Is Grenfell Tower Britain's Katrina?

Posted June 15

If the images of the Grenfell Tower fire in west London are painful to see, the stories not caught on camera are unbearable to hear.

Imagine what goes through the mind of parents as they take the decision to throw their child from a 10th-story window.

Inevitably, grief soon turns to anger and anger leads to questions.

How could this happen?

How, in the capital of one of the world's great economies -- a city that even more than New York encapsulates all that's good about society in our globalized and networked world -- can people burn to death in a way that would have been familiar to Londoners of the 17th and 18th centuries?

Even before Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, got involved, questions such as these made the fire a political event.

Even if Corbyn hadn't used the fire to ask questions about the responsibility of the various public bodies involved in managing and overseeing the tower, people would have wanted answers.

Some commentators on the left are hoping to make this a simple story of austerity: A heartless Conservative government cut central government spending on public housing and cut the wages of the firefighters who battled the blaze, they argue.

This is Prime Minister Theresa May's fault, they imply, talking of the Grenfell fire as a Katrina moment.

Mishandling the emergency in New Orleans after the 2005 hurricane destroyed any claim President George W. Bush had to provide competent or compassionate government. Will it do the same for May?

In truth, the Grenfell tragedy is not a perfect parallel for Katrina. The politics too are different.

Bush bore direct responsibility for the Katrina aftermath because the response was federalized -- his administration was directly managing the operation.

May's government did not own or run the Grenfell Tower. Nor did the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the municipal authority in whose territory the tower stands.

Instead, it was owned and managed by a tenant service organization, or TSO, a nonprofit company run by professional managers and overseen by residents and local politicians.

The TSO in turn employs private companies to service and maintain the building, putting contracts out to tender in process that encourages those companies to complete that work as cheaply as possible.

Responsibility for keeping buildings such as Grenfell safe and secure, in other words, has moved further and further away from the state and thus from the politicians who answer to the people for the actions of that state.

The reasons for outsourcing -- putting management at arms' length and the responsibility in the hands of the lowest bidder -- were respectable and even popular ones.

Central government has a poor record of directly managing services and operations, measured in terms of both money and quality. So successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, sought to give power (and responsibility) away.

Even before Grenfell, that idea of the state was facing serious challenge.

Corbyn saw surprise gains for Labour in last week's general election after promising an old-fashioned 1970s vision of the British economy before the reforms of the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Labour would take private utility companies back into public ownership, and the state would provide services directly again.

May, who missed out on her parliamentary majority, didn't go so far, but she still moved in the same direction.

Her campaign suggested ditching the Conservatives' recent tradition of a hands-off approach to markets, promising a more active role for the state.

In the aftermath of the election, some Conservatives have questioned that thinking, suggesting the party should once again devote itself to shrinking the state and putting more faith in the private sector.

Public horror at the Grenfell Tower fire and anger at the system of management and oversight around public housing should cause such Conservatives to think again.

Markets create and spread wealth, but in a fair society, there is always a role for the state.

This awful fire wasn't a Katrina moment for a single politician, but it may just have similar effects on an idea -- the idea that the job of politicians is, wherever possible, to reduce the power of the state and let people and companies run things for themselves.

Katrina ended Bush's authority. From the ashes of Grenfell, a new role for the British state may rise.


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