The Grenfell Tower disaster must spur us on to greater fire safety, but some of the commentary on it has simply been mistaken

I have been reading about the Grenfell Tower calamity with a heavy heart.  To lose such a large number of people in such a horrifying manner represents a major national failure.  A terrible event has been made worse by a poor response from the Conservative local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the Conservative government.

This tragedy and these failures have been exploited by left-wing politicians, and some of the commentary on what happened is demonstrably wrong.  The commentariat more broadly has been quick to pronounce on the fire’s causes, draw conclusions about what these apparently tell us about Britain more widely, and dispense its favourite nostrums.

I may not be a national newspaper journalist, but having been a local councillor in Ealing for eight years – not that far away from Kensington – I can at least claim to have a working knowledge of local government, local government finance, and governance issues around council housing.  And I have to say large parts of some critiques float free of any real grasp of the workings of the sector.

  • Less than 24 hours after the fire had started, Gaby Hinscliff wrote a piece for the Guardian called “Grenfell is a shameful symbol of a state that didn’t care”.  The claim of state failure is surely incontestable, but the author’s list of potential villains goes on to include private companies, profiteering landlords and tight budgets.
  • Last Friday, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman penned a very personal account of his growing up in a tower block in the Evening Standard.  I liked its positive portrayal of tower block life.  I have visited many such council houses and flats, and more often than not they are spacious, lovely homes.  I love his writing, but part of his last paragraph was simply wrong. “There’s obviously much to be said about the consequences of austerity and its impact on events at Grenfell Tower. But also, there is something about the narrowness of a council and a housing organisation run by people so distant from residents they might as well have run it  from the Moon”.
  • On the same day, Jonathan Freedland wrote an article in the Guardian headlined: “Grenfell Tower will forever stand as a rebuke to the right”.  According to Freedland: “Grenfell Tower threatens to stand forever as a warning against four of the defining features of our era.”  He describes these as being deregulation, privatisation, austerity (again) and inequality.

Let me now deal with these assertions in turn.

Whatever the causes of the disaster may have been, “austerity” was certainly not one of them

It is relatively straightforward to dispense with the austerity claim raised by all three of these writers. The way that local government finance works for council housing is as follows.

Councils are required by law to maintain a ring-fenced housing revenue account (HRA), which is totally separate from what is known as the general fund into which council tax is paid.  The aim of this separation is to protect council tax payers from the obligations incurred by councils’ housing activities, and also to stop them dipping into housing funds to solve problems elsewhere.  The HRA is thus largely immune from the pressures of savings, cuts or austerity (choose your own preferred terminology).

Councils are required to have 30 year business plans that show how they will meet their obligations.  Council housing providers collect rents and service charges to cover the costs of servicing loans and maintaining the buildings tenants and leaseholders live in.  At the edges, they can play around with cross-charging in order to push some costs onto the HRA – such as office costs, IT, human resources, etc.  But this activity is only marginal, and nothing like the pressure that has affected councils’ general funds.  Indeed, it would have been all the harder to do this Kensington and Chelsea, since Grenfell Tower is run by a housing organisation that operates at arms-length from the council – as we shall see below.

The claims that safety work was not undertaken because of austerity is not tenable. Ultimately, a council would simply add the cost of such work to rents – and that would be that.  Obviously, money will always be tight, since councils are unwilling to push their rents up too high, and they will rightly want to build new homes rather than do unnecessary work.  But, ultimately, it is a judgement call as to how you balance costs to tenants against obligations.  It is a difficult balance to strike, and it requires strong leadership to get it right – but there have simply been not significant cuts to housing maintenance budgets and certainly not ones that would justify skimping on fire safety work.

It has been claimed that Kensington and Chelsea was rich and had large reserves – but all councils have reserves.  These perform a particular function – not least in dealing with emergencies.  But the same arguments that would have to be made to release reserves could equally be used to make allocations in long-term business plans.  If the decision makers involved had wanted additional fire safety work doing, there is no reason why there should have been significant financial constraint.

To underline the point, millions of pounds were spent on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower last year – £10 million, it has been reported.  The problem was not money. It was what the money was spent on.

The organisation responsible for running Grenfell Tower was not some Rachmanite landlord.  It was a body on which the tenants themselves had a majority

Who was responsible for Grenfell Tower?  The answer is that the council is not the only organisation that should be probed.  The Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) is responsible for the management of the borough’s housing stock – including Grenfell Tower.  KCTMO is constituted as a limited company registered as the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation at Companies House (company number 03048135).

And where does the buck stop within KCTMO?  With the board – which comprises 13 members of whom eight must be residents and two local councillors: these are the “landlords”.  They are individually listed as directors at Companies House, with the legal obligations that this implies. KCTMO’s constitution says that:

“Subject to the Articles, the Board Members are responsible for ensuring:

33.1.1 that the objects of the Company are carried out; and

33.1.2 the Company’s business and affairs are properly managed”

Crucially, the board has the power to hire and fire the management:

“33.1.4 appointing and (if necessary) dismissing the Company’s Chief Executive and such senior members of staff of the Company as it shall decide”.

The board was there to ask questions such as: are we keeping people safe? Are we doing a good job for our tenants? Are we looking after our staff? Are we financially sound?  If they didn’t like the answers, it was their job to tell the officers to go away and think again, or to demand external advice.

The KCTMO structure was controversial and was reconstituted in 2009.  The anonymous Grenfell Action Group blog, widely quoted in the media in recent days, was clearly dissatisfied with all concerned: the council, councillors, KTCMO, the Chairman of its board, the Chief Executive.

It is is important to grasp that the creation of KCTMO predated a national move to arms-length management organisations (ALMOs) during the late 1990s – one carried out under not a Conservative but a Labour government.  It became an ALMO in time, and it has outlived many of them.  Essentially, KCTMO was an idealistic attempt to put power in tenants’ hands.  In theory, the owners of the company are the tenants. Did its lay board hold its professional staff properly to account?  Did they conduct themselves properly at all times?  Were suppliers always straight with it?  These will be some of the questions that the public inquiry will address.

You can certainly criticise this structure, and ask if it had sufficient expertise and oversight on its main board.  But you cannot truthfully claim that it is Rachmanite, privatised, or remote from the tenants from among whom it recruits a majority of its board members.

The present regulatory system may have failed at Grenfell Tower, but it has been working elsewhere

Much of the commentary about the calamity has asked, reasonably enough, whether the regulatory regime in respect of fire safety is tight enough. Is it properly funded? Does it work?

Again, this will no doubt be a question that is covered by a public inquiry.  Evidence may emerge that specific regulatory failures played a part in the tragedy.  But whether this turns out to be so or not, I suggest that in general the fire safety system is working and you can see this if you study Greater London’s fire data.

(Total fires in Greater London. From Greater London’s fire data.)

In the decade from 2004 to 2014, the number of fires in Greater London has halved – at a time of rising population, don’t forget.

(Fire related fatalities, from Greater London’s fire data.)

The reduction in fire deaths has been stunning, too.  Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were around 20 fire deaths per million people per year in London.  More recently, the rate has been more like five fire deaths per million people – i.e: a reduction of a  quarter.  It is hard to argue that the regulatory environment is poor in general terms when the direction of travel been so marked and so rapid in the right direction.

The fire death statistics will look very bad this year after the Grenfell Tower horror – and behind them will stand the worse loss of human life.  None the less, the evidence suggests that we are, broadly speaking, on the right course with fire safety.  If we want to honour those who have died, we must set ourselves ambitious targets to move further and faster in the same direction – to get to zero fire deaths in the near future and to aim for zero fire.  This will take vigilance from those who seek to govern us at all levels, as well as a lot of hard work, expertise and effective, targeted spending.