The Grenfell Tower disaster has shaken Britain. It has exposed as damaging pretence the idea that housing can be left to the ‘free market’, and put the spotlight on one of the many dimensions of social and economic inequalities that are stretched beyond the tolerable.

I’ve been in several conversations about who to blame and how to hold them responsible. No doubt there will be many lawsuits and perhaps criminal charges. I know little about the law, but the discussions sent me back to a wonderful book, Louis Menand’s (2001) The Metaphysical Club. It features the four founding fathers of Pragmatism, Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is a section on the concept of tort liability and how US liability law evolved alongside the rapidly industrialising American economy. It’s a very thought-provoking read on the issues and the interaction of the law, social trends, and ethics.

The book is anyway a brilliant intellectual history, and beautifully written.

As for the disaster, justice is vital, but so is action. Britain’s housing policies from building regulations to taxation, and planning rules to housebuilding, must change. National and local politicians are the people responsible for making sure it happens.


5 thoughts on “Responsibility

  1. I agree with many of your recommendations in your FT article (and Kate Barker’s – I’ve read her wonderful Perspectives book).

    I dislike your dig at the ‘free market’. Surely with development rights nationalised and subject to discretionary political decisions, the housing market is one of the least free markets in the country?

    Hasn’t the majority of our built environment been built under a substantially more free market than at present? Aren’t these older places rather nicer, and more affordable at the time?

      • I think truly ‘leaving it to the market’ might work. By which I mean going back to a pre-1947 Town and Country Planning Act system. I grew up in a nice semi-detached house built in the 1930s house-building boom, built by private developers.

        That’s politically infeasible, so yes we need a more mixed economy approach. Council house-building, capital gains taxes, perhaps State-led land assembly and land value capture for infrastructure. Maybe the State needs to let go a bit in loosening planning restrictions – or making them more rules based.

        But we need to be careful about words. I don’t think relying on private house builders in a system where the State rations land severely should be called a free market.

        I say this because a lot of my generation seem to be embracing Corbynism and dislike markets and ‘neoliberalism’. I think they have a legitimate grievance over a housing market rigged against them – but this is as much a State failure as a market failure. A planning system more responsive to market signals would help my generation hugely, so I don’t want to see market used as a dirty word.

        But don’t let me leave you with the impression I’m being critical of you. I’m a big fan.

  2. A few days ago I did a piece on the subject of “Some Of My Best Friends Were Architects” going back to the 50’s and dealing with property. It was close to fifty years ago when I found myself in a local authority with a lot of files on buildings to contend with. Ye gods we even had one that had high officials from London up to see. It was a complicated world where politicians ignorant of law or indeed how to put one brick on top of another were invited to make major decisions on design and planning. Behind us all was The Treasurer and his lackeys determined to curb our spending at any cost. One of my achievements was to convince the Health Authority committee dealing with a new hospital that the size of the lifts needed to be bigger than those in the local department store and rather more in number.

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