The Grenfell Tower fire was a horrendous … what exactly? Accident? An ‘accident waiting to happen’? A ‘result of (gross) negligence’? A ‘consequence of austerity’? A ‘failure of capitalism’?
The state doesn’t CARE:
The stories are unbearable: the people screaming at the windows, the parents throwing their children from several floors up in the hope they would be saved, the distraught final phone calls made by those realising there was no way out. But above all, the colossal betrayal of vulnerable people’s trust by the state, and not just in west London.
Let’s have JUSTICE!
More demonstrators marched through in central London through Whitehall towards Downing Street and then on to Broadcasting House off Oxford Street. The crowd later moved off towards Kensington High Street, chanting: “No justice, no peace.”
“We are here today because you must look at that building with tears streaming down your face,” one woman said as they neared the foot of the tower. “We need answers and we need answers now,” another man said through a megaphone. “This should not be happening in the United Kingdom.”
Ah. Answers. Now! But what are the questions? Let’s try a few.
Was this disaster predictable?
Yes. But all disasters are ‘predictable’ in the sense that anyone can posit a possible calamity.
Take a stretch of dangerous road. A road engineer or even one of us mere members of the public might well opine that a crash there is likely for ‘objective’ reasons (poor visibility because of trees, tendency for the road to get unusually slippery in wet weather, poor camber, potholes etc).
A crash is therefore ‘predictable’ in general terms. But it is utterly unpredictable in specific terms. Thousands or millions of vehicles may go by safely before some or other fatal combination of small errors causes a crash, which might (a) be nothing like what had been expected and (b) not be ’caused’ by any of the factors previously identified (eg a driver is stung by a wasp and swerves into another car: that could have happened ‘anywhere’ – it was just ‘bad luck’ that it happened on this stretch of road).
There may be no crash at all, ever: drivers themselves spot enough of the risks and do what makes sense to avoid any mishap.
So in this Grenfell Tower case, it’s generally predictable that sooner or later a residential tower block somewhere in the UK will catch fire with horrible results. But it in fact happens amazingly rarely. This is a policy triumph, not a policy failure.
It also might be the case that in the specific case of Grenfell Tower some or other basic precautions/procedures/standards were neglected or ignored, so the chances of disaster occurring here were in fact much higher. But even then it maybe took some freakish bad luck (an exploding fridge on a lower floor?) to set in motion the fire and the way it spread. Had the fridge exploded on the top floor causing a small fire there, maybe no-one would have been hurt and life would be trundling on.
Should More have been done to prevent the disaster?
Take this example.
A busy woman leaves her dog in the car at the top of a steep hill as she dashes into a shop. She apples the handbrake. The dog jumps into the front of the car and dislodges the handbrake. The car trundles down the hill and collides with an oil-tanker. The oil-tanker explodes, wrecking a nearby electricity substation. That causes power to be lost in the local hospital at a crucial moment in a sensitive heart operation, and the patient dies as the hospital’s emergency generators do not come on immediately due to poor maintenance resulting from a recent strike by Corbyn-supporting ancillary workers.
The exploding oil-tanker also sets on fire a nearby tower-block. Hundreds of people die as the fire-escape stairs got blocked by dense poisonous smoke from a pile of burning chemical waste dumped there illegally by fly-tippers: the management company had sent a team round to remove this material, but another apparently more urgent issue at another block had delayed them.
“This should not be happening in the United Kingdom! No justice – no peace!”
The relatives of everyone who died want JUSTICE, carefully calibrated in the form of heavy punishments for other people and money for themselves and their lawyers. Someone has to pay! But who? Whom they should sue for damages?
The hospital? The ancillary workers? J Corbyn? The oil-tanker manufacturers? The car hand-brake manufacturers? The tower-block management company? Theresa May? The woman? The dog?
In this case of one damn thing leading to another, it seems (sic) true to say that all the ensuing accidents would not have happened ‘but for’ the dog dislodging the handbrake. So did the dog’s action cause everything that then happened? We don’t like to accept that. The originating episode seems too footling and ‘remote’ from the final outcomes. All sorts of other factors were in play everywhere.
Is it possible to sift them out and weigh them judiciously to allocate ‘blame’ according to some robust objective standard? No. Any legal finding of ‘liability’ in such a case is only a value-judgement, or even a matter of arbitrary aesthetics.
What? Arbitrary aesthetics? Say it’s not so.
Note that for a legal finding that X (or X’s insurance company) has to compensate Y for an accident, the court has to find that X was negligent. It’s not enough that X’s actions ”contributed’ to the calamity. X has to have ‘reasonably foreseen’ that the (or ‘a’) calamity might happen, then failed to take ‘reasonable’ precautions or otherwise acted ‘carelessly’.
You’ll note a lot of ‘reasonable’ in this. A sprawling wide-open standard that allows the courts to decide what their instinct tells them is the ‘right’ result ‘in all the circumstances of the case’.
In other words, when a disaster such as Grenfell Tower happens we ‘retro-fit’ responsibility. Things that were not all obvious to anyone over months if not decades suddenly become obvious under supercilious questioning from a cunning QC. No-one wants to say (let alone agree) that in such a case risks were weighed up reasonably (enough) by all concerned and that now and then freakish accidents just happen. Someone has to pay.
“You say that you took a sensible risk – are you saying that you gambled with people’s lives?? Wasn’t that simply reckless?”
To which a bold truthful honest answer might be something like this:
No! That’s a revolting accusation and you should be ashamed of yourself.
Any decision made by anyone has an opportunity cost. Here we had to balance different factors, and we did so in good faith.
The council after consulting the tenants agreed only £600,000 for the recent tower-block refit. This meant that we had to choose between cheaper cladding or cheaper wiring. As electrical faults are typically more dangerous and likely to cause fires, we decided to have the stronger wiring and rather cheaper cladding. Even then the cladding we used met all the safety standards set down by the state, and in some respects exceeded them.
We were NOT ‘negligent’. On the contrary, we studied all the literature and recent government scientific data on risk-management. We had to take an informed choice and we did just that. What else could we have done within the budget?
If you want to assert that someone was negligent, why not blame the council ruling party that recently decided to freeze funding for safety provisions in tower-blocks, but spend more on ‘diversity and gender monitoring supervisors’?
Does the State care?
Everywhere you look the state is ‘caring’ more and more, at least if an avalanche of punitive laws and regulations is any test. Yet disasters still happen. Someone has to pay. No justice, no peace (at least until J Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, then any calamity officially will be the fault of ‘capitalism’ and the state will loot private property accordingly).
One interesting aspect of this is the role of technical standards and supporting regulations. In the UK these go back to the Great Fire of London – something had to be done, and something was done.
All sorts of materials can not now be used to make household products/furniture – the materials that are used are often ‘fire-resistant’. So in London (for example) there are now far fewer fires and fire casualties, and (over time) reduced emergency fire services. Risk management – money spent on lots of firepersons sitting around doing nothing can be directed instead to (say) more building safety inspectors?
But that does not mean that any given technical standard is absolutely a priori ‘safe’. It’s just another arbitrary decision based on weighing costs and risks, explicitly and implicitly.
A new problem comes when the state demands standards with such intricacy that the rest of us start to think that if we adhere to such standards (and we face punishment if we don’t) we’ve done ‘enough’. This, says ‘corporate philosopher’ Roger Steare (he of Ethicability), is NOT enough:
The appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower looks like another example of some people believing that compliance with (building) regulations absolves them of moral responsibility for their decisions and actions. Compliance with the law may give them a “GET OUT OF JAIL” card, but it didn’t give residents a “GET OUT OF HELL” card.
I don’t like this line of argument. Apart from anything else, it ignores the actual consequences of huge state regulation.
Hours spent poring over detailed state-imposed ‘standards’ and requirements are hours not spent in thinking carefully about what makes sense. A top banker friend told me that this is part of the problem now with banking. The state has in effect nationalised bankers’ responsibility by setting so many ‘compliance’ standards.
The whole point of such standards is to impose a certain risk-management calculus on all of us. So it’s intended/ inevitable and maybe even reasonable that we stop thinking as much as we did previously about managing risks. No management company can second-guess the science that goes into any given form of building cladding. And (perhaps) extra cladding in any case has been imposed by the state to conserve heat and so reduce energy use. Why? Because CLIMATE CHANGE KILLS! The state took on the risk of imposing extra local fire-risks in the short-term as part of a longer-term policy goal.
In everything we do we must draw a line on analysing and weighing options, and decide to ‘hope for the best’. Whatever we decide, accidents sooner or later may happen, some with especially ghastly big consequences.
There is literally no way to choose ‘objectively’ between trying to avoid a short-term, plausible event with (we think) containable consequences and a longer-term, rather less plausible event with (perhaps) far more widespread consequences. We nonetheless propose to spend gazillions to try to stop ‘climate change’ whose damage is on any calculation far less than the generalised wipeout caused by a major asteroid strike on Earth. Money spent on preventing the latter? Basically zero.
Take sprinkler-systems. It MUST make sense that all tower-blocks have them right?
Maybe not. Perhaps residents opt for spending that money on something else. Perhaps there are other ways to spend some of that money to reduce the risk of widespread fires. Maybe in the Grenfell Tower case they would not have made a significant difference, given what actually happened.
But let’s assume that a proclamation issues that all UK tower-blocks must have sprinkler-systems. A large sum of money is then spent installing such systems. That money is not spent on painting every tower-block with ‘fireproof’ paint.
Lo! as if by magic along come people selling new hi-pressure sprinkler systems. It’s MUCH safer if tower-blocks have these instead of the ‘risky’ old systems installed last year:
What now? Rip out all the old sprinklers and replace them immediately with new ones?
No. We’ve taken reasonable extra precautions for now re sprinklers. Let’s instead give ambulances the latest hi-tech life-saving gadgets. Or give tax rebates to crowd-funded private medical inventions that on any prediction we can now make will save far more lives than these extra sprinklers, even if very rarely one high-profile tragedy happens.
But … but .. don’t you CARE? These regulations must be tightened to require new hi-pressure sprinklers NOW – if only one life is saved, that’s worth it! No peace! No justice!
Nonsense. Collectivist drivel.
That’s why we don’t have 5 mph speed limits on all roads and/or insist that no-one emerges from the house unless dressed in heavily padded clothes and a crash helmet.
We take risks all the time. Whether we like it an admit it or not.
Whatever we do, some tragedies will happen. And sometimes no-one will have been ‘negligent’.
As for the Grenfell Tower calamity, it will take years to establish who if anyone was negligent as a matter of law, and what damage exactly their negligence caused. Sorry. That’s how ‘justice’ works.