When Grenfell Tower caught fire on the 14th of June in London, the resulting blaze consumed almost the entirety of the 24-storey structure, leaving behind the buildings blackened and charred skeleton. The tower was home to hundreds of residents living in its flats and while many were able to escape the fire, dozens were taken to hospital in critical condition and some remain missing. At the time of writing, the deaths of thirty people have been confirmed, with the number expected to rise significantly once search teams are finally able to enter the building and locate the bodies of those who were unfortunate enough to remain trapped inside.

While it is too early to apportion blame for the fire, it has quickly become evident that the scale of the tragedy was exacerbated by a weak regulatory framework that facilitated cost-cutting measures the compromised safety in the building. When the Tower was renovated in 2012, external cladding was installed as part of a plan to improve the building’s energy efficiency. It is currently believed that the type of extremely flammable material used for this cladding greatly increased the speed with which the fire spread, changing what might have conceivably been a more manageable conflagration into an uncontrollable inferno. What is significant to note is that this type of cladding has been banned in other parts of the world, including Germany and the United States, precisely because it is a fire hazard, and there is evidence to suggest that successive UK government were made aware of the need to introduce regulations to prevent the use of this material in high-rise buildings. Other policy measures that were suggested in the past to provide greater protection against the spread of the fire, such as mandating the installation of sprinkler systems in buildings like Grenfell Tower, were also repeatedly dismissed by the government.

It is not difficult to determine precisely why the UK government would have adopted such a blasé approach to public health and safety in recent years. With its dogmatic adherence to neoliberal economic ideology since the 1980s, the UK has long been at the forefront of efforts in the Western world to scale back the state and allow market forces to operate with increasing amounts of freedom. From systematically privatising public housing and the National Health Service, to loosening financial regulations and allowing banks to engage in their particular brand of casino capitalism, both Conservative and Labour governments in the UK have bought in to and endorsed the idea that markets are the best guarantors of economic efficiency and the public good. It is in this context that there has been a marked reluctance to introduce new regulations in areas such as public safety, with the idea simply being that such measures would impede the operation of the market and act as a disincentive to investment and economic activity. Instead, there has been a tremendous emphasis on self-regulation, and the belief that private economic actors can be trusted to look after the best interests of their consumers and clients.

In truth, the vaunted ‘bonfire of regulations’ aimed at accelerating economic growth has always been little more than a concerted attempt by powerful elite and corporate entities to protect and pursue their own interests, with the desire for profit and accumulation trumping any broader concerns for public welfare. For example, the cladding used in Grenfell Tower was chosen precisely because it was cheaper than non-flammable alternatives; despite the considerable safety issues attached with using less expensive but flammable cladding, the choice was still made to go ahead with it because that was the most cost-effective option. The well-being of the building’s residents was of no concern to the Tower’s owners, and the absence of regulations to exercise a check on their activities meant that they could go ahead with their plans without any meaningful oversight. The tragic results of these actions are now plain to see, an enduring symbol of what happens when governments abdicate their responsibility to their citizens and place their trust in the dubious mercies of the market.

In the days following the Grenfell Tower fire, grief has quickly turned to popular rage as people from around the UK have come together to protest and demand answers from the government. After a decade of economic austerity, characterised by ever deepening cuts to public services and welfare, rage at the circumstances leading to the fire has combined with popular discontent regarding the economic direction taken by the country in the recent past. It was precisely these feelings that delivered Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party an unexpectedly high share of the vote in the elections that were held last week, and it is likely that the coming weeks will see greater amounts of opposition to the Conservative government and its continued adherence to neo-liberal economic doctrine. While it may be premature to suggest that the Grenfell Tower fire could serve as a catalyst for reversing decades of free market dogma, it can only be hoped that this will be the case.

The same cannot unfortunately be said for Pakistan. Several years after the Baldia factory fire, there is no evidence to suggest that the government or any of the major political parties have any real interest in implementing or even formulating the kinds of basic regulations that would protect the country’s citizens from the predations of the market. Like much of the developing world, Pakistan since the 1990s has been engaged in a race to the bottom with regards to eroding the scant protections that do exist to protect workers and consumers, all with a view towards attracting investment and securing the interests of the economically powerful, and this is unlikely to change any time soon. Tragedies like what befell Grenfell Tower are literally just a spark away from unfolding in Pakistan, they have happened in the past and are tragically likely to happen again.

 

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk