The Grenfell Tower Inquiry will, eventually, tell us a great deal about the nature of government and also about public sector contracting in the UK.
After decades of efforts, by successive governments, to deliver affordable housing to lower-income households, the impact of the stresses and strains caused by lowest-cost administration and competitive tendering are being examined by a senior judge. This is happening because of the catastrophic fire in June last year.
It would be wrong to speculate over-much on the inquiry’s likely findings. But everyone involved in local government knows how the past 40 years have seen policy changes and spending squeezes whose intention has been the delivery of ever-more ‘efficient’ public provision. Whitehall-originated policies including compulsory competitive tendering, efficiency drives, housing stock transfers, the private finance initiative and cuts to local government house-building have together created the policy environment within which Grenfell Tower operated.
This tragedy took place in a particular borough, but the conditions within which the council, the tenant management organisation, the fire brigade, architects, builders and suppliers operated still exist in similar forms throughout the country. British governments seek to sustain a larger public sector than they are prepared raise tax for, leading to relentless stress on virtually all publicly-provided services.
Contracting and sub-contracting creates long chains of command. These can be made highly effective, as in civil aviation. But there will always be a risk, as the sub-contracting chain extends further and further away from government to those undertaking work on its behalf, that what is delivered will fall short of the original or reasonable expectations. Ministers and senior councillors generally do not see the works they initiate.
A public inquiry is the correct way to find out what went wrong. Kensington & Chelsea RBC and other public sector organisations operate within one of the world’s most centralised democracies. Decisions about public expenditure, house-building, subsidies, building regulations and health & safety are all the responsibility of central government. In coming to their conclusions about what went wrong at Grenfell Tower, the inquiry must surely place the event in a broad public policy context. If this does not happen, there is a risk crucial lessons will not be learned.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London