Beware ‘disaster capitalism’

grenfell-tower-fire

When a building collapses somewhere like Bangladesh, we have no hesitation in looking for lax regulation and corrupt practices. Now the searchlight is being shone on the UK, and we didn’t have to look far to find a shelved parliamentary report and gagged and disregarded local residents. Of course it’s political. This is what happens when you think only of financial profit and avoid regulations that might get in its way – especially regulations designed to protect less wealthy members of society. Capitalism cuts corners. The Tory government regards safety legislation (such as for the introduction of sprinklers) as constrictive red tape, and is antagonistic to the whole idea of social housing. In the Kensington case, we also have a Conservative local authority housing convenor straight out of central casting with major aggressive property interests, plus management hived off to an arms-length organisation that regarded concerned tenants as trouble makers.

gosford_house_near_longniddry_east_lothian

Gosford House, East Lothian, one of the family homes of Cllr Rock Feilding-Mellen, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Cabinet Member for Housing, Property and Regeneration

The rapid spread of the Grenfell fire is increasingly being attributed to the cladding. Insulated cladding has been promoted by government since the days of New Labour as part of a series of measures to counteract some of the neglect of the Tory decades and bring social housing up to better standards, including modern levels of insulation. This was a step in the right direction, but there was never enough funding to do a really good job, and – of course – all the work was contracted out to private companies, and often managed in an increasingly market-like manner. The fire risks of badly designed cladding have already been disastrously demonstrated several times and should be well known. Examples of past fires range from English social housing to Dubai sky scrapers.  The risks are huge and these building practices should have been both stopped and remedied. But that would have required regulation that would impinge on the right to make maximum profit. A friend made the following facebook observation ‘Having worked in property, I know just what contractors, developers and planning cook up in the name of cost cutting at the high end spec of the market, so at the ‘low priority’ end it’ll be far, far worse with Govt cuts limiting best practice delivery.’ I expect that such a prominent catastrophe will now make the use of flammable cladding a financial risk to profit too, but we can’t wait for similar disasters to prevent other dangerous practices.

The lessons should be obvious: we need proper regulation and investment – beginning with remedial work to other buildings with similar construction. But we cannot take that for granted.  Capitalism has a nasty way of turning the disasters it makes to its own advantage, and there will be no shortage of property developers who will see this as a golden opportunity to get rid of social housing and replace it with private profit-making opportunities. As someone who has campaigned against the demolition and reduction of council homes I speak from bitter experience.  Potentially dangerous blocks – and many others that are not dangerous at all – will be targeted, and no effort will be spared to portray them as unsafe and unwanted, and to portray replacement private development as salvation. We will need to be constantly wary to ensure that all hazards are properly investigated and put right so that people can feel confident and secure in their homes, and that any demolition of social housing is replaced by at least equal amounts of new social housing.

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