Why control needs to be put back in the hands of properly independent building inspectors - Andy Brown

It has become a familiar pattern. Huge mistakes are made. Then, those responsible consult their PR advisors and issue statements about how much they have learned, how different things are now and how it must never happen again. Before they go back to well paid jobs and business as usual.

These acts of cynicism are often accompanied by the establishment of an inquiry. Which then drags on for such a very long period of time that when the results emerge some of the anger has dissipated and the blame has been safely directed away from anyone currently in government.

The single worst example of this is the case of the deadly fire that broke out in Grenfell Tower. After 72 people died in horrible circumstances the government announced that there would be a swift and effective inquiry and the causes would be quickly uncovered and the problems dealt with.

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The fire took place in June 2017. We are still waiting for the conclusions of the second part of that inquiry.

The Grenfell Tower caught fire in 2017. PIC: PAThe Grenfell Tower caught fire in 2017. PIC: PA
The Grenfell Tower caught fire in 2017. PIC: PA

The basic facts of what happened are well established. The tower bloc was fitted with a type of cladding material that didn’t slow up the spread of fire. They were highly flammable.

Residents were told to stay in their flats by fire service staff who had been understandably trained to believe that materials in high rise flats would not burn rapidly and it would be safe for residents to wait to be rescued. Instead, the cheap and unsafe materials that were used resulted in people being helplessly trapped in their flats as the fire advanced upon them.

The key reason why those cheap panels were fitted is that the British government deliberately chose to weaken building regulations. Politicians were keen on the theory that many of the controls over developers were just a pesky nuisance that could be swept away without consequences. Builders were allowed to hire their own regulators, fire brigades were left with no meaningful powers to close unsafe buildings and the companies manufacturing cladding panels were ‘freed up’ from ‘onerous’ tests on their products.

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Some of those companies decided to produce and sell cheap cladding and to manipulate the new light touch tests for fire safety. They were then able to undercut the competition and win contracts that were awarded to the cheapest suppliers. Money was saved and decent profits achieved. For a while.

Once the causes of the Grenfell fire began to be understood a great deal more money was lost. Over a very long period of time. Much of the cost of that fell on taxpayers and on people who had bought flats on the assumption that the materials they had been built with were safe.

Every high rise flat in the country has had to be examined and have any dodgy cladding materials removed at great cost and inconvenience. Because of a silly political theory that regulations should be light touch.

People who took out mortgages to buy their home, confident in the belief that building work in Britain is properly checked, got landed with huge bills to repair the outside of their bloc of flats and have received far too little compensation. Because of a silly political theory that regulations should be light touch.

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Local authorities have been landed with massive bills to refit tower blocs at a time when their finances are stretched the limit. Because of a silly political theory that regulations should be light touch.

Incredibly it is still possible in this country for a builder to hire their own regulator. Yes, you read that right. The system used to be that fiercely independent building inspectors who worked for the local council came and checked that all work was fine and wouldn’t sign it off if it wasn’t. That is no longer the way things work. Builders can now decide not to use the council and choose which of the privately run inspection companies to employ. This bonkers system leaves regulators competing to sell their services to the people they are supposed to regulate. I was always told that whoever pays the piper calls the tune. There is an obvious temptation for the builder to hire the regulator with the reputation for being the easiest to work with. Control needs to be put back in the hands of properly independent inspectors from the local authority.

Even more incredibly the inquiry into the scandal had no power to require anyone to give evidence. So it had to guarantee the suppliers who cheated on the tests immunity from prosecution before they would give evidence.

It is possible that the full scale of the failure of the British government to protect its own citizens from death in a fire will be revealed by the second stage of the Grenfell Tower outcome before the next election. It is also possible that the findings of the inquiry will emerge quietly at some time in the more distant future and disappear quickly into obscurity. Whatever happens one thing is clear. The inquiry has not provided timely justice for the victims.

Andy Brown is the Green Party councillor for Aire Valley in North Yorkshire.

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