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Wednesday 20 September 2017

The real value of public service

By Matt Foster
The response to the devastating fire at London’s Grenfell Tower demonstrated the very best of public service. But as Matt Foster reports, the blaze raises major questions about the resources and respect given to those who work every day to keep people safe.

"They got the call at 00:54. They were there within six minutes. It was like nothing they’d ever seen before,” says Dave Green, national officer for the Fire Brigade’s Union (FBU). In the early hours of 14 June, 250 firefighters using 70 pumps were locked in a desperate battle to control the blaze at Grenfell Tower, which had turned the skies around the Lancaster West Estate in North Kensington a fierce orange.

"Day after day I’ve seen dedication and commitment that goes above and beyond the call of duty." Melanie Dawes

“Very little can prepare you, operationally or emotionally, for what’s about to happen,” Green continues. “You know there’s a job to be done and you’ve got to do it. It’s what everyone trains for. But the reality is that firefighters are just people – just human beings who try and do the best they can.”

Some firefighters returned to the burning building six times, while others were forced to make agonising decisions about which residents they could realistically save. “As soon as the fire started spreading up the building, I’m afraid there were people who were not going to get out,” Green tells PSM. “It’s as plain and simple as that.”

Exactly how the tragedy at Grenfell – in which at least 80 people died – unfolded is now the subject of both a criminal investigation and a public inquiry, chaired by retired appeal court judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick.

Meanwhile, central and local government staff have been working flat out to respond to the tragedy, with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) working seven-day shift patterns to support councils and housing associations with the painstaking job of testing the cladding fitted to tower blocks. “Day after day I’ve seen dedication and commitment that goes above and beyond the call of duty,” the department’s Permanent Secretary, Melanie Dawes, told her staff in a message seen by PSM.

The way ministers and officials respond to Grenfell will shape for decades to come how the public views those whose job it is to keep them safe. For Green, the inquiry must not shy away from asking searching questions of ministers. “The reality is that there are now 11,000 fewer frontline firefighters in the UK than there were in 2010,” he says. “That’s around one in five firefighters no longer protecting people in our society.”

These cuts have, Green says, left firefighters running to stand still, a situation that will be all-too-familiar to many in the diminished ranks of Britain’s public sector workforce. “The government takes the attitude that they will get away with it and that those that are left can do a bit more for less – hopefully the cracks will be papered over and no one will actually notice,” he says. “But then something like this happens and it’s exposed for all to see.”

Even with the largest brigade in England, Green says, the London Fire Brigade relied on support from neighbouring counties in responding to Grenfell. He points out that most brigades don’t have 70 pumps and “if that fire had happened in any other city, you would be talking about a much slower response, a much riskier approach. You would not have the resources there immediately.”

“If that fire had happened in any other city, you would be talking about a much slower response, a much riskier approach. You would not have the resources there immediately.”

Regulatory changes have also drastically reduced the role of firefighters in fire safety since Green joined the fire service in Nottingham in 1985. “We carried out inspections of buildings deemed to be at risk in our station area – old people’s homes, care homes, hospitals, things like that,” he explains. “We got to know them. In effect, it was recognised that the fire service had the expertise and so we were given the responsibility to enforce regulations.”

In 2005, however, the Labour government shifted responsibility for fire safety to employers and landlords, who were required only to appoint a “responsible person” to carry out in-house assessments. Green says this led to confusion over accountability and, ultimately, a relaxation of standards. Buildings can now be inspected by an unqualified fire risk assessor, with the fire service reduced to an overseeing role. Crucially, Green adds, the fire service no longer has “any say in what cladding is put onto a building, or what holes are knocked through walls” – exactly the kind of alterations that can turn a previously safe building into a death trap like Grenfell.

“The safety of our people, especially the vulnerable, is of paramount importance,” Green says. “You cannot give responsibility for that to people who’ve got a vested interest in properties. It has to be given to an independent body – and that body is the fire and rescue service. It’s run by firefighters, every single one has attended fires in high rise buildings, knows what the dangers are. We’ve got no axe to grind. We are public servants - we are not compromised by conflicts of interest.”

Behind the frontline, others are asking serious questions about the capability of UK public services to protect residents of blocks like Grenfell. Dr Richard Simmons is the former chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), an advisory body abolished in 2011. He tells PSM that the “utterly shocking” events of 14 June should prompt us to question how ministers have come to value private sector advice more than the expertise in their own departments.

“What’s happened is the government has increasingly come to depend on external advisers on building regulations,” he says. He explains how the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC), the industry-led voluntary body advising the government on building regulations, is chaired by the chief executive of a building consultancy, while the committee’s members include the technical director of a firm which produced the insulation fitted to Grenfell Tower – which many observers believe may have contributed to the spread of the fire.

Although Simmons stresses that neither appointment implies any wrongdoing, he questions whether the “thinning out of the public service for reasons both technological and ideological” has undermined government’s ability to properly regulate industry. “You need expertise in-house,” he says. “You need people who can go and talk to ministers directly, and who can draw attention to issues which might not be highlighted by people in the private sector.

“I’m not somebody who says the private sector is bad. I like profitable development companies: they are good people to work with, and if they’re profitable you know they’re good at their job. But at the same time they have very direct financial interests. Sometimes there are public interests that are not reflected by the financial interests of the private sector.”

Others believe hiving off key functions from departments into arm’s-length bodies and agencies may have reduced accountability and complicated oversight. “The assumption was that smaller, locally-managed, more flexible units would be better at delivering,” says Colin Talbot, professor of government at Cambridge and Manchester universities. “Of course, what happens over time is you realise that they don’t have the resources to do some things. Take Grenfell as an example: if you decentralise fire regulations to local authorities, those individual local authorities don’t have the capacity to do their own research about which sort of cladding, and which type of insulation behind the cladding, is going to be safe. They can’t set up their own laboratories to research that sort of thing. It becomes incredibly difficult for them do that job properly.”

Talbot believes that the UK’s system of “diffuse governance” could make properly investigating the Grenfell tragedy – and learning the right lessons from it – exceptionally difficult. “In a sense, what may have caused the problem in the first place – which is that there was no one central authority looking at the tower as a whole to make sure it was safe – may present the same problem when it comes to assigning blame. There’s not one person to blame or one single thing to put right.” 

Talbot is sceptical that the Grenfell inquiry will seriously challenge ministers’ mindsets, but says the tragedy shows the need to give central government ultimate responsibility for critical issues like fire safety. “The thing I’ve found most fascinating… is that nobody could say for certain whether or not the materials used at Grenfell were legal or not. That alone tells you something about the regulatory regime – there’s obviously a massive lack of clarity about what is and isn’t allowed.”

Simmons agrees that central government needs to strengthen its oversight of key safety regimes. He believes that bodies such as the Building Research Establishment – privatised in 1997 – may have to be brought back in-house to ensure that experts’ concerns are properly heard in the corridors of power. “Ministers deserve the best advice they can get – and unless there’s a strong core of professional advice within the civil service itself, I don’t know how they’re going to get it,” he warns.

Three months on from the fire, the blackened shell of the Grenfell Tower still looms over Latimer Road station. As the public inquiry begins to gather evidence and government officials work to ensure that such a tragedy will never be repeated, the FBU is calling for a permanent shift in the way Britain views its public servants.

“I’ve heard lots of people say that that building is now an edifice, a monument to what successive governments have done to public services,” Green says. “If that stark, charred building isn’t forever etched on people’s minds as they think about the impact of this, then I don’t think lessons will ever be learned.”

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