Tag: Grenfell Tower

Please let the Conservatives know that the Grenfell tragedy must not be trivialised and ignored

Yesterday I had the following email from Jeremy Corbyn:

Sue, we’ve just found out that the Tories in Kensington have been asking residents how important the Grenfell tragedy is on a scale of 0-10.

It is insulting and insensitive.

Preventing another fire like Grenfell couldn’t be more important. And Theresa May has the power to do it — she could use next Wednesday’s budget to set aside money to fit social housing with sprinklers that would save lives. Let’s make sure she hears our message.

Please sign this and tell the Tories why Grenfell must not be ignored.

Sign this and help us make sure that residents of high rise social housing can sleep safely with the knowledge that they are being listened to.

Jeremy Corbyn
Leader of the Labour Party


 

It’s like they need instructions for being human.” Kay Bailey

I agree, the Conservatives’ survey is crass and insensitive, it trivialises the Grenfell tragedy, putting it at the same level of priority as refuse collection and local parking facilities, which is insulting and callous. Asking people to place such an avoidable and tragic event on a scale of priority, from one to ten, is both brutal and shows a complete lack of responsibility and remorse on the part of the government. 

I have signed both petitions. 

Will you?


Related

Grenfell, inequality and the Conservatives’ bonfire of red tape

Grenfell is a horrific consequence of a Conservative ‘leaner and more efficient state’

Dangerous electrical faults were historically ignored at Glenfell Tower

 


 

Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

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The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

<=== You are here

 

 

Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

Related

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

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Dangerous electrical faults were historically ignored at Glenfell Tower

 

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The Grenfell Tower fire is thought to have been started by a fridge catching fire. You may well wonder how on earth that could happen.

Fridges are notoriously extremely flammable and give off toxic fumes when they burn. Many house fires start with appliance faults, especially fridge freezers. It’s possible the fridge was faulty, of course.

London Fire Service have highlighted the dangers of fridge freezers previously, and have called on manufacturers to make them safer. There is, on average, one fridge freezer fire a week in the capital and the service has been lobbying the industry to make their fridges and freezers more fire resistant for the some years.  

However, there is a record of longstanding electrical faults which had resulted in surges to electrical appliances and light fittings in the Kensington Tower block, creating a huge fire risk, which had been repeatedly reported and repeatedly ignored by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation.

The fire service had reportedly been called out to the initial fridge fire that is thought to have started the inferno, and it was successfuly dealt with. However, fire service workers soon realised with horror that the outside of the building was on fire. Whether the fridge was faulty, or whether it exploded because of an electrical fault, it is in no way the fault of the resident that the fridge caused a fire, and that the outside of the building caught fire. He had also alerted his neighbours about the fire inside his flat after calling the fire brigade.

This account gives more credence to the theory that the flammable cladding, used to make the building look better, somehow was ignited by the fridge fire, which then caused the fire to rage with such ferocity throughout the entire tower block. This should not have happened, since each flat is a self-contained concete unit, designed to contain fire. But the fire raged inside of the tower as well as on the outside.

It is also thought that fitted sprinklers would have helped to contain the fire. None had been fitted when the refurbishment was completed. There was also only one escape route, down a single staircase. 

Arnold Tarling, fire safety expert, told Panorama: “This building has been taken from a safe building where fire could not possibly spread across the surface of the building from flat to flat to one which was a death trap.”

He has previously said: “Had it been left alone it would never have burned like this.”

Philip Hammond has said the type of material used in the cladding is illegal in the UK.

Tarling, a surveyor and fire protection specialist, gave a TV interview in which he broke down as he spoke of warning three years ago of the threat posed by the type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower, after he had learned of the tragedy. 

In a recent interview, Tarling said of Hammond’s comments:

“It’s b*llocks, frankly. I don’t blame him [Hammond] for being wrong as he’ll be going on information given to him by aides, but it’s simply not true.

The regulations are incredibly convoluted and unclear, but essentially the type of cladding used on Grenfell Tower was perfectly legal, under current legislation, because the exterior of the cladding panels was non-flammable. Under Appendix A of the Building Regulations 2010 fire safety documentonly the outward-facing surface needs to be fire-resistant.

Those advising Hammond will be relying on calling the cladding panels ‘insulation’, which has different rules – but even in that section, it says ‘See Appendix A’ and takes you back to the same rule.

The law is complicated and badly constructed, but under it those panels were legal to use even though they’re known to be dangerous.

The material in those ‘sandwich’ panels was polyethylene, which is classified under the regulations as a ‘thermoplastic’, because it softens at below 200°C – in fact, it’s liquid at 120°C, barely above the temperature of boiling water. You couldn’t make a kettle out of it because it would collapse, but you can legally use it as a building material under current legislation.”

Tarling warned the government of the dangers posed in using the type of cladding that is likely to be responsible for the Grenfell conflagration. Tests are now to be carried out on around 600 high rises across England to see if cladding fitted to the outside is safe, the government said, following concerns raised about the safety of other buildings. So far, samples from three tower blocks – one in London and two thought to be elsewhere – were found to be combustible. More test results are expected to be made public within days.

Today, on the BBC’s Breakfast programme, Tarling spoke of a “firewall” between government and experts, who have raised concern about the discrepancy between fire safety regulation and building regulation for years. He mentioned that the polyurethane insulating material used both inside the cladding, and inside the wallspaces of some tower blocks releases highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas when it burns. Some furnishings also release this gas when burned, too. It was confirmed by medical staff that survivors who were being treated for smoke inhalation also needed treatment for hydrogen cyanide poisioning. Carbon monoxide is often produced in quantity during residential fires, too, and both gases present a significant threat to life, in addition to the fire itself.

He also mentioned the exposed gas pipes, which had been relocated outside of the flats in the refurbishment, placed in the stairwell – the only escape route. 

Like all high-rises, the Grenfell tower was originally designed to keep a fire contained in the flat where it started and keep the escape route – the stairway – protected.

Witnesses say that the corridors and staircases became smoke-logged. If there is a single fire in a single flat, if the building “works properly”, there should be virtually no smoke in the corridor and no smoke in the stairwell. If there is smoke, it suggests there is something wrong with the compartmentation of the building. It may be that the refurbishment changed the internal design of the tower, so that the fire wasn’t contained inside the building, which burned as ferociously as the outside.

Image result for Inside grenfell

The electical faults

So far, there has been no comment about the cause of the fridge explosion.

The residents’ organisation, Grenfell Action Group, has long criticised the fire safety standards of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation which manages around 9,400 properties.

This included the lack of notices to tenants about what to do in the event of a fire, piles of rubbish being dumped, and concerns over where boilers and gas pipes were placed. In its blog it warned that “catastrophe” was inevitable and “only a matter of time”. A local councillor, Judith Blakeman, who sits on the tenant management organisation, raised concerns in March about the National Grid installation of gas risers or pipes in the stairwell as part of the refurbishment. She was assured by the landlord that they would be boxed in with “fire-rated” protection, but this does not appear to have been done. It is known that work was still being done to box in the gas pipes running along floors. The London fire brigade said last Thursday morning they had not been able to put out the flames until they had isolated a ruptured gas main in the block. Residents also voiced fears about the relocating of boilers into hallways during the refurbishment.

KCTMO has two current enforcement notices from the London Fire Brigade, for Hazelwood Tower and for Adair Tower, where a fire required the evacuation of 50 residents. The notices highlight a string of safety failures by the company. 

I found the following very troubling historical record of electrical faults, power surges and serious damage, as a result, to tenants’ electrical appliances and light fittings, on the Grenfell Action Group’s blog site:

“In May 2013 a serious electrical fault causing multiple power surges at Grenfell Tower posed a major fire risk to residents many of whom witnessed smoke coming from light fittings and other electrical appliances, some of which actually exploded. Despite the fact that these highly alarming incidents were reported to the TMO on 11th May no effective action was taken until the problems escalated out of control on 29th May 2013.

The power surges had been ongoing for 18 days with multiple reports by residents of electrical appliances catching fire and sometimes exploding, but multiple reports to the TMO by Grenfell Tower residents were treated with a dismissive and sceptical attitude. When electrical engineers were sent to investigate they insisted that the apparent smoking of electrical appliances was probably caused by steam from water dripping onto the appliances. Residents found these dismissive theories deeply insulting and we believe they demonstrated a shockingly blasé and complacent attitude by the TMO and its agents.

Consequently no effective action was taken until a near catastrophic incident occurred on the weekend of Sunday 29th May which affected multiple households and damaged many electrical appliances beyond repair. On that Sunday there were severe power surges throughout the night that continued through the following morning. A flood of calls from Grenfell Tower residents to the TMO out-of-hours emergency repairs service finally prompted the TMO to order a more thorough investigation of the power surge issue. They installed specialised metering equipment that soon revealed that there were indeed serious power surges which were subsequently traced to arcing in a damaged mains power cable supplying Grenfell Tower. The cause of the damage, they claimed, was unknown. The mains cable was subsequently repaired and surge protection was later added.

The resident groups, having been vindicated at last, were furious at the complacency and negligence of the TMO responses throughout the 18 days of the power surge ordeal. They appealed to the RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee and it was agreed that representatives from Grenfell Tower would attend the meeting of the Committee on 16th July 2013 to report and discuss their concerns. The TMO also attended the meeting and presented their own report which contradicted the residents accounts of what had occurred and downplayed the seriousness of the matter and the fire risk involved.

Robert Black, the CEO of the TMO, also alleged that the Grenfell Action Group and other local stakeholders, such as the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association, had made misleading statements on our blog and in round robin emails. When we later challenged him to substantiate these allegations by specifying which of the statements he believed to be misleading he declined to do so and failed to provide any evidence for this and other derogatory statements he had made to the Scrutiny Committee.

When the residents groups were eventually able to study the minutes of the meeting and the report that was submitted by the TMO we were horrified to discover that the Scrutiny Committee had chosen to accept the TMO version of events and had given little creedence to the explicit health and safety concerns highlighted earlier by the resident groups in an email to the Chair of the Scrutiny Committee on 9th July.

Incidentally the Committee Report, submitted several weeks after the incident, included the following remarks:

“It is too early to say whether the problem has been fully resolved and where responsibility lies for the cause. It is possible that the fault that has been rectified is not the primary cause.”

Grenfell Tower residents were never informed whether the primary cause of the electrical problem was ever identified.

Source: Grenfell Action Group.

Also related: GRENFELL TOWER – FROM BAD TO WORSE

“[…] They had woken to find smoke issuing from various electrical appliances in their homes, including the light fixtures, and descended in panic to the estate office to demand help and assistance.  Emergency electricians who attended later in the day were finally, it seems, able to identify the source of the problem. An emergency temporary electrical by-pass supply has been provided and the necessary follow–up works will be carried out in the near future.

It is very clear at this stage that the electrical supply to Grenfell Tower has been in a very dangerous condition for several weeks. It is equally clear that the authorities had been repeatedly warned of this  but had failed to react with sufficient urgency and had failed to take adequate remedial measures.

As evidence of this we present the extract below from an email sent on 13th May by Shah Ahmed,  Chair of the Grenfell Tower Leaseholders Association, to Robert Black at TMO and various RBKC councillors and TMO officers:

Continuous Power Surges in Grenfell Tower

There have been two weeks of power surges in the building, most notably in the early hours of the morning and throughout the evening and night time. Electronic apparatus are seriously affected by these surges. Computers are turned on and off, lights continually flicker becoming very dim and extremely bright in the space of a few seconds.

On 11th May 2013 at 9:05pm we had numerous power surges in the space of a minute, and in that process my computer and monitor literally exploded with smoke seeping out from the back and the smell of burnt electronics filled our entire computer. My monitor also fused at the same time. When I called the TMO out of hours service the standard textbook response was given to us that I was the first one to report such a problem and I was made to feel like a fool reporting such an issue, which resulted in years of data being lost forever.

Please note if the power surges continue at Grenfell Tower, it would be very dangerous and costly because it is interfering with electric and electronic items in the household, including the telephone line, television, fridge, washing machine, computer etc”.

A NUMBER OF THINGS NEED TO HAPPEN NOW:

  • Grenfell Tower residents are demanding an emergency meeting with RBKC and TMO officers to fully explain what went wrong with the electrical supply, and why the TMO failed to respond with appropriate urgency. This meeting should be arranged as a matter of urgency.
  • Officers attending the meeting should be prepared to explain why electrical engineers who ordered the planned power cut in Grenfell Tower between 08:30-17:30 on Saturday 18th May failed to identify and rectify a serious and dangerous fault in the electrical supply at that time.
  • A single staircase with no natural light is the only emergency exit route from Grenfell Tower. The emergency lighting system in that stairwell should be thoroughly checked to ensure that neither the system itself, nor any of the individual battery packs, has been damaged by the power surges of recent weeks. If there is damage it should be immediately repaired as a matter of urgency.
  • A number of electrical appliances belonging to Grenfell Tower residents were damaged or destroyed by power surges in recent weeks, although the amount off such damage and the number of victims is not yet known. On the face of it either the TMO or its electrical contractors would appear to be liable, but so far the TMO has denied any liability. Liability for this damage must be ascertained as soon as possible and all residents whose property was damaged should be fully compensated, including those whose refrigerated food was spoilt during the planned power cut on 18th May.

RBKC councillors please take careful note of the above. We feel very strongly that there needs to be much closer scrutiny by TMO Technical Services Officers of the performance of contractors, particularly those supplying essential and emergency services, and much closer scrutiny by RBKC scrutiny committees of the TMO and its service delivery arrangements and monitoring.”

 


 

Grenfell, inequality and the Conservatives’ bonfire of red tape

Residents were trapped "screaming for their lives" as flames raged through a 27-storey tower block in Notting Hill in the early hours today

The Grenfell Tower fire reflects a colossal betrayal of working class people’s trust by the state. The Conservatives have emphasised “economic growth” at the expense of citizen’s welfare in their policies since taking office in 2010. This is a government that has rewarded the propertied class and punished the renting class (by inflicting policies such as the bedroom tax, and the welfare cap, for example). It’s a government that values and supports profiteering landlords, who have lobbied against essential safeguarding regulation, and one that has also imposed massive local authority budget cuts. 

It’s estimated that there are more than 700 tower blocks in London. These range from the brand new luxury apartments to the post-war council-owned buildings which were seen as a convenient cure to problems caused by the crumbling and unsanitary 19th Century slums.

Around 8% of Londoners now live in tower blocks. Some of the flats are bought for millions; others are relatively low-cost social housing, rented from a local council at a fraction of the private rate. Grenfell Tower itself was designed in 1967, building started in 1972 and finished in 1974.

Originally built as municipal housing as part of the slum clearances of the 1960s, it had 120 one and two-bedroom flats over 20 of its 24 storeys, and was renovated in 2016.

Grenfell House is in a neighbourhood ranked among the most deprived 10% in England.

The BBC’s Bethan Bell says

“Just two miles away – or four stops along the Circle/Hammersmith and City line – is 3 Merchant Square, a 21-storey tower that is part of a new development around Paddington Basin. The contemporary block was finished in 2016 and holds 60 apartments over 15 storeys.

It’s a different world. The penthouse apartment was sold for £7.5m. One-bedroom flats are at least £1m.

Surrounded by restaurants and bars, workers and residents can lounge on deckchairs on a newly-built floating park. Lunchtime yoga sessions are held and there’s a luxury fitness club.

There’s an enormous fountain and a bridge created by renowned designer Thomas Heatherwick, a nursery and winter garden.

But nice though these peripheries undoubtedly are, they don’t keep people safe from fire. For that, we must have a look at the specifications of the apartments in the tower. 

Once you get past the sales brochure description of 3 Merchant Square’s walnut cutlery drawer inserts and integral wine coolers, the adjustable mood lighting and heated bathroom walls, you come to the fire safety details: Every flat has not only ceiling mounted smoke detectors but sprinklers.

The International Fire Sprinkler Association (IFSA) says that automatic fire sprinkler systems are the single most effective fire protection measure available, and are able to make up for a wide range of other fire protection deficiencies.

There has never been a multiple loss of life from a fire developing in a building protected by a properly designed, installed and maintained fire sprinkler system. While fire sprinkler systems have been required in new high-rise residential buildings in England since 2007, it is not compulsory to retrofit them into existing buildings. So Grenfell Tower had none.”

It’s a tale of two cities.

The former chief fire officer Ronnie King, honorary secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on fire safety and rescue – which had recommended fitting sprinklers to buildings to save lives – has said the regulations “badly need updating” and “three successive ministers have not done it”.

“My own thinking is there was the red tape challenge and they don’t really want to put regulation on to businesses, adding a burden.

“It’s one of those that if you bring in a new regulation, you have got to give three up to get it.” 

This echoes my own comments yesterday

In 2012, David Cameron vowed to “cut back on the health and safety legislation “monster”, and to “kill off the health and safety culture for good.” The Conservatives’ Cutting Red Tape programme allows Business to tell Government how it can cut red tape and reduce bureaucratic barriers to growth and productivity within their sector.” The Tories boast these “big successes” in getting rid of “unnecessary bureaucracy”: 

  • Over 2,400 regulations scrapped through the Red Tape Challenge
  • Saving home builders and councils around £100m by reducing 100s of locally applied housing standards to 5 national standards
  • £90m annual savings to business from Defra reducing environmental guidance by over 80%
  • Businesses with good records have had fire safety inspections reduced from 6 hours to 45 minutes, allowing managers to quickly get back to their day job. 

Among others.  

Apparently, “Cutting Red Tape wants to work with business, for business.” I don’t see any balanced democratic representation and reflection of public needs. Back in 2015, business Secretary Vince Cable and Business and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock announced that “better enforcement of regulation” is saving business more than £40 million every year. What that phrase actually means is not “better enforcement” – it’s deregulation. The Tories are masters of Doublespeak. 

The Focus on Enforcement review programme, which asks companies to identify poor “enforcement practices” that “hold them back”, has benefited around one million businesses and boosted growth in 9 vital sectors of the economy from coastal developments to childcare. And building. 

This “builds on government action to scrap or reform regulatory rules which has saved firms some £10 billion over this parliament.” It has also undermined health and safety legislation, consideration of which has a direct impact on the welfare of public. Conservative ideology prioritises private profit over human needs. New Right neoliberalism is all about privatisation, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and a “small state” commitment entailing reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.

The problem is that the government regards regulations as an inconvenience – as raising unnecessary obstacles to free market economics – business, growth, competition and “innovation”, while disregarding the fact that regulations actually serve important social objectives. 

The Conservatives have long argued that “red tape” impedes freedom and “damages productivity”. They have glibly assured us that the UK would be a better place with a lot of deregulation and fewer bureacratic “barriers” to business. The 2010-15 Tory Health and Safety “reforms” (that word is always a Conservative euphemism for cuts) have been motivated, for example, by a belief that: “good health and safety is important, but the burden of excessive health and safety rules and regulations on business had become too great and a damaging compensation culture was stifling innovation and growth. We want to protect people in the workplace while reducing the burden of unnecessary health and safety rules and regulations on businesses.”

The “red tape” that the Conservatives regard with such disdain consists of laws that provide essential public protections and rights that prioritise citizen’s lives. The freedoms being protected by this government are those of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit employees and the public, of landlords to exploit their tenants and, to nick a sentence from George Monbiot, of industry to use the planet as its dustbin.

2012 report by the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) concluded that fire sprinklers could be retrofitted with tenants in place at a cost of about £1,150 a flat. Since the 24-storey Grenfell Tower contained 120 flats, it would have worked out at £138,000. That’s significantly less than the £2.6m spent on the cosmetic cladding and replacement windows

Architect and fire expert Sam Webb said: “We are still wrapping post-war high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.

I really don’t think the building industry understands how fire behaves in buildings and how dangerous it can be. The government’s mania for deregulation means our current safety standards just aren’t good enough.”

Some of these issues were raised in a report following a fatal fire at a tower block in 2009 in Camberwell, in which six people were killed.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, said his predecessor in the role had accepted the report’s recommendations and put them into action.

He said: “The coroner did not recommend new planning regulations. The coroner recommended a change in the guidance. There is a lot of information out there and it is right that it is independently looked at by a judge-led inquiry.” 

When asked whether the government would retrofit sprinkler systems to tower blocks, he said: “I don’t think we can immediately jump to the conclusion that sprinklers is the issue here. We will do whatever it takes.”

An associate pastor of Notting Hill Community Church, Danny Vance, says “the poor are constantly neglected” in the city.

He said: “The disparity between rich and poor in this city is disgusting. This would not have happened to the £5m flats around the corner” [from the Grenfell tower].

Theresa May has announced a £5 million emergency fund for the survivors of the Grenfell inferno, amid angry protests over the government’s lack of appropriate reaction to the tragedy, and what survivors see as the slow emergence of information with regard to loved ones and friends who are still missing.

It’s worth considering that the Conservatives consistently spend close to the £19m general election spending limit on their campaigns. In comparison with the funding offered to people and their families who have lost loved ones and friends, their homes, and all of their belongings, it highlights a problem with our democracy. It is one of political priority. Much more money is spent by the Conservatives on staying in power than it is on pressing social need, reflecting the somewhat corrupt priorities of this government. 

The Labour party have said that the £5 million isn’t enough. It really isn’t. 

Grenfell Tower stands as a dreadful symbol of the failings of austerity for which the Conservatives are culpable. It’s an emblem of the intentional Conservative attacks on our poorer citizens. Tory MPs have sneeringly  rejected housing regulation; they implemented cuts to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; they disregarded the coroner’s instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council have regularly blocked its ears to tenants’ well-founded anxieties

For many, the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower is a terrible and tragic monument to inequality. It stands as an awful accusation. It should not be the case that society’s most disadvantaged citizens suffer most from the mistakes of the powerful. The state should protect and value citizens’ lives – each life has equal worth, it is equally precious – and not remain indifferent to people who complain that their home is potentially a death trap, neglecting their fundamental concerns and needs. We live in a society where our government values property rights over more fundamental human rights. It’s a democracy for property-owners, but not for tenants.

Danny Dorling has highlighted that black and minority ethnic people in social housing are disproportionately housed in flats, to the extent that most black children in London and Birmingham are housed above the sixth floor. This is not to do with a shortage of housing, but is a reflection of the fact that not only are ethnic minorities more likely to be working-class by wage and occupation, but they experience discrimination – tacitly or blatantly – when allocated housing. Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour MPs are absolutely right to call for the use of empty homes in Kensington to rehouse locally those made homeless, and experiencing such devastating losses, by the fire. 

We live in a society where it’s become normal and somehow acceptable that the privileged class can buy their safety, their security, rights and their legal representation, while many working class people and those citizens who are vulnerable have none of these. 

Grenfell Tower is a charred and bitter testament to how our poorest citizens are placed at risk because we live in a society that values unfettered private profiteering, no matter what the cost to ordinary people, and the superficial and appearance over what really matters – people’s lives. The deadly cladding was added as cheaply as possible to improve the view for others, while the sprinklers, working alarm and fire extinguishers that would have saved lives were omitted. 

Emergency services personnel on top of Grenfell Tower in west London after the fire 
Related

Grenfell is a horrific consequence of a Conservative ‘leaner and more efficient state’

The Conservatives are forced to end austerity because they face a turning tide and electoral extinction

London protests as they happened: Demonstrators demand justice for Grenfell victims after day of fury and sorrow

 


 

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