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In discussing this week’s Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, the British politician David Lammy has resorted to coruscating language. The inferno, he says, was a case of “corporate manslaughter.” Although he has not been specific about who he is accusing, several entities evidently have a lot of explaining to do.
This includes most obviously the borough council of Kensington and Chelsea, owner of the doomed building, which provided public housing for an estimated 600 people. Also at the center of the storm is Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), an independent firm that was deputed by the council to take over day-to-day management of the building in the 1990s. Then there is Rydon Construction, which KCTMO called in a few years ago to oversee major renovations.
It will probably be months before we get a full sense of how the blame should be allocated. But in the meantime one immediate political casualty will be the entire concept of deregulation. Indeed the disaster may prove nothing short of a watershed in the history of deregulation. Certainly the implications are likely to go far beyond merely tightening fire safety laws.
The Grenfell Tower was erected in 1974, before the fashion for deregulation won widespread acceptance in the UK. As several British commentators have pointed out, all the evidence is that had the building been run and maintained in the way that was originally intended (with borough council officials maintaining a hands-on approach), the disaster would probably never have happened. And what a disaster it has been. As officially calculated, the death toll was raised to seventeen on Thursday but officials added suggested the final total may reach three digits.
On grounds of scale alone therefore the inferno is likely to be long remembered. Beyond its scale, however, the disaster may prove highly consequential for its timing. It comes just as disenchantment with deregulation seems to be approaching critical mass among the Conservative Party’s public intellectuals. So-called Red Tories, who combine respect for order and tradition with a compassionate society, have been on the rise for a decade. The concept is said to have been pioneered by Benjamin Disraeli in the 1870s and both David Cameron, who led the Tories from 2005 to 2016, and his successor Theresa May are often considered to be sympathetic. The Red Tories’ twenty-first century resurgence can be traced at least as far back as the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which many Britons blame on excessive deregulation. More recently another aspect of deregulation that has come in for widespread denunciation has been so-called zero-hours contracts. Under such contracts, employers are not required to guarantee workers any minimum number of working hours. Many critics consider the concept to have gutted workers’ bargaining power. The concept’s unpopularity is considered to have been a significant factor propelling a rise in the Labor Party’s vote in the recent General Election.
The Grenfell disaster’s historic significance is not lessened by the seriousness of the alleged culpability of key actors. David Lammy, a Labor MP who served as minister for innovation under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is not alone in suggesting criminality. According to Rachel Adamson, an expert on British regulatory law, the police, the fire service, and other government agencies are likely to consider criminal charges.
Most suggestive is the evidence of Reg Kerr-Bell, a former chairman of KCTMO who stood down some years ago because of misgivings how it was being run. In an interview with the London Daily Express, he said: “This is one of the biggest scandals in the country — and it could have been avoided.”
If Kerr-Bell’s point is confirmed by subsequent disclosures, the Grenfell disaster may well mark a new direction in British politics.
Eamonn Fingleton is a financial journalist and author who in his early career covered the UK’s embrace of deregulation.