Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, John Healey, spoke for me, and I suspect millions of others, when he attacked the Government’s response to the Hackitt review today: ‘Don’t consult on it. Do it!’.
The issue was specifically whether to ban combustible materials like flammable cladding. Most commentators who know anything about anything had called for a ban. Grenfell survivors called for a ban. But Hackitt failed to recommend a ban, despite all the logic of her report and the fact that she said on Radio 4 that she would support it if the Government did it. New Secretary of State James Brokenshire offered a ‘consultation’. Fudge. Delay. Backslide.
The lesson we learn from the Ronan Point collapse, the Lakarnal House fire, and now the Grenfell fire is, sadly, that we’re not very good at learning lessons. Brokenshire talked about creating ‘a culture that truly puts people and their safety first’. Cladding has failed safety tests on hundreds of buildings. Not just council blocks but housing association and private homes too. Surely, surely, this is the time when it would be far better to over-react and be ultra safe than to under-react and leave even an outside chance of it happening again?
It is sad in a way that Dame Judith Hackitt’s report (full version here) has failed on something so vital and central, and that the Government’s response has been so pathetic, because it is in many ways an excellent analysis of the issues with many worthwhile conclusions. She confirms that the system of building regulations and fire safety is NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE and that a ‘culture of indifference (has been allowed) to perpetuate’. The system is unclear, ambiguous, inconsistent, with weak compliance. Crucially, ‘the voices of residents often goes unheard’.
Hackitt proposes a new regulatory framework which must be delivered as a package, not piecemeal. This is vital, she says, because only a joined-up implementation plan will provide the coherent approach that is needed. Her broad conclusions and main proposals for a new system have much to commend them.
The new system “must strengthen regulatory oversight to create both positive incentives to comply with building safety requirements and to effectively deter non-compliance. It must clarify roles and responsibilities. It must raise and assure competence levels, as well as improving the quality and performance of construction products. Residents must feel safe and be safe, and must be listened to when concerns about building safety are raised.”
Dame Judith Hackitt
In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire no-one believed that backsliding would be possible. Surely this was such a calamitous event that everything would change. The appalling response of Kensington and Chelsea council surely meant the Tories would never be elected there again. Government promises that money would not be an obstacle and that everything possible would be done would surely be kept. Yet here we are, with the Tory council re-elected, a 9 month delay before the Government is forced to say it will ‘fully fund’ fire safety works (and we will watch that one closely), no commitment on sprinklers and ‘consultation’ on banning combustibles. And many families not yet rehoused.
Surely this was such a calamitous event that everything would change.
Urgent language has not led to urgent action. Powerful speeches have not led to powerful changes. Big promises have disappeared into an interminable inquiry that drifts on and on. It took Theresa May most of a year to conclude that Sir Martin Moore-Bick should not sit alone. The feeling that the British state has become callous and indifferent has been reinforced since Grenfell by Windrush and other scandals.
Next month sees the anniversary of the fire. It is a big moment, there will be a lot of raw emotion, but the demand for fundamental change needs to be heard loud and clear. This really must never be allowed to happen again.