“… to ensure this can never happen again”

After the latest preventable disaster, there is a grim inevitability in the countdown to the point where we hear a government statement like this: “We must take whatever steps are needed to ensure that this can never happen again”? And yet it, or something like it, frequently does happen again.

I suggest that part of the reason is the convention, among politicians, that disastrous events must not be “politicised”. I can understand a couple of the usual reasons for that approach. First, for the victims of any given mishap, their relations, and the survivors, the sight of politicians blaming and finger-pointing is neither edifying nor helpful. It is of no practical use in addressing the aftermath. Second, partisan parliamentary bickering is a form of escalation, and it increases the pressure on the government to respond by legislating in a hurry, and that is usually a bad thing. To abuse the cliché: “enact in haste, repent at leisure”.

These are two potential benefits of the conventional approach. But I think it’s also possible that this approach has harmful consequences which can outweigh the potential benefits, and that those consequences include having the same, or similar disasters recur.

“De-politicising” a disaster tends to rule out examination of political (or policy) factors as a possible cause. In the absence of that examination, what does the eye fall on? I have been thinking of it in terms of a set of concentric “circles of blame”. In the case of the Grenfell Tower fire, the innermost circle seems to contain the manufacturers, vendors and builders who, respectively, made, sold and used flammable cladding which made the buildings more dangerous through increased risk of fire.

The next concentric circle encompasses the building code enforcement bodies, fire safety inspectors, and building management services responsible for checking that the appropriate safety measures were in place and were viable.

In the next circle we find those responsible specifically for this tower as a social housing asset. Here, in this case, we’re talking about the local authority’s housing, maintenance and (should the worst happen) emergency response functions.

Then we come to the first circle that, rather than product or subject-matter experts, consists of more generalist policy-makers whose role is to make the work of the inner rings possible, effective, and safe. This circle is where the practicalities of building construction and maintenance have to rub up against the policy on social housing, and where spending on social housing has to compete with spending on social services, schools, road maintenance, street cleaning, rubbish collection and so forth.

In all of these rings, money is a factor.

It’s the outermost ring, though, which has the greatest effect on all the others, because this is the policy ring. It’s where legislation, regulation and budget are all, ultimately, decided. This outermost ring influences the others precisely because they all form part of a system. Actions in the outermost ring affect stakeholders in all the others. And yet, it’s off limits, because discussing the disaster in the contest of this ring would mean “politicising” it.

“This must never happen again” therefore ends up meaning “we must rule out the causes, but only in the inner circles”. So, hypothetically, we might end up with a regulatory change that banishes combustible cladding from buildings across the country, but doesn’t apply similar fire prevention measures to, say, insulation material, or electrical wiring. We might get legislation that places new duties on management companies of social housing, or on the inspection teams of local authorities, but makes the assumption that those entities will re-allocate existing funds to meet their new obligations. A series of “point” solutions, targeted at the inner rings of our concentric model, but failing to consider whether anything in the outer rings must also change.

In fact, over recent years we have seen local authorities placed under greater and greater statutory obligations, and simultaneously starved of the funding to put them into practice. But, just suppose the gap between local authorities’ funding and the cost of their statutory obligations happened to be a contributing factor in the Grenfell Tower fire. If the outer ring of our concentric model cannot be considered, as a possible source of contributiry factors, we cannot end up with a systemic solution. If we insist on treating disasters like Grenfell Tower as point problems, we will be doomed to a series of point solutions, and a series of further, preventable disasters. But heaven forbid we should “politicise” the issue.