The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) blames an “ideology of deregulation” as blighting efforts to improve the living conditions of millions, with central government failing to provide the resources necessary to manage risk.
An FBU report due to be distributed at the Labour conference lays blame for the Grenfell disaster on austerity and privatisation by consecutive governments fostering a “deep-seated culture of complacency” over fire safety.
To the FBU, ministers promoted a fire safety regime that was not fit for purpose and failed tragically.
The delayed second phase of the Grenfell inquiry is now due to be underway by January, with an emphasis on how Grenfell Tower was allowed to become such a risk to residents.
As yet, no former housing ministers have been called to face the inquiry.
The report says: “Those who made the pivotal decisions at Westminster need to be held to account and fundamental change is needed in the regimes covering fire safety, fire policy, housing, and the fire and rescue service – nothing less will deliver justice for Grenfell.”
With deregulation driving the political ideology of central government, the FBU sees the direct lobbying of private business interests wresting risk management away from those who practise fire safety as their profession, with this expertise mostly substituted with management consultants, industry lobbyists, and chief fire officers.
Where these agents have operated within a political climate that has emphasised the need for reducing regulation, the FBU believes this is relevant because, for half a century, central government had an authoritative, statutory fire and rescue advisory stakeholder body that strategically assessed the risks and provided ministers with “irreplaceable expertise”.
As such, the union believes the absence of such a body contributed to the Grenfell disaster, with the report saying an ideology of deregulation has blighted efforts to improve the living conditions, with central government failing to provide the resources necessary to manage risk.
The report specifically references privatisation of the Building Research Establishment (BRE), meaning contractors requiring tests are treated as “clients” with the compromised nature of this relationship highlighted by the BRE sponsorship of the cladding industry awards.
“For at least 40 years, policies relating to housing, local government, the fire and rescue service, research, and other areas have been driven by the agenda of cuts, deregulation, and privatisation,” said Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary.
“A deep-seated culture of complacency has developed regarding fire policy and fire safety, and central government bears ultimate responsibility.”
Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad said that by decimating building regulations, governments past and present created the circumstances where “an atrocity like Grenfell” was inevitable.
She said: “However, this lets no one off the hook at [Kensington and Chelsea council or Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation].
“If they had listened to tenants’ warnings, and dealt with the safety concerns raised, more people could have been saved.”
The FBU report lists a series of policies and decisions made under numerous governments over the past 40 years that contributed to the deregulation of fire safety.
These included the Blair government’s abolition of national standards for fire and rescue services in 2004 and the Thatcher administration’s decision to cut building regulations from more than 300 pages to just 25.
Other policies and decisions of fire safety deregulation noted in the report include:
- The decision by Edward Heath’s government to remove a requirement for blocks of flats to have mandatory fire certification from the final Fire Precautions Bill 1970, due to the “very considerable expenditure” involved
- A review from the Thatcher government which called for an overhaul of fire policy due to the “significant financial burden” of the legislation
- The Heath government’s failure to follow a recommendation that only those with “operational firefighting experience” be responsible for enforcing fire safety, paving the way for privatisation of the fire safety regime
- The Major government’s privatisation of the Building Research Establishment, opening a conflict of interest between its role providing advice to ministers and its commercial role in testing materials for construction firms
- David Cameron’s ‘one in, two out’ policy on new regulations slashed regulations further
- The coalition government’s cutting of fire budgets by around 28% in real terms
- Failure to follow warnings from previous fires that raised risks seen at Grenfell, including the Harrow Court fire in 2005, the Lakanal House fire in 2009, and the Shirley Towers fire in 2010
The report does reference the Westminster government’s most recent initiatives to revive the fire inspectorate and ask the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) to examine professional standards.
But if the former is “long overdue”, the latter is seen as leaving those who have presided over recent mistakes in charge of rectifying them – while continuing to exclude the FBU.
The report brands as “senseless” the absence of a central fire stakeholder body involving the FBU and the failure to consult the union at all levels.
Where London Fire Brigade (LFB) bore some responsibility for risk assessments, familiarisation visits, and standard operating procedures with regard to high-rise residential building safety, the report says LFB principal managers did not have a strategy for a situation like Grenfell where compartmentation completely failed with multiple rescues – far beyond simple evacuation – necessary.
The split of building control between council and private approved inspectors is also deemed detrimental to public safety, with private providers accused of finding routes to “compliance” that breach the precautionary principle.
Running down council building control and putting its officers under intense competition from private inspectors has damaged the system of control for high-rise residential buildings, the report says.
Funding cuts have also seen at least a quarter of fire service safety inspectors lost, along with the number of inspections and the time spent on them.
The report says this contributes to the culture of non-compliance with fire, with weaker enforcement bodies meaning some firms and other actors get away with unsafe practices.