Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

GRENFELL TOWER AND THE “BONFIRE OF THE REGULATIONS”

From the passing of the first factory acts in the early 19th century to the constant enactment of rules and regulations in the following two centuries, there has been a continuous tension between capitalists wanting commodity production relatively free from government interference and commodity production constrained by government regulations.

Historically, the Factory owners and their political supporters lost the battle for commodity production to be absolutely free from government regulation (see Marx, CAPITALvolume 1, Chapter 15, Machinery and Large-Scale Industry). What remained for the capitalists and their political advisors to fight over was the balance to be struck between “light-touch” regulation as opposed to “heavy-handed” government regulation of agricultural, commercial and industrial production. And into the regulatory equation came the primary political consideration for the capitalist class to compete effectively, reduce costs and to make a profit.

Regulations were also introduced for the preservation of the ruling class. In the early 19th century, central government became increasingly concerned about the conditions of the urban poor. Outbreaks of cholera created concern because the disease could spread outside the slums to more genteel areas of cities and towns; a notable victim being Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert. A series of government inquiries identified problems of overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation which led to a national building Act in 1841. The bill failed due to opposition from the construction industry and a change of government to one more conciliatory to the interests of industrialists. However, some of the Act was incorporated into the Metropolitan Building Act (1844), which once again extended the area covered by London's building control regulations.

It was a series of Public Health Acts that established a more consistent system for controlling cities and towns. The first such Act in 1848 laid the foundations of local authority control of construction in England and Wales. The Local Government Act of 1858 extended the powers of local authorities to regulate buildings through the introduction of bye-laws. The Act of 1858 permitted local boards in England and Wales to require the deposit of plans for any new buildings or alterations thereby controlling the design and specification of buildings. The Public Health Act of 1875 consolidated building control throughout England while a similar Act was passed for Ireland (1878) and Scotland (1897).

Additions and changes to building control enforcement continued throughout the Twentieth Century. The Tories introduced a set of national guidelines in the Public Health Act in 1936 while. Scotland was the first to adopt national regulations with the passing of Building (Scotland) Act in 1959. England and Wales followed suit and the first regulations were passed in 1965 coming into operation in February 1966, apart from the Inner London Boroughs. The history of the building regulations (and trading standards with its seventy acts of Parliament and 2000 statutory instruments) can be seen as an ongoing form of insurance policy enjoyed by the capitalist class as a whole from potentially poor and dangerous activities of the construction industry. Jerry-built housing by speculators dates from the 1860’s.
(see: THE EVOLUTION OF THE BUILDING REGULATIONS 1840 to 1914 vol. 1 and 2, R. H. Harper, 1978 and http://www.buildinghistory.org/regulations.shtml).

The building regulations are now a site of political contestation between regulators and deregulators. There is a whole industry of experts recommending additional changes to the building regulations. Adding more sections to the regulations often increases the cost of construction and decreases potential profits, particularly in speculative housing. Additional regulations are often resisted by powerful construction industry lobbyists, their politicians and professional advisors, particularly those drawn from the various free market institutes like Policy Exchange. The capitalist media also joins in, by referring to regulations as “red tape” or “health and Safety gone mad”.

Another force in the generation of regulations has been the trade union movement locked in a day-to-day class struggle with employers, where trade unions have tried to improve the conditions of their members. The Match Girl’s strike of 1888, for example, where girls, mainly from Ireland, worked next to dangerous machinery and were exposed to phosphorous, led to a successful strike to improve pay and working conditions. This victory caused similar trade unions to be formed over the following decade. Strikes over health and safety are now just as common as strikes over higher pay.

Over the past ten years the Tories have been actively trying to reduce what they call “red tape” which they believe is constraining businesses to compete effectively. On the 10 May 2017 a document for the Red Tape Initiative, a cross-party body and supported by the government saw Brexit as a chance to cut red tape. Entitled The EU’s Impact on the UK Housing and Construction Industry, it picked out the Construction Products Regulation (EU 305/2011) as “red tape folly” which is “expensive and burdensome for small businesses” (“The Grenfell inquiry will be a stich-up- and here’s why”, George Monbiot, GUARDIAN 5th July 2017).

The regulation aimed to harmonise the quality of construction materials, including external cladding, across the EU, to make sure they are safe and fit for use. The regulation stated: “The construction works must be designed and built in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire the generation and spread of fire and smoke within the construction works are limited.”

Too late for the tenants who died in the Grenfell Tower fire. Pressure to keep costs down during the refurbishment of the flats appears to have driven by the decision to use cheaper cladding. It seems aluminium panels with a flammable core were selected for the tower in place of the fire-proof zinc material in order to save nearly £300,000 (INDEPENDENT, 30th June 2017).The cladding fitted to Grenfell Tower was Reynobond PE, manufactured in France by the US Company Arcononic. According to the company’s fact-sheet, Reynobond PE should not be used on buildings at a height greater than 10 metres (THE EUROPEAN 2nd July 2017).

What usually forces governments to pass more regulations is a disaster, like the Grenfell Tower fire. Regulations often follow from commercial practices that have caused harm to consumers from the use of dangerous commodities. Regulations have also been enacted when certain processes and materials were either maiming or killing workers, either at home or at work. This was the case after the Ronan Point disaster in May 1968), The Summerfield fire, August 1975, the Bradford City Stadium fire May 1985 and the Kings Cross Station fire, July 1987. Except, that is, the Lakanal House Fire in July 2009 where recommendations were not implemented by the government.

However, regulations cannot be so “heavy-handed” as to affect competition or making profit difficult or impossible. Ministers are also constantly lobbied by the construction industry to remove regulations or water them down. It was the 2007 Labour Government which removed the legal necessity for fire officers to inspect and certify buildings “to a responsible person”. Increasingly, self-certification became to dominate the regulatory process within the construction industry; particularly electrical and gas installation. So too did the use of desk-top fire-engineering to obtain completion certificates by contractors from Building Control departments.

The continual tension which exists between “light” and “heavy” regulation occurs because production under capitalism is commercially driven with a necessity for capitalists to reduce costs and to make a profit. When a disaster like Grenfell Tower fire takes place, attention is conveniently turned away from the profit motive governing capitalist production to an arcane technical debate over the failure of regulations and who is to blame. A similar “blame-game” took place following the last economic crisis of 2008, when greedy bankers and the unknown effects of mathematical equations used in the derivatives market were blamed instead of understanding the real reason why economist crises took place: that they are an inevitable consequence of commodity production and exchange for profit. Finding convenient “scape-goats” is easier than challenging the profit-system.

When the inquest is held, little or nothing will be said about the priorities of capitalist production. What will not be questioned is the role of powerful lobbying interests, tame politicians and government ministers in watering down or removing regulations under the constant pressure to save costs and the imperative of the profit motive. Why the working class are housed differently to the rich will also not be questioned.

Only socialists question the necessity for the existence of the market, commerce, competition and the drive for profit. In a socialist society would workers be living in housing blocks like Glenfell towers? No, because men and women in a socialist society would receive the best society could produce. Would there be luxury housing for the rich and mean and utilitarian housing for the poor? Not in a classless society based on the principle “from each according to ability to each according to need”. And would a socialist society be so regulated because of the social consequence of harmful commodities, ruthless business interests, the cutting of corners for monetary gain and putting profit before the needs of people? Not where production would be solely for use.

The socialist answer to the Glenfell Tower fire is not more and more regulation, which could well be watered down or removed by future governments under pressure from vested interests within the capitalist class. If capitalism remains in existence as a social system, there will be other Glenfell’s fires in the future. A regulated capitalism is still capitalism; the means of production and distribution are still owned by the capitalist class to the exclusion of the rest of society. Class exploitation still exists in a regulated capitalism just as it does in capitalism where there is “light-touch” regulation. The answer to the Glenfell Tower fire, whose burnt-out wreck is a symbol to the priorities of the profit system, is the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist majority with socialism: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: enquiries@socialiststudies.org.uk | www.socialiststudies.org.uk