If the Grenfell tragedy teaches us anything, it must be that regulation is not 'Red Tape', it is an essential safeguard for a civilised society. Scotland has escaped some of the worst examples of deregulation, but we shouldn't be too quick to pat ourselves on the back.
The circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire will be subject to a judge-led inquiry and it is clear that regulations and enforcement will be one of the issues to be considered. In Scotland, a change to building regulations in 2005 made it mandatory for builders to ensure that any external cladding "inhibited" fire spreading. The new regulations were introduced following a fatal fire in an Irvine tower block in 1999. The Building (Scotland) Regulations 2004 contains the mandatory regulation: "Every building must be designed and constructed in such a way that in the event of an outbreak of fire within the building, or from an external source, the spread of fire on the external walls of the building is inhibited."
This is the primary reason why no social housing tower blocks in Scotland have been found to have the type of cladding used at Grenfell. However, effective regulation is only part of the story, we also have to ensure we enforce those regulations. On this, Scotland is not doing so well.
A recent UNISON Scotland survey reveals that building control staff are short-staffed, overworked, stressed and long overdue a pay rise. Key findings from the survey show:
- Almost half (48%) said there have been budget cuts this year while one in five (20%) said the cuts had been severe.
- There are 56 less staff working in the Building Standards departments now than in 2010.
- The overwhelming majority (89%) feel their workload has got heavier in the last few years.
- Almost half (47%) felt they should spend a lot more time on site visits while just 13% felt they had the right balance between site visits and office time.
- 48% described morale as low, with over three quarters (78%) saying they don’t expect it to improve as a result of budget cuts, increased workload and lack of a pay rise.
The report reveals a dedicated workforce committed to ensuring that buildings meet the standards required, but who are under enormous pressure. They feel exhausted, undervalued and are struggling to deal with the demands placed upon them. Previous UNISON surveys of other regulatory staff, covering, food, consumer rights, planning and the environment, highlight similar concerns.
The former UK coalition and Conservative governments promised a “bonfire of red tape” with a “one-in-two-out” rule governing new regulation. In Scotland, there is a more measured approach in the Regulatory Reform (Scotland) Act, but much of the language around this legislation was similar. Too much emphasis on supporting business and not enough on compliance.
On food, Scotland has abandoned the visual inspection of some animals in abattoirs and Food Standards Scotland want to go further in abandoning independent meat inspection. Environmental health officers have had to scale down their inspections of food premises due to staffing cuts. Deregulation of planning has long-term consequences in both built and natural environment, even if the consequences of poor decisions or regulation can take years to emerge.
A big focus for Tory deregulation was health and safety. 137 people were killed at work last year, but this figure is dwarfed by the numbers of people dying of work-related illnesses, including at least 5,000 a year who lose their lives to asbestos-related cancers. The Hazards Campaign estimate that around 50,000 people die each year due to past poor working conditions of heart and lung diseases and work cancers,” They argue that the government’s obsession with cutting “red tape” really meant abolition of regulations which protect workers.
Sensible regulation is something we all take for granted. We assume that someone is checking that the food we eat and the goods we buy are safe. Increasingly, that is simply not the case and sadly it will be a tragedy like Grenfell that causes governments to rethink the merits of light touch regulation. It is local government in Scotland that has borne the brunt of austerity cuts and the salami slicing of regulatory departments is not well understood.
An effective state that protects its citizens needs people in order to actually function. If there aren’t people in central government to proactively revise and update regulations and in local government to effectively enforce them, that is a state failure.
In 2015 the New Economics Foundation (NEF) concluded its major investigation into deregulation that had been unfolding behind the scenes in Whitehall for years. They called the final report ‘Threat to Democracy’ – because that is exactly what it is. NEF makes the point that regulations protect us from bad businesses (as well as, in principle at least, bad finance). It is absolutely our democratic right to demand the ability to make those rules, and see them properly enforced.
It remains to be seen whether a chastened Government will, post-Grenfell, retain its deregulatory zeal. Last year NEF also warned that Brexit would only increase this deregulation drive. The Great Repeal Bill threatens to give ministers the power to strike swathes of social and environmental protection from the post-EU statute book.
Grenfell might at least result in a pause on further deregulation, but what we really need is for the mindset around regulation to change. In future, we need a greater appreciation of the role of those who uphold regulatory standards and ensure that both central and local governments have the resources to keep all of us safe.