It can often be difficult to see exactly how governmental rules and regulations are actually useful to normal people. With so much bureaucratic red tape, indecipherable jargon and petty nit-picking, it’s easy to become frustrated with political processes and believe they are a long way removed from real life on the streets.

But sometimes people need protecting from the interests of commerce. The invisible hand, because it can be paralysed by business interests, is not always free to intervene. The markets have to be regulated, and that can only come through legal means.

EU overcomes the invisible hand’s paralysis | Andy West | Opinion | Malay Mail Online

We can look to our Anglo-Saxon partners across the Pond for alternative inspiration.

However, whilst some in the States are hailing the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement as a success for the operation of the 'free market'
A Conservative Free Market Approach For Renegotiating The Paris Climate Agreement - Forbes
Futures Forum: Climate change: the future of the Paris Agreement

... others look to tax and spend experiments and question their value:
A free-market failure in the heartland | HuffPost
A warning to Washington from Kansas (opinion) - CNN.com
Kansas’ experiment with tax cutting failed on its own terms - Business Insider

And yet the type of insulation allowed in tower blocks in the UK is prohibited in ... the United States - as pointed out by the Guardian's architecture critic Rowan Moore:

The Grenfell tragedy exposes a tawdry culture that has held sway for too long
This terrible event has been allowed to happen by the government’s faith in a fatally dysfunctional market

Sunday 18 June 2017

In the aftermath of catastrophe, there are facts and there are symbols. There is the crucial information – who made what mistakes when and for what reasons – to be excavated by reporters, inquiries and criminal investigations. And there is the wider impact, the way a terrible event turns a general unease into anger and the certainty that things can’t go on as they are.

The Grenfell Tower fire makes vivid, in the most horrible way, the fact that nothing embodies more than housing the inequalities and incompetencies of the country Britain has become. There has been a rumble for years that the established, mostly market-led responses are not sufficient. That rumble is now a roar.

It is beyond obvious that atrocities such as this shouldn’t happen. We live in an age of building regulations and safety standards, of the testing and certifying of construction materials, of multiple specialist consultancies and subcontractors, of quality assurance and project managers, of health and safety allegedly gone mad, all in the name of eliminating risk. Yet the death toll of Grenfell Tower, if it is ever known, might make it the worst peacetime fire for very many decades, worse than the fires at Bradford City’s ground in 1985 and the Summerland leisure centre on the Isle of Man in 1973, beyond which you have to look back to the 1920s for anything comparable.

There are multiple factors. Part B of the building regulations states that “the external envelope of a building should not provide a medium for fire spread… The use of combustible materials in the cladding system and extensive cavities may present such a risk in tall buildings”. Any insulation product, it also says, “should be of limited combustibility”. Well, it combusted. The type of insulation, prohibited for use in comparable situations in Germany and the US, and similar to products that have caused serious fires in the UAE, China and Britain, is a prime suspect. It may also be that barriers that are supposed to stop the spread of flames up internal cavities were not properly installed...

In housing generally, there has been, ever since Margaret Thatcher’s administrations, a faith that the market, albeit one heavily distorted by negative planning restrictions, will provide homes of the numbers and types that people want. There has been a corresponding decline in the belief that local and national government can play a leading role, either by building homes directly or by actively planning where they might go.

It is a faith that has not been borne out by reality. Year after year, the number of homes built falls short of the numbers required, with the result that new British homes are among the smallest and most expensive in Europe. Spectacular gaps have opened up between haves and have-nots, older and younger generations, south and north, with consequences for the quality of people’s lives and the economic functioning of the country.

Reservoirs of wealth are built up from which little trickles down. Even a Conservative government was obliged to admit, in a white paper earlier this year, that the housing market is “broken”. A significant part of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal comes from his recognition of the frustration and anger that the state of housing causes younger voters.

Grenfell Tower happens to stand within easy walking distance of some of the most valuable residential property in the world. The proximity of different social groups is one of London’s strengths, but it does make very plain the extremes of housing. There are kitchen worktops in Kensington and Chelsea that cost more than an upgrade on the insulation specification of the tower.

The borough is famous for the phenomena bred when the idea of a home as an investment runs out of control – “ghost streets” and “lights-out London”, when properties are left empty most of the time, and “iceberg houses”, where high values per square foot motivate owners to multiply their homes with vast basements.

Housing at the lower end of the market is stretched, squeezed and just about managed. Until last week, the residents of Grenfell Tower might have counted themselves relatively lucky, in that they had the secure and affordable homes that are denied to very many. Their tower had even been upgraded. They didn’t know then that it had been done in an appallingly neglectful way...

There is an indirect and a direct link between Grenfell Tower and the approach to housing as a whole. Indirectly, the laissez-faire, speculative attitude helps to create a shoddy culture in which the mindsets of estate agents take priority over the resourcing of local authority departments that are supposed to plan and regulate construction. It’s also a culture in which, despite the profits of house price inflation, there isn’t enough money to do a good job of running social housing.

The direct connection is the matter of sprinklers, which would not have stopped the rush of flame up the outside of Grenfell Tower, but would have made it easier for residents to escape. In 2014, the then housing minister, Brandon Lewis, ruled against making them compulsory, using the textbook Thatcherite argument that “it is the responsibility of the fire industry to market sprinkler systems effectively”. He also said that “the cost of fitting sprinklers may affect housebuilding – something we want to encourage”.

This is what happens when you keep putting your faith in a dysfunctional market. Like Basil Fawlty flogging his car with a tree branch, you try ever more desperate efforts to make it work.

It was possible to guess that a disaster was coming, although it seemed more likely to happen – and may yet happen – in the hidden favelas that have sprung up in London, in illegal back-garden “beds in sheds” development or in overcrowded dosshouses.

Fires have a way of making the inexcusable unignorable. Historically, it has often taken a fire to change things: when London burned in 1666 (with, as far as is known, fewer deaths than Grenfell Tower), it led to the building acts that would shape the city in the ensuing centuries. Chicago in 1871 provoked the rise in steel-framed skyscrapers.

When Ronan Point, a tower block in east London, partly collapsed in 1968, it led to changes in the building regulations that have applied ever since. It did not in itself end the industrialised, high-rise approach to housing that had grown out of an alliance of big government and large contracting firms, but it crystallised a view that the system was failing. The greater and more lethal monstrosity of Grenfell Tower will change the British attitude to housing forever.

The Grenfell tragedy exposes a tawdry culture that has held sway for too long | Rowan Moore | Opinion | The Guardian

But how will local authorities cope with smaller budgets? 
Futures Forum: The assault on Local Government: The Strange Death of Municipal England

And with an entrenched ethos of crony capitalism and corporatism?
'Futures Forum: Crony capitalism and lemon socialism in East Devon........ The costs of "substantial growth and expanding business"
Futures Forum: Economic freedom and political equality at the local level >>> or, the triumph of corporatism

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