Examining why the Grenfell Tower fire was able to happen in modern Britain, Shane Ewen traces a history of fire safety regulation and building control across the 20th Century. For him, it is a ‘a fire 40 years in the making’ where a confluence of factors including deregulation and austerity provided the conditions that lead to the death of 72 people.
We learn about how regulation has in the past been a force for good. He looks in detail at the 1971 Fire Precautions Act and how it prioritised fire safety in certain types of buildings. Subsequent changes to fire safety legislation have mostly been punctuated by major fires and loss of life. Notably fire safety regulations that followed the Bradford City Fire in 1985 where 52 football fans died and the Kings Cross fire in 1987 where 31 people including a London firefighter lost their lives.
While this is a book steeped in policy wonkery and detail that would faze most readers, it does make some insightful points about how we treat the most vulnerable in society. He contends that a policy that favoured market forces over regulation, led to our leaders losing sight of ‘the benefits of a well-regulated country, not least in terms of the tangible benefits that regulatory governance can bring to our collective health and prosperity as a nation.’
There is a temptation to want to hear more about the events of the 21st Century, but he is a historian, and this recent history is hidden from view when it comes to accessing national archives for evidence of political decision making. This recent history is well covered in other books and of course the public inquiry.
What we need is Dr Ewen to return to the topic in the decades to come to see what history makes of the response to Grenfell and if it works. If fire history is marked by major fires, we can live in hope that maybe the cycle will be broken.