Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Learning lessons from the London Grenfell Tower fire

The burnt out shell of London's Grenfell Tower is a tragic reminder of the important role of governments in ensuring people are properly housed. Outsourcing or weakly enforcing standards leads to calamity.

Grenfell Tower was clad with highly combustible foam and aluminum, chosen because it was cheaper. The building had no sprinkler system or evacuation plan. The residents were mostly poor.

Under pressure, British Prime Minister Theresa May conceded that "for too long in our country, under governments of both colours, we simply haven't given enough attention to social housing".

"This itself is actually a symptom of an even more fundamental issue," she said. "In this tower just a few miles from the houses of parliament, and in the heart of our great city, people live a fundamentally different life, do not feel the state works for them and are therefore mistrustful of it."

In Australia we are chronically short of public and social housing. We don't even have a coherent housing strategy. The Turnbull government walked away from the National Affordable Housing Agreement with the states in the May budget.

Australian National University historian Frank Bongiorno reminds us of a time, mid-last century, when state and federal governments, both Labor and conservative, "felt a sense of responsibility about ensuring that people had homes, and believed that government needed to get its hands dirty to ensure that they did".

"Their solution, in part, was to build homes," he said. "Now, we endure lectures from the Federal Treasurer about the right of mum-and-dad investors to buy yet another investment property under the country's negative-gearing laws."

In office, Australia's longest-serving prime minister Robert Menzies demanded the Commonwealth Bank provide low-interest loans to those who couldn't afford houses. Because the Commonwealth Bank was then also the Reserve Bank, it pressured the private banks to do the same. Nowadays, Menzies side of politics isn't interested.

Bongiorno told a forum at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture last month that governments know they could make a difference but they "have no real interest in doing so, because for the time being they calculate that there are more votes to be had from rising property values".

In Britain, survivors of the Grenfell Tower inferno told the New York Times that the facade was installed to beautify their tower for the benefit of wealthy neighbours.

Business-friendly governments in Britain – first under Labour and then under the Conservatives – campaigned, with slogans, to pare back safety regulations. A 2005 law, known as the Regulatory Reform Order, removed a requirement for government inspectors to certify that buildings met fire safety codes and replaced it with a system of self-policing.

In 2014, Tony Abbott launched a heavy-handed "Repeal Day", boasting of removing more than 690 regulations. Doing so can have a serious impact, as I know from personal experience. My father lost his life in a construction "accident" before I was born.

The ACT abandoned government-controlled building certification more than a decade ago. It's left to private certifiers employed by builders. When they are working off the plan with no immediate owners it's easy to turn a blind eye. The highly flammable cladding used in London has been often used here.

Architects and their clients are often clueless about the procurement practices of builders and the safety of products. While there are good certification schemes for window glass and plumbing, other materials have far less rigorous accreditation. The insulation industry rarely uses thermal imaging to guarantee its work.

We are often told, especially by the Property Council, that we should remove red tape and green tape. It'd help make Canberra "cool".

Canberra is already pretty cool. Where it is not – the Mr Fluffy houses, the shoebox housing on the north-western outskirts and lack of public amenity – it's the result of planners and regulators taking their eye off the ball. It's hard to imagine that allowing more billboards and still more untried building products will make it any cooler. A diminished National Capital Authority and the ACT Planning Authority will not make Canberra cooler either. As former commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission, Tony Powell laments that a loss of staff and expertise risks the city declining into a truly "dishevelled" state.

First published in The Canberra Times, 6 July, 2017. Photo of the fire-gutted Grenfell Tower, c/o AP/Fairfax