Despite some valiant efforts, it is hard to capture the true damage caused by reductions in government spending on frontline services. Cuts do more than remove and close services on which people rely; they also weaken, stretch, and demoralise those that remain to pick up the slack. The result is an entire system which is less resilient.
There are many stories of how this has played out in Britain over the last ten years. One of the most tragic is the fire at Grenfell Tower. The links between austerity and Grenfell are clear, although not as well-known as they should be.
There are several threads. The first is the impact of cuts on the development and enforcement of regulations.
Grenfell Tower was clad with a highly-combustible product called ‘aluminium composite material’—a metal sandwich panel with a core of plastic that burns with roughly the same ferocity as petrol. This cladding was backed by plastic foam insulation, which released tonnes of dense, toxic smoke as it burned.
The cladding system as a whole did not comply with the basic standards in building regulations. But it was still signed off by a building control inspector at the council.
Why? This is a complex question which takes in misleading marketing, buried fire tests, and basic incompetence—but also austerity.
The team he worked for was cut from twelve to four in the years before the fire. A special projects team which handled the most difficult jobs, and would have taken on Grenfell, had been wound up a couple of years before. By the time he assessed Grenfell Tower, inspector John Hoban was dealing with 130 other projects simultaneously. These cuts were imposed to make the council’s building control team ‘self-funding’.
This was at the local level. The picture was similarly bleak within central government.
Responsibility for writing fire safety rules sat with a small team of specialist civil servants in what was then the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). This department experienced the largest level of staff cuts between 2010 and 2015.
Civil servants who gave evidence to the inquiry explained that they struggled to recruit people with expertise because the pay in the private sector was so much higher. A ban on consulting meant work could not even be outsourced.
The civil servant with primary responsibility for the fire safety aspects of building guidance had no formal fire safety qualifications: his career encompassed work as a joiner and on council building control teams. The real experts worked in the private sector, explaining to clients how to evade the rules he wrote.
Overwhelmed with other work, this team was unable to progress a review of fire safety guidance demanded after a fire at Lakanal House in South London in 2009. Critical, red alert warnings that the standard for cladding in their guidance was too low and highly combustible materials were in wide use went begging.
This certainly had more than a little to do with government-wide focus on deregulation which discouraged new rules, but austerity also played a role. Would a properly resourced, motivated, and expert team have made the same error?
The consequence of these errors extends beyond Grenfell. Thousands of blocks around the country are now known to have dangerously combustible materials on their walls, a problem which the government has had to commit £9 billion to solve and has cost the economy billions more in stalled flat sales. Even putting all human considerations to one side, the financial costs of a failing building regulations regime has far outweighed any savings.
The impact of austerity in the Grenfell Tower story does not end here. After the Lakanal House fire, the coroner investigating the deaths told central government to ‘encourage’ local authorities to install sprinklers in their aging high rises to prevent a repeat tragedy. But the government never did, fearing, according to one witness, the ‘new burdens’ funding councils could demand if it was made mandatory.
When Labour costed the implementation of this ask for their 2019 manifesto, they put it at £1 billion. But five years on from the horror of Grenfell, it is money the government is yet to commit—spending it branded ‘additional not essential’ just months after the fire.
And what of the refurbishment itself? The work to the tower was given an £8.5 million budget. Consultants warned the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea that this was too low and would result in the failure of the project if not increased.
They refused and pushed ahead, with their housing management arm seeking cost savings which ultimately resulted in the decision to switch from non-combustible to the cheaper, more combustible cladding to save a mere £300,000.
The inflexibility in the budget links directly to national austerity. It would have made financial sense for the council to borrow to top up their funds: interest rates for public bodies were at a historic low and the borrowing was virtually risk free, as it would have been paid back over a long period by the rents of those living in the tower.
But they could not. A cap on council borrowing had been imposed by the Treasury, for the simple reason that it would add a tiny amount to the country’s precious deficit.
Inside the tower, failing fire doors allowed smoke to spread unhindered, trapping residents in their flats. This was an issue of which the local council was well aware and had been told to fix—a widespread problem in its housing stock that had caused issues at another fire in October 2015. But it did not, balking at the £600,000 cost of a programme of fitting fire door self-closers, despite enforcement action from the London Fire Brigade (LFB).
Then you have the London Fire Brigade, which had the most swingeing cuts of any national fire authority imposed on it in the years before Grenfell by then London mayor Boris Johnson. While more fire engines or fire fighters are unlikely to have made much difference on the night of the fire, upgraded equipment (such as radios that worked in large concrete buildings, or 64 metre ladders which had to be borrowed from neighbouring authorities) may well have helped.
What would likely have made a critical difference would have been more resources to dedicate to training their call handlers and incident commanders in the years before about the foreseeable risk of a large tower block fire. But this training was neglected, with finance and staff pressure a key reason given by the witnesses asked to account for the failure.
Austerity is not a complete explanation for the Grenfell Tower fire. Other factors, particularly the behaviour of the corporations involved in making, selling, and testing the cladding products, had little to do with the British government’s spending decisions.
But austerity cannot be ignored. Its impacts weakened the crucial protections which could have stopped this disaster from happening.
One consequence of our funding reductions was the terrible suffering of a group of working class, black and minority ethnic people in a social housing block that had been wrapped in dangerous cladding and allowed to sink into disrepair.
This happened in one of the richest parts of one of the richest cities on Earth. Money should have been found to make Grenfell safe—it was a result of political choices that it was not.
As we stand on the verge of another round of spending reductions, told again that we have no alternative, policymakers must remember Grenfell and the terrible, unpredictable consequences of ripping up the fabric of the state to save money.