Finding the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, which took the lives of 71 people in London last year, will be long and painful. The public inquiry established by the British government starts work next week amid continuing disquiet among survivors and families of the dead about the background, experience and mindset of the judge chosen to chair what will undoubtedly be an extraordinarily lengthy inquest.
In looking at 13 separate issues — from the causes and progress of the fire in the early hours on June 14 to the design, construction, modifications and management of the building since its completion in 1974 — it will hear evidence from more than 500 people and 28 organisations and study 400,000 documents.
But the world — since the death toll was international, and people live and work in tower blocks across the planet — will not have to wait two or three years for the verdicts.
A UK government review of building and fire safety regulations following the Grenfell catastrophe, has put much of the blame on the ignorance and indifference that produced a “race to the bottom” in construction procedures, with cost given a higher priority than safety.
The review, led by a distinguished engineer, provides an object lesson in what a race to the bottom can look like in real life, as opposed to the rose-tinted view from boardrooms and ministerial offices. The investigation found “people out there taking shortcuts, cutting costs, and not taking responsibility for building buildings that are safe to live in”.
It talks of people in the building industry who do not take the trouble to read regulations and, when they do, are unable to understand them. It concludes that concerns about safety are ignored during the building process because “the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible”, and that some builders use the ambiguity in regulations to “game the system”.
It points to an industry in which workers do not know who is in charge — so much for management-speak extolling the merits of empowerment and ownership — and an enforcement regime that is hit and miss and supported by penalties so trifling as to be useless.
In the building industry, the race to the bottom amounts — quite literally — to playing with fire, and those who suffer the gravest consequences are rarely if ever the people who ought to be held accountable. It’s not, however, a problem only for the construction sector, or the UK. The enthusiasm in boardrooms and government ministries for cost-saving outsourcing has plunged large swathes of commerce, and vital public services, into often life-threatening chaos. Britain’s National Audit Office said this week that cost-cutting by outsourcing specialists Capita on a bungled contract to provide back-office support for GPs, dentists, opticians had the “potential to seriously harm patients”. Ireland’s cervical smear tragedy, it will not be forgotten, can be traced in part to the decision to outsource test reading services to a laboratory in Texas.
It’s time that those who make decisions in boardrooms and government were made to understand that their calculations must take account of lives, not just the euro, pounds, and dollars packed into the profit margin.