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Why the Grenfell Tower tragedy shames us all

A wall of condolences to those who perished in Grenfell Tower. Credit: PA

One reason why the Grenfell Tower tragedy has shaken so many of us is because it exposes so much of what's wrong with the way this place has been run for years.

We'll have to wait for a forensic examination of all the many decisions that turned a series of risks into an appalling catastrophe.

But although the trigger may still be unclear, it is reasonable to identify a number of underlying causes.

Part of the background is austerity that has been particularly acute for local government.

But austerity seems to have become particularly toxic in a system where responsibility for vital safety decisions is so diffuse: we have ministers in charge of regulations, councillors funding an arms-length management company, and a management company placing a refurbishment contract with the cheapest bidder.

At least 30 people died in the Grenfell Tower blaze. Credit: PA

There is naturally huge anger that the government didn't ban the kind of cladding used at Grenfell, when such cladding is illegal for use on high rise structures in the US (as The Times reports today).

Similarly there is horror that the government never made it obligatory for the fire safety standards that apply to new buildings to be enforced at older blocks - that such improvements are only recommended, not obligatory.

But such lax or light touch regulation only becomes fatal in a system - such as we have - designed to drive down costs and save money, not to put the safety of people first.

It is a system in which those working for all the interconnected bodies that made the refurbishment decisions and gave the wrong safety advice to tenants are able to say - as if that makes it alright - "we followed the rules".

London Mayor Sadiq Khan hugs a woman near Grenfell Tower. Credit: PA

It is a system in which identifying anyone who can be proved to be ultimately responsible for what happened may be impossible.

And as we saw in the banks before the financial crisis, when people can take reckless decisions safe in the knowledge they can't be held to account, reckless decisions get taken.

The horrific corollary of a faceless, irresponsible system of public-housing governance is that many of the poor and vulnerable people who died in the fire are not even being given the respect of formal identification as victims - because they live on the fringes of the state, and the authorities seem unable to be confident they even existed, let alone that they have died.

There is a social contract between those of us lucky enough to have voices that are heard and those who don't that we should not put them in harm's way.

Grenfell seems the most grotesque breach of that contract in my lifetime. It shames us all.

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