“A corporate world that evinced almost psychopathic disregard for human life”

In his book, Show me the bodies – Why we let Grenfell happen, Peter Apps writes:

“Over a period of at least 30 years, our representatives chose time and again not to act on mounting evidence that something needed to be done to prevent a disaster in a high-rise building. They deliberately ran down, neglected and privatised the arms of the state which might have otherwise avoided the need for this book. And they allied themselves with a corporate world that evinced an almost psychopathic disregard for human life.” (my emphasis)

An almost psychopathic disregard for human life? This is no exaggeration. Corporations knew the dangers involved in the type of cladding which was put on Grenfell and a host of other high rise buildings, but they did it regardless because all they were interested in was maximising their profit.

Peter Apps carries out a forensic investigation of how it came about that corporations were allowed to fix material produced from petrol onto the outside of buildings and turn a high-rise block into a funeral pyre. His investigation shows the culpability of all governments from the time that Thatcher began the process of deregulation. New Labour shares responsibility for Grenfell because of its embrace of deregulation. It

  • Abolished national standards in the fire service in 2004.
  • Scrapped the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council. A doctrine of localism was applied and decisions were delegated down to 46 local brigades. There was no higher authority which could hold them to account.
  • Introduced in 2005 the Regulatory Reform (Fire safety) Order which ended the responsibility of the fire brigade to issue licenses to building owners. The owners were now allowed to assess risks themselves. There were no legally specified rules for determining who was the ‘competent person’ to carry out assessments. As Peter points out this pushed them to the cheapest option.

Through the 2010s there were warnings, including from the London Fire Brigade, that risk assessors were not up to scratch.

When New Labour was in office there were three fires which should have offered a warning on the need to abandon this approach: Garnock Court (Irvine, Scotland) in 1999 in which one person died; the Edge in Salford in 2005 and Lakanal Court in 2009. In each of them cladding helped the fire spread rapidly upwards. In the case of Lakanal Court, 6 people died. At every step of the way governments, including New Labour, essentially refused to ban combustible materials because it would have affected the profitability of the companies providing the work. In the case of Grenfell Tower, just £9,000 was saved by using the infamous ACM cladding.

The record of New Labour is not just of historical interest but relates to what a Labour government under Keith Starmer and Rachel Reeves is likely to do. The latter has said that the “(New) Labour playbook is ready and waiting for use”. But that ‘playbook’ was based on support for neo-liberalism and enabling big business to extract profits from the public sector. Tony Blair said that New Labour “built on what Thatcher achieved”. In the case of fire safety his government continued the deregulation which would make Grenfell possible. The death toll is liable to mount, as the news emerged of firefighters having cancers which are most likely associated with the toxic fallout of the fire. The local community is worried about the long term consequences that they may suffer. This is the human consequence of the actions of governments since Thatcher allying themselves to the ‘corporate world’.

Peter’s book could have been a somewhat dry technical treatise on the safety issue. But his unfolding of the policy changes which led to Grenfell is interspersed with events of the night of the fire and the human stories of the victims, those who died and those who survived. It is this human story which gives flesh to the crime committed; lives needlessly sacrificed at the altar of profit.

The disdain of the local authority towards these people both as tenants, and many of them immigrants, was clear. It was as if they were recipients of charity for which they should be grateful. They dismissed the insistent voices of the tenants as ‘trouble-makers’. Ed Daffarn’s now famous post warning of the danger of a fire was blithely ignored as were the protests of tenants over the state of the internal refurbishment. The ‘Tenant Management Organisation’ which was set up was not under the control of the tenants. It was operated as a business.

Peter Apps finishes his book with this.

“The world that gave us the Grenfell Tower fire looks irredeemably dishonest. It is a story of corporate structures that allowed human beings to abandon their own conscience and sense of agency and to think only about sales and profit margins. Government institutions placed ideology above human lives at every turn.”

Yet the response to the fire by firefighters and the local community, local organisations, was selfless, more organised than the local state.

“…there is another vision of humanity available from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It is of those who stopped as they fled the burning building to help their neighbours flee. Or of the firefighters who went back into the building, up the smoke filled, dangerously hot staircases, with no water, faulty radios and no guarantees that the building was not about to collapse around them. It is the mosques, churches and voluntary organisations that provided some semblance of a humanitarian response as the state disgracefully failed to respond. It is those who stood up on behalf of their neighbours and demanded better treatment from their landlord before the fire and continue to fight for others after it.

As we stand on the brink of a century when the consequences of the same deregulated economy that gave us Grenfell, threaten to set the whole world on fire, it is a fight we must all join in some way. And in any small victories that follow we can at least glimpse the shadow of a better world.”

The fight “we must all join in some way” is based on a rejection of big businesses’ subordination of social needs and (sometimes) human life to the profit motive. Big business is poisoning our rivers and seas, ruthlessly exploiting workers and fleecing customers. Keir Starmer’s assertion that “business is a force for good in society” stands in stark contrast with the Grenfell experience. Placing combustible material on the outside of buildings, after ample experience of them facilitating fire, was not the action of ‘rogue’ companies. After all, history is replete with examples of big corporations covering up the impact of their products on human a life and the environment, be it big Pharma, the tobacco corporations, or the oil industry.

If you can afford it buy this book, if not order it through your library. It is not just a record of the past. It is a warning for the future. In a recent book on the NHS, Michael Rosen wrote a brief introduction which has much sense. He said:

“All struggles need resolve, solidarity and hope, but they also need information. Information helps us to see what is really going on and it helps us to see over the hill to what is possible, just as my parents saw when they won the NHS in the first place.”

Peter Apps book helps us “to see what is really going on”. Safety was dismissed as “red tape” and we have seen the human consequences. Political parties “allied themselves with the corporate world” facilitating them enriching their managers and shareholders at the expense of their workers and the wider population, with dire social and environmental consequences including the uncessary deaths of Grenfell Tower.

Martin Wicks

March 20th 2023

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