Jon Wharnsby, North East London area secretary for the Fire Brigades Union, spoke to Solidarity.
Under the cover of resolving the issue of dangerous cladding, the Tories are hitting working-class people twice over. On one hand, there’s an arbitrary limit of 18m on the height of buildings for which grants will be available. Home-owners in buildings below that will have to take out thousands in government loans. On the other hand they’re paying out £3.5bn to companies to do the work on taller buildings, so we’re all paying as tax-payers too.
There will be a levy on developers but it will only cover a fraction of the money given out, and over many years, so once again it’s a massive state handout to private companies – in many cases the same companies that created the problem. As with the banking crisis in 2008, it’s socialism for the capitalists.
Obviously the FBU wants dangerous cladding removed immediately. Speaking for myself, however, I think this should involve forcing companies to foot the bill to remove the flammable cladding they supplied, all of it, not doling out public funds to a failed industry.
Imagine if there was a terrorist incident in this country and we found out that a builder’s merchant had been complicit in providing the materials used, and done their best to cover it up. There’d be cries for capital punishment to be brought back, probably. The Grenfell Tower inquiry showed that companies knowingly installed flammable cladding, that promoted spread of the fire, with lethal consequences and yet...
It’s come out that property developers who’ve used dangerous cladding have given £2.5m to the Tories and £50,000 directly to Johnson. They’ve invested well there.
In the case of Grenfell, that block had seen other fires over the years, they were contained. Those blocks built in the 50s, 60s and 70s were designed to be compartmentalised in the event of a fire. It was only when Grenfell was “refurbished” that the problem was created. There’s been a fire at a neighbouring block since and it was also contained, allowing it to be controlled. The difference is that block hadn’t been refurbished!
The underlying problem is deregulation of building safety. When New Labour reorganised the fire and rescue service, the basic responsibility was shifted from the fire service to the owners and managers of buildings. The fire service can still intervene but essentially only in extreme circumstances.
We need to reassert something like the post-war system of proper public regulation, with fire authorities making these key decisions on safety, and meaningful national standards.
The wider reality is that all systems of regulation in this country are deliberately toothless and inadequate, deliberately designed to let private companies off the hook. Look at the banks, look at the HSE [Health and Safety Executive] failing to act on thousands of Covid safety complaints.
Now, in terms of firefighters in London, we’re facing proposals that would require firefighters to do and risk more, instead of sorting out issues of building safety. Instead the focus should be placed on making these buildings safe to live in and not catastrophically fail like Grenfell Tower.
The wider labour movement should keep the spotlight on the issues I’ve raised here. But more widely we can only tackle them by fighting the Tories – and more widely still fighting the free-market, anti-working class politics they stand for. Blairism showed that just getting rid of the Tories is not enough. People in the Labour Party need to challenge Tory-lite politics.
• Jon recommends listening to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry podcast