Tuesday 31 January 2023

Regulations, Regulators & Grenfell: a disgraceful instance of misplaced laissez-faire

There's a utopian school of thought, perhaps most neatly summarised by Thoreau: "That government is best that governs not at all".  Well, he must obviously have dodged a fair few of the nastier contingencies of life, and had a *rather optimistic* view of the character of some of his fellow men.

Grenfell is in the news again, with Gove's latest statement that what he termed "faulty" government guidance was partly to blame for the disaster.  Well, indeed.  We daily depend for our lives on good regulations and good enforcement, whatever Thoreau thought from the comfort of his log cabin.  The leader of K&C Borough Council (whom I happen to know personally and he's a decent bloke) honorably felt the need to step down after Grenfell: but in the face of a lousy regulatory set-up, what more could he realistically done?  (Always assuming, of course, that it won't be discovered he presided over a council meeting where the officers said: "Members should be advised that out recommended cladding is crap, but it's cheap and we imagine you won't want to spend any more".)

I have fellow-feeling for him, not just from personal acquaintance but because during my time as Chair of Housing in a large London borough, we were pioneers in addressing condensation in tower blocks by the use of cladding.  We inevitably relied 100% on the officers - as an absolute matter of course - to ensure the materials under consideration were suitable, just as we relied on them to supervise the erection of scaffolding etc etc etc.  It worked, in every dimension, and our excellent cladding of many years ago is still there, working as intended.  But what could we have done if our officers were incompetent?  (Except hope to find this out on some innocuous matter, and get rid of them.) 

So:  good regs and good specs required.  But also, good and effective enforcement by competent and adequately-resourced regulators.  Hey, this is (sometimes) life and death; and we are surrounded - pace Thoreau - by crooks, idiots and lazy bastards on all sides.

The dreadful facts are - and George Osborne's laissez-faire regime as Chancellor ** bears huge responsibility for this, IMHO - that regulatory agencies everywhere are appallingly under-resourced.  In this I include incompetent staff, but also pure lack of staff and budget.  Almost every application procedure that I know of - and in my energy dealings I have frequent contact with Ofgem, the EA, the ONR etc etc - starts with self-declarations on almost everything; and when approval is granted, subsequent monitoring is almost always of the "mark your own homework" variety, with reporting by exception only.  

Perhaps the most visible consequences of this approach are in the shape of much-reported spillages of sewage, the EA being amongst the most resource-deprived agencies as well as sewage-spills being high profile events.  But let me also add that, far more disconcertingly, the regulatory framework around the nuclear industry is seriously creaking at the seams.   What EDF is getting away with on their intended new project at Sizewell (still in the planning stages) is pretty bad: and some of what happens at Sellafield is nobody's business, it seems.

Mark-your-own-homework suits a lot of people.  But some of them are crooks.  If Grenfell wasn't bad enough, some day there'll be something even worse.



** If someone can demonstrate that today's situation dates from pre-2010 I will retract that.  But I don't believe it was anything like as extreme back then. 


Don Cox said...

"EA being amongst the most resource-deprived agencies"

The problem is that "resources" come from taxes, which are already much too high. The NHS, like the army of the Roman Empire, has an insatiable appetite, so there isn't enough tax left over for "everything else". And the NHS staff, like the Roman army, keep demanding pay rises.


BlokeInBrum said...

Funny how Government funded charities, especially where equality or sin taxes are involved, never seem to have problems with funding. (with the proviso that there is *never* enough funding for any of these agencies)

djm said...

Perfectly happy to be corrected, but wasn't the cladding at Grenfell there in accordance/complying with EU regulations ?

& about the "source of the fire".. will be have to wait for documents to be released under the 30 year rule before that information is made available to the public ?

Caeser Hēméra said...

We've never been too smart on regulation, frequently used as a barrier to the "little guy", whilst barely punishing transgressions of the "bigger guy", when scaling should allow those with smallest footprints leeway, and leave those with bigger footprints in mortal terror of things going awry.

Part of the reason state-backed enterprises love us, soft touches with wallets out, rewards frequently guaranteed and the risks passed to us taxpayers by way of thanks, and all for the princely sum of handing out a few well padded sinecures.

Has it been ever thus? I don't know, but we seriously need to start some legal equivalents of Putin's defenestration fetish to stamp down on it.

L fairfax said...

According to this
Officials were warned and ignored the danger.
"He claimed that he told Mr Martin that if Approved Document B was not reviewed, then another fire like the 2009 Lakanal House blaze was “inevitable” and risked multiplying the six fatalities in that fire by a multiple of “10 or 12”.

“Brian Martin’s reply to me was: ‘where’s the evidence, show me the bodies’,” his statement added. "
I am not sure how more money would have helped.

Bill Quango MP said...

Try and buy €40 on a debit card and you need photographic I.D. Have done for years and years.
The banking limit for individual cash deposits is now around £5.000 to £10,000 a year. Depending on the bank. Even applies to savings limits, premium bonds, isa.. the lot. Sell a car for cash and you’ll be hiding your wedge around the home.

Because these are the NEW banking framework 3, anti money laundering retail banking limits. The old money laundering regulations weren’t working.

“The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has imposed a financial penalty on HSBC Bank plc (HSBC) of £63.9 million, using its powers as a designated authority under the Money Laundering Regulations 2007 (ML Regulations). The fine included a 30% settlement discount.”

£62.9 million fine is a fair few bonuses.

NatWest, even more.

“NatWest has been fined more than £264m for anti-money-laundering failures that involved black bin liners stuffed full of cash being deposited, and sums so large that one branch’s two floor-to-ceiling safes proved “inadequate” for storing it all.”

The breaches of the (existing, 2016?) regs mean even tougher limits.

This is where we are. The public must be made to stop depositing cash anywhere as the banks don’t like fines and can’t be arsed to provide even the most basic of checks, that they themselves agreed to put in place, with the FCA.

Bin bags of cash! That was in 2021.

Enforcement in the UK is fines after the fact. Not monitoring and enforcement during.
“Lessons have been learned,” has been the mantra of oversight bodies since Tony Blair’s day.
And has been remarkably effective in ensuring there is a scrutinised horse, stable-door, bolt fitting compliance regime, in place.

iOpener said...

We are indeed surrounded by crooks, idiots and lazy bastards and the highest proportions of them are found in the civil service and in politics.

The only solution is to find some way to privatize as much as possible and keep the government share of it minimal.

Sobers said...

"The EA being amongst the most resource-deprived agencies"

The EA budget is north of £1.5bn. If that was doubled do you honestly think it would perform any better?

No, it would just employ more idiots on higher wages, who would achieve nothing, like all the others. Just like every other government body.

Matt said...

"Bin bags of cash"

Yep, lots of the people helping to cultural enrich the UK only deal in cash.

Anonymous said...

Nearly 35 years ago I was a young IT trainee in South London, and one of my trainee colleagues was a young former roads engineer for a local borough, may even have been yours. He said the amount of corruption - as in engineers being offered bribes by contractors to certify that Job A had been done correctly when it hadn't, had made him want to get out of the business.

Not saying that may have happened re cladding. But the guys who sign stuff off will always be a vulnerable point.

Anonymous said...

PS - what think you of Babcock

a) stripping the bolt head when tightening bolts - aren't there these things called torque wrenches - or worse, does the head strip at less than prescribed torque - nuclear fatigue?

b) supergluing the head back on

"never mind, it's only a nuclear reactor"

E-K said...


I happen to know that one of the certifying engineers on that site is an ex airframe engineer from civil aviation.

*They* of all people will know the importance of recording the details of every nut and bolt in an ultra safety environment.

It is a catastrophic breach of trust between Babcock and the RN.

Admirals will be engraged and shitting themselves at the same time. All of this Babcock team's work will have to undergo re-inspection - it isn't just about an individual who did it but about the quality control.

E-K said...

When I worked on jet engines each part (including nuts and bolts) came with a label tied to it and serial number and its complete history could be viewed.

I don't recall any of the records saying "Couldn't be bothered to replace. Super glue applied..."

E-K said...

Of Grenfell - the manufacturer's brochure said that it should not be used above 32 feet because of flammability.

It beggars belief that the people who knowingly took this risk were not sick with worry having taken such a gamble. I lose sleep when I realise I've forgotten something on a train preparation.

You'd have to be a complete sociopath to live this way.

I do, however, take issue with this being turned into a BLM matter. Plenty of London workers cannot afford to live near their workplace and risk life and limb negotiating the M25, the Elephant and Castle, Staples Corner and all manner of hazardous routes. I'd wager a lot more than 72 white commuters have been killed trying to work where they can't afford to live between the Grenfell incident and the last social housing disaster.

Elby the Berserk said...

It was Miliband Minor who initiated this...


Read on...

Back in March 2010, Ed Miliband, then minister for climate change, published Warm Homes, Greener Homes. There he wrote that ‘social housing has the potential to make a big contribution in reducing carbon emissions from homes’. He set out his aim ‘to kickstart the installation of more ambitious eco-upgrades, with social housing providing particular leadership to stimulate the industry and reduce costs’. What he meant was that large-scale programmes to refurbish social housing would encourage building suppliers to make cheap insulation, including wall cladding.

Anonymous said...

100% OT, but I've always had a lot of unanswered questions about the Skripals and Salisbury - the obvious one being how it was that The Most Deadly Nerve Agent In The World was administered to two people, both of whom are still alive. When the Israelis do something like that, the victim dies, except on the one occasion the Jordanians had the perps in custody and an antidote was produced.


Anyway, someone who lives in the area and can gather local knowledge is also puzzled


Nick Drew said...

Anon @ 11:00

the guys who sign stuff off will always be a vulnerable point


The only solution is to find some way to privatize as much as possible and keep the government share of it minimal

There's a real problem here. Privatising certification has become a big thing - in the ESG game (which is non-regulatory, of course), there's a plethora of "ESG certifying" bodies, but it's a joke: either "there to be hired", or tantamount to running a protection racket, a la Stonewall.

Then we move into the semi-regulated world of "green" certification, where there's more than just ESG brownie points at stake, there's a heap of subsidy money, tradable credits etc. And that's headed for serious disrepute / outright scandal territory. The accusations that are levelled against, e.g., the private operation FSC (the so-called Forestry Stewardship Council, which "certifies" the sustainability of forestry operations) are many and various - see this website, dedicated to running them to ground:


Only governments stand a hope in hell of getting on top of these "commercial" pressures

E-K said...

Plus the unsightliness of the flats to posh *remainer voting* denizens of W11.

Anonymous said...

100% OT, but I found my blog post on Georgia and Abkhazia from 15 years ago:

f) Kosovo has had two repercussions. The dismemberment of a chunk of Serbian territory at NATO and EU behest - if not gunpoint - has both cheesed off Russia and given her a blueprint for intervention in South Ossetia and Abhkazia. After all, like Kosovo, the two territories contain lots of people who wish to leave the parent state, a minority of (if you like) loyalists, and a history of bad blood and ethnic strife. Russia can claim to be protecting the majority Ossetian community against the Georgians, just as KFOR protected the majority Kosovo Albanians against the Serbs.

g) so far the US /EU offers of NATO membership have given Georgia the great benefit of Russian invasion

Given then that I knew nothing of the Brzezinski/Wolfowitz doctrine (Brzezisnki also persuaded Jimmy Carter to arm the Taleban's predecessors even before Russia intervened in Afghanistan, literally desiring to produce
"Russia's Vietnam") but I think it stands up quite well.


Nick Drew said...

Very good, anon. By the way, "cheesing off" Russia, like "cheesing off" China, is so easily done, it can hardly be avoided by anyone with a mind of their own, let alone nations with completely different outlooks on almost everything.

Incidentally, in the C@W annual predictions (31.12.07 edition) I wrote:

after the Olympics Russia will make a provocative intervention in another country, just to prove it can

Of course, I was out in the timing - by a week. I couldn't believe it at the time, but the stupid git did it actually during the Beijing Olympics, causing truly serious offence in China

E-K said...

That's all fine, Nick but when you have a nuclear armed psycho with terminal cancer with (as we thought at the time) a serious army you don't, having already staged a coup in his neighbouring country and installed the Vice President's criminally insane son in a local gas corporation, continue with overtures.

This war was deliberately provoked and it was unnecessary and only benefits the US. I believe Trump when he says he could negotiate a suitable end to it.

Anonymous said...

Come off it, Nick. Serbia has always been a Russian concern. They jumped into WW1 with both feet because of Serbia. Dismembering the country for the sake of the most dodgy crew of organ thieves was always going to rankle.