Organised State Abandonment: The Meaning of Grenfell

Image: Kev Seto

Wednesday 19th September, 2018

Brenna Bhandar

“My family were survivors of life, yeah? This is not the only traumatic thing that’s happened to us that’s been on the news, et cetera, yeah? And we’re fighters naturally, yeah? So who do you argue with? Who do I argue with? This has been my stress this year, this has made me ill… So, honestly, the last bit, all the message – the only message that I have is for Sir Martin, Theresa May and the rest of the government, red, green, blue yellow… Sir Martin, you do right by us all and you will do right by my – my children. Everybody’s else’s, yeah, but you will do right by my children, because I can’t fight you, I can’t argue with you and I can’t turn up and knock on Theresa May’s door, yeah? That’s all I’m saying.”

Claudia Davis, former partner of Steven Power, who died in the fire,
Commemoration Hearings, Grenfell Public Inquiry, May 25th, 2018

“Our clients firmly believe that it is absolutely vital that the terms of reference are amended so that race, religion and social class are considered, because whilst there will be – and I accept rightly – focus on the construction and refurbishment of the tower which led to the fire, that will not be the full story. That will not explain why it was that these particular people – these particular people – were the ones that died and will not explain what led them to their death.”

Imran Khan QC, Opening Statement,
Grenfell Public Inquiry, June 5th, 2018

“I have found no evidence so far that there was any understanding by any member of the design team or construction team, nor by the approving authority, that the rainscreen cladding system was either combustible or in breach of the Building Regulations.”

Dr. Barbara Lane, expert report,
Grenfell Public Inquiry, para 2.28.1

On June 14th, 2017 a fire started in a flat on the 4th floor of Grenfell Tower. It spread to the exterior of the flat, and within 12 minutes, had leapt up 19 stories, fuelled by combustible cladding and a catastrophic failure of many other fire safety provisions. The testimony of survivors of the fire, the bereaved and their families with which the Public Inquiry began was harrowing. The details of lives lived and lost in an entirely preventable tragedy, the sense of the horror of knowing how individuals and entire families succumbed to their deaths, was courageously spoken about by survivors and the bereaved. The purpose of the commemoration hearings was to clearly set out what is at stake in the Public Inquiry – simply put, to hold power to account for this senseless and maddening loss of life.

In the aftermath of June 2017, the word “Grenfell” has come to represent much more than a high-rise tower on the Lancaster West Estate in the Latimer Road area of West London. It has come to signify the worst aspects of a neo-liberal mode of governance that took hold in Britain from the 1980s onwards, in which the provision of social goods and services was disaggregated amongst several different private providers; in which the border between state authority and private provider, and their corresponding legal duties have become blurred and difficult to discern. Grenfell has come to represent the utter failure of the state to provide a basic minimum of support for victims in the aftermath of a horrendous tragedy that traumatised an entire community. Grenfell has become an exemplary instance of the callous disregard for the value of human life, the calculated indifference towards working class and racialised people that characterise the actions of the politicians, policy-makers, and corporate lobbyists who have pursued a de-regulation and privatisation agenda at any cost.

The meaning of Grenfell lies in the abandonment of the state’s responsibilities to provide minimum levels of safety and security to its constituents. Ms. Davis’ frustration with the lack of accountability on the part of an identifiable state authority is a result of state bodies forsaking their responsibility to provide social goods to which residents and citizens are entitled. In its rush to make the provision of social welfare, such as housing, profitable for business, the state in conjunction with the corporate sector have subjected some of the most vulnerable populations to lethal forms of precarity and insecurity. Organised state abandonment in the context of neo-liberal Britain and Grenfell more specifically relies upon and has reignited an amalgam of racist ideologies and class spite, a specific hostility towards more recently arrived immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, and economic policies based on profit maximisation and the extraction of value from any and every possible site, including the provision of social housing.

I: A Failure to Regulate and Regulations that Fail

A fair number of articles have appeared in the media in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire detailing the changes to fire safety regulation that began in the 1980s and carried on up until 2013. Most if not all of the changes to fire safety regulation, like other forms of regulation, were undertaken in slavish adherence to the mantra of reducing regulation to make business more efficient and profitable. De-regulation was a counterpart to the increasing privatisation of state provision of social goods. If for-profit, private businesses were to be involved in running what were previously state services, then regulatory regimes would need to be lean enough to enable the easy and profitable functioning of businesses.

Unfortunately, the drive to de-regulate, which reached a manic peak with the government of David Cameron, who vowed in 2012 to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” as it had become “the albatross around the neck of British businesses” has had lethal consequences for those whose lives depend on state authorities to set and enforce adequate standards for building safety. As Michael Mansfield QC remarked upon in his opening statement to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry:

“while Grenfell Tower was still slow-burning, an exclusive, government-backed group of senior high-profile grandees from the world of politics and business, has arranged a meeting of experts to discuss the subject of ‘cladding.’ The group was known as RTI – or the ‘Red Tape Initiative’. They had convened a few months earlier in April 2017. The group’s objectives were clear: to dismantle EU regulations that were considered a hindrance to profit-making… Such was the thinking of the dominant power brokers, during the dying embers of Grenfell Tower. In this atmosphere, safety regulation was sneered at as ‘red tape folly’; and dismissed as ‘expensive’ and ‘burdensome.’”

The suite of building and fire safety regulations that are relevant to discerning liability and responsibility for catastrophes such as Grenfell, or the fire at Lakanal House in 2009 that killed 6 people, including three young children are complex. The list of relevant legislation identified by Dr. Lane is structured in her expert report in a “hierarchy of guidance” beginning with Building Act legislation dating back to 1962, codes of practice ultimately approved by the Secretary of State, British Standards produced by a governmental process involving consultation with industry experts, and “other guidance” provided by parties in the construction industry. (Dr. Lane, expert report, Appendix D, D3)

It is clear that fire safety is provided by a multi-layered approach that covers building design, construction, adequate testing standards and methods, fire-fighting policies (such as the much interrogated “Stay Put” policy) and regulatory oversight, which constitute as a whole a “layered approach”. As Lane notes in her expert report, “‘defence in depth’ should achieve a high level of safety throughout the provision of multiple forms of fire safety measure.” (Dr. Lane, expert report, para 2.8.8.) The implications of this kind of safety framework are important to consider when we think about how a tragedy such as Grenfell could have happened:

Individual layers are not necessarily required to be sophisticated or of a very high reliability. Instead, a high level of safety is achieved through aggregating each layer. Therefore, in theory, lapses and weaknesses in one defence layer should not allow a substantial risk to materialize, since other defences also exist to prevent a catastrophic failure in safety. (Dr. Lane, expert report, para 2.8.9)

The whole is only as strong as its many parts, and the fire safety regime must therefore be cognisant of all the layers of safety, how they interrelate, and must take steps to maintain them. Dr. Lane sets out in forensic detail how each of these layers failed. That a loss of life on this scale happened was not simply because the cladding was combustible - although it is an astounding and egregious fact that a high-rise tower could be clad in material as combustible as petrol itself – but the failure of both active and passive fire safety protection measures across the board. The multi-layered approach to fire safety becomes a major liability when the management and provision of social housing is fragmented, spread out between a web of private, public and quasi-public organisations. The dicing up and fragmentation of the provision and procurement of the different and interlinked factors of fire safety has had disastrous consequences; a materialised analogy to the tranching seen in the world of subprime mortgages. As Dr. Lane notes, the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower that took place between 2012-2016, which is what rendered the Tower structurally unsafe, involved no fewer than 6 parties as the major players, but stretches to twenty when we include the suppliers of the materials used. However, the large number of corporate and public actors involved in the refurbishment does not reflect a stronger composite of legal accountability and ethical behaviour, on the contrary, it has resulted in a fracturing and dissipation of responsibility, a “merry-go-round of buck-passing” that leaves those affected by their actions without remedy.

And no party is guiltier of this than the government itself. As the authors of the report The Paper Trail note in relation to parliamentary debates on whether sprinklers should be fitted in new high-rise towers and retrofitted in existing ones, the government did not relent in asserting that this was the responsibility of building owners. While Eric Pickles, then Secretary for the Department for communities and Local Government did write to building owners on the recommendation of the Coroner for the Lakanal House fire, this remained within the discretion of building owners and was never mandated as necessary by the government, despite clear evidence that sprinklers would significantly decrease the potential loss of life in high-rise fires. As research by Inside Housing notes, "just 18 of 2925 council-owned high-rise blocks in England had sprinklers fitted inside flats” as of 2015.

Gleaning several ministerial announcements about the repeal of fire safety legislation, nowhere are there references to the lives of residents in high-rise towers who rely on statutory protections for their safety and security. In an announcement ahead of the repeal in 2013 of various fire safety regulations, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Don Foster announced that changes to the building regulations regime in England would “save £50 million for business” each year. Mr. Foster emphasised that the changes demonstrated “the Government’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that where regulation is necessary the impact on business is properly considered and the associated cost minimised.” The glaring absence of any mention of the people whose lives would be most affected by the changes to fire safety regulation reflect a way of seeing, one in which particular groups of people – racialised, migrant, working class, those living with disabilities, single mothers – in their manifold intersections, are rendered absent, invisible, and worthless in the minds of those making the decisions.

In the rush to deregulate, to cut costs for business, the statutory provisions for fire safety became poorly defined and their interpretation uncertain. Dr. Lane notes that “[t]he suites of National and European reaction to fire tests is complex and confusing, as I have illustrated in my Appendix F. No guidance is provided on which regime takes precedence when differing classifications are obtained for the same material or product. This has become a critical problem.” (Dr. Lane, expert report, para 2.29.3) She goes on to note that an absence of clear definitions (of terms such as “external surface” and “filler” as they apply to rainscreen cladding), coupled with no clear direction on which regime (European or British) takes precedence where there is conflict, has led to a situation in which a failure or lapse of safety standards was practically inevitable. As for those Brexiteers so intent on taking back control, she notes that “a material can fail to meet all applicable European performance requirements… but nonetheless be compliant with the National Class 0… defined by testing to British Standards.” (Dr. Lane, expert report, para 2.9.11) A failure to adhere to European standards of fire safety even before the UK leaves the EU does not bode well for the future of safety regulation.

While the confusing and complex morass of regulations, in part, a result itself of the drive to de-regulate have certainly created the conditions for the regulations themselves to fail to provide adequate safety standards, there was also a failure to enforce existing regulations. For example, the failure to ensure that the fire safety doors installed during the refurbishment met current standards. Dr. Lane found that doors that were replaced in 2011 did not meet existing regulations for the length of time they could withstand the heat and smoke produced by fire. An important layer in the safety framework called compartmentalisation, upon which the Stay Put policy is based, the doors produced and installed by Manse Masterdor Corporation for the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) were not compliant with regulations. (Dr. Lane’s expert report, para 2.15.27). Were these doors simply the cheapest ones to buy? Did the KCTMO not bother to ensure that the doors to each flat could withstand the spread of fire for at least 30 minutes, if not 60? In this instance, liability is not even particularly confusing. The “organogram” in Dr. Lane’s report which visually describes the web of actors involved in each aspect of the refurbishment has only two parties – Manse Masterdor and KCTMO.

Dr. Lane also finds no evidence to assure her that the stair doors were compliant, again chipping away at the multi-layered fire safety framework. The smoke ventilation system, the width of the staircase – the only escape route for residents – did not meet the statutory guidance. The fire lift failed. The list of failures goes on and on. One could conclude that the Council, the KCTMO, and all of the private contractors involved in the different parts of the refurbishment simply did not have sufficient regard for the lives of the people living in Grenfell Tower. But this is only the case because they are operating in a context created by state and private actors – one characterised by the organised abandonment of state responsibilities to citizens and residents to provide basic levels of safety and security.

In any regime of organised abandonment there will be dissenting voices. And indeed, in this case too, there have been a wide range of organisations and individuals drawing attention to the perils of weakened and inadequate standards for fire safety in high rise towers. From Parliamentary Committees, to individual fire safety experts, to residents’ associations, individuals and organisations concerned with the potential loss of life due to poor regulations have repeatedly voiced their views. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, for instance, George Monbiot refers to a House of Commons Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Report from 2000, which explicitly states that Witnesses to their Inquiry warned of the inadequate provisions for external cladding of high-rise towers in Approved Document B (including the use of “desk-stop” studies rather than full “live” testing of combustibility). They specifically recommended that all external cladding be entirely non-combustible; they make other recommendations which were clearly ignored by both Labour and Tory governments. More specifically, the multitude of warnings and pleas from the Grenfell Action Group regarding the lack of fire safety in the building was ignored by RBKC and KCTMO.

Over a period of decades, the government and the local council had embraced a mode of governing that prioritised the efficient running of businesses whose sole task, in turn, was profit maximisation. This mode of governing and the site for profit making was the provision of social goods and entitlements. This could only unfold if, underlying this mode of governance and organisation, there was a pre-existing and profound disregard for the lives of those living in social housing. And of course, this profound lack of care for the value of human life could only manifest in the way that it did, because it intersected with a complex of racism, class hierarchy, xenophobia, and able-ism each with their own specific histories that are difficult to map yet crucial to understand. Understanding the meaning of Grenfell requires an intersectional analysis of the socio-economic and political forces, state policy and private corporate involvement in the provision of social housing, building and construction regulation, real estate development, immigration policies, and health and social welfare provision.

II: Organised State Abandonment: A Concept for Our Time

In the 1990s, management guru Peter Drucker used the term “organised abandonment” in his book Post-Capitalist Society to describe what organisations in the new “knowledge economy” needed to do in order to effectively manage and plan for change. Given the emergence of an economy based on the production, marketisation and application of knowledge (rather than land or factory labour) which by its very nature, would be continually evolving, organisations would have to learn to change quickly and adapt to new circumstances. The concept of organised abandonment denotes the purposeful jettisoning of any mode of management, any aspect of organisational structure or way of doing things that will no longer serve the interests of the organisation. “[The organization] must be organized for systematic abandonment of the established, the customary, the familiar, the comfortable, whether products, services and processes, human and social relationships, skills or organizations themselves.”

Drucker extended this mantra of organized abandonment to the operation of governments. Governments, for instance, needed to abandon the “belief that the Fiscal State can effectively redistribute income and thereby reform society through taxation and subsidies”. While organised abandonment will “constantly upset, disorganize, destabilize the community,” Drucker sees this as an inevitable challenge, one that must be overcome and transcended by the single-minded pursuit of the organization’s objective. It does not matter what the social cost is, how many jobs may be lost, workers rendered “redundant”; changes in technology or knowledge are to be the sovereign drivers of organisations. The values of the organisation are to be determined by one thing and one thing only: its primary objective or “task”. For instance, if the Home Office as an organisation has as its primary task over a given period of time the reduction of numbers of immigrants, the social cost of its policies (a hostile environment that leads to a spike in attacks on people of colour, for instance) should not matter.

In The Limits to Capital, Marxist geographer David Harvey used the term “organised abandonment” to explain how, in the context of the built environment, the hegemonic function of interest-bearing money capital requires special institutional arrangements to deal with the “production, use, transformation and abandonment of particular elements within the built environment…”. The global credit system and the dominance of fictitious capital determine the parameters within which “landowners, developers, builders, the state” and residents can operate within and use specific places. Tellingly, he uses red-lining as an example of organized abandonment – a scenario in which financial institutions, in combination with state and regional urban development and regeneration policies have to engage in “organized abandonment” to accommodate public and private investment in real estate. Relying on and reinforcing racial regimes of ownership, red-lining becomes the mechanism through which people of colour are excluded from homeownership in particular areas; racial segregation is reinforced in the drive to accumulate profit through real estate speculation and development. The managed decline of housing estates in parts of London constitute a form of organised state abandonment – the state relinquishing their duty to provide safe, secure tenure for people on low incomes, in order to achieve the objective of stimulating economic growth through real estate development. (See Anna Minton, p. 10)

The critical concept of “organised abandonment” as a way to understand how a range of institutions and organisations, both public and private, operate to further the objective of private profit at great cost to particular populations is developed more fully in the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who emphasises its crucial connection with crisis, and significantly for our purposes here, with the idea of the “anti-state state”. To oversimplify for the sake of brevity, states manufacture crises in order to impose new modes of governing on populations, in order to deal with an underlying crisis of capitalist accumulation. A quick example to make the point: Reagan’s “war on drugs” and corresponding intensification of the criminalisation of racialised and poor communities was used to bolster the rise of the prison industrial complex, which was, as Wilson Gilmore shows in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California, a response to particular economic conditions in urban and rural California in the 1980s.

Wilson Gilmore links the idea of organised abandonment to the anti-state state, to show how governments that purport to ideologically support the shrinking or withdrawal of the state in fact end up increasing state expenditure to achieve their aims. As Robin Blackburn notes in a recent article, in the United Kingdom, the explosion of Public-Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) has meant the handover of hundreds of billions of taxpayer funds to private corporations providing goods and services once provided by the state, who then “’invest’ it back into public projects.” Austerity policies have been heralded as a necessity to remedy a financial crisis occasioned by the bursting of a bubble created by a financial sector that was the beneficiary of massive amounts of public funding from Thatcher onwards. Social housing is one such site where PFIs have wreaked havoc.

This concept helps us do the work of understanding how the state and capitalist interests devise means to subordinate and render particular groups of people vulnerable to precarity, injury and premature death across multiple scales, connecting decisions taken at the level of the local estate to global financial interests in the real estate market; from decisions taken by the Home Office regarding the deportation of individuals to a nationalist ideology that has always defined the true British subject as white, male and propertied, revived by May’s hostile environment policy and given new life by the Brexiteers. Avery F. Gordon uses the formulation “organised socio-economic abandonment” to denote precisely this combination of forces that operate to confine and capture the lives of the worker, the enemy, the criminal, the migrant, the resident alien.

Despite their divergent meanings, these uses of the term “organised abandonment” point to the way in which organisations, state and otherwise, manage their activities in such a way so as to render groups of people irrelevant in their calculations, or alternatively with a purposeful intention to extract value from the lives of marginalised people who are deemed unworthy of the socio-economic security and political equality that are conducive to human flourishing or even just basic safety. In both cases, this whole mode of management relies on a profound devaluation of human lives, the lives of those without social-cultural and economic capital.

The absolute absence of concern (in the first instance) for the lives of marginalised people has a particular resonance, historically speaking, in the British domestic and colonial contexts. For instance, peruse any legislation relating to the enclosure or appropriation of land, and you will be hard-pressed to find references to those whose land was being enclosed or stolen. Whether this was about commons lands being enclosed or indigenous lands being appropriated by colonial authorities, those being dispossessed never appear in the text, as if they did not exist at all. This is not to say that the British colonial state did not legislate to govern these populations, but that there is a clear erasure or absenting of particular groups of people in the text of legislation pertaining to matters of property and ownership.

What is of key significance here is the absence of any explicit intention to produce harm. Where there is a prima facie disregard for the lives of particular groups of people, an intention to harm is not a necessary precondition for rendering them vulnerable to premature death. It is simply the status quo. And it is this fact of history, and it is this history of our present in the UK that renders the search for individual intention rather beside the point. Andrew O’Hagan’s near obsession with proving a lack of intent on the part of Tory Councillors Paget-Brown and Fielding-Mellon to commit homicide, in his widely criticised article in the LRB, “The Tower” is irrelevant, and seems to reveal more about the political investments of the individual author than anything else.

III: Full Spectrum Liability for Full Spectrum Profit

This brings me to the second significant insight we can derive from the concept of organised abandonment, and this is the way in which a range of state and capitalist forces can operate without public accountability. For the mode of organised state abandonment in today’s world relies heavily on deregulation and privatisation. Doing away with regulations and modes of inspection that no longer suit the imperatives of state authorities that have eschewed the aspiration to provide safe, secure social housing for those in need of it, and instead, have adopted a mode of managing social housing that relies heavily on private providers has produced a public-private nexus of social provisioning that has muddied the waters of legal accountability. But this admittedly complex legal situation is mired in something even worse: a political ethos of neoliberalism premised on the abandonment of responsibility as central to the governing ideals of organisational action. Whatever sector we look at, the culture of buck passing in which nobody seems to have responsibility for anything has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. It is telling that Richard Millet QC for the Public Inquiry, warned against this precise tendency already making itself apparent in the proceedings, and in spite of his warning, this is precisely what the Council and corporate actors went on to do in their opening statements.

This is not to assert some naïve vision of a British state that unproblematically provided social goods equally to all of its constituents prior to the intensification of neo-liberal modes of governing. Race discrimination in the provision of social housing is well documented, and it sits within the larger context of housing being one of the key sites of racist discrimination that persists into the present moment. In fact, the 1968 Race Relations Act provided a very large exception to racial discrimination in the private rental sector. While the provision of social housing was covered by the provisions for anti-discrimination, residential accommodation was not, something which would not be remedied legally until 1976. It is this generalised history of race discrimination in the context of housing that is reconfigured in the neo-liberal moment. The suspicion that migrants or people of colour, or those without socio-economic capital are trying to commit a fraud on the system, or the sense that we do not properly belong in Britain at all permeate the workings of the state in their allocation of social housing, rendering these communities ever more vulnerable to premature death when their shelter, safety and security are dependent on profit-seeking corporations.

I want to suggest that Claudia Davis, along with all other bereaved families and survivors of the fire should have the right to argue with and confront– and then demand compensation – from each and every actor involved in the refurbishment and maintenance of Grenfell Tower. The legal complexity of our privatised state functions, coupled with the culture of impunity produced by the moral, ethical and political failure to take responsibility could be turned on its head by making it clear from the outset that anyone and everyone involved in the provision of state services and goods is responsible for any and all failings that result in harm, injury or death. As a corrective to our current culture of indifference we need overlapping spheres of responsibility whereby the distinction between state and corporate actor matters as little as it does when it comes to providing social goods and to those profiting from privatisation. What would this look like? Quite simply, RBKC, the KTMO, Rydon, and all the other corporate organisations involved in the refurbishment of the Tower would all be held responsible for the 72 deaths, the trauma of the fire’s aftermath, and for re-housing residents because they were all part of the network of public-private provision in relation to the Lancaster West Estate. They could be held proportionately liable according to the value of their interests in the buildings and refurbishment, beginning with the major stakeholder, the landlord. Think of this as a form of strict liability for our neo-liberal times; we could call it full spectrum liability, a new form of social insurance in an age of austerity.

There is a kind of primitivism that lies at the heart of the New Labour and Tory profiteering that caused these deaths – a sacrificial logic that puts the lives of social housing tenants at risk of death by fire while keeping the consciences of neoliberalism’s key architects unscathed and pure. Surely, the human right to shelter and equality law have a place in the legal proceedings unfolding in the Public Inquiry, as does the ongoing criminal law investigation. However, whether the legal inquiry proceeds in the sphere of public, private or criminal law this situation requires a sea change in the legal structures of accountability to catch up with what we all know to be true – that responsibility for this state of affairs must be spread as liberally as opportunities for profit that have seeped into all facets of what remains of our embattled social welfare state.

Brenna Bhandar is Senior Lecturer at SOAS, School of Law. She is author of Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land and Racial Regimes of Ownership (DUP: 2018) and co-editor of Plastic Materialities: Politics, Legality and Metamorphosis in the work of Catherine Malabou (DUP: 2015).

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