LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Why did the Grenfell Tower high-rise apartment block in West London burn up, killing at least 79 people? Investigations into the calamitous fire are just beginning and will probably take years to complete. But it has already exposed one persistent problem: Britain’s disastrous approach to housing.
The most obvious sign of this problem is the pathetic pace of new construction. On average, the country has built 150,000 new units over the last five years – less than half of what’s needed to keep the country well-housed. But neglect runs deeper through the sector. The industry suffers from a shortage of trained building workers, lax quality standards, ineffective regulation and inadequate maintenance of public housing.
Britain could certainly do better, if it really wanted to. The country has the money and the organisational skills to build more and better new residences, to create new neighbourhoods and to step up the pace and quality of renovation. Anyone who is in doubt about how to proceed could look to France, Germany or some other successful European country where housing is treated as an essential common good.
The poor track record suggests that British people do not actually care very much about doing better. Despite the repeated protestations of politicians, decent shelter for all is just not very high on the national agenda. The lack a strong social commitment leaves a policy vacuum which has been filled by the lobby groups that gain from the status quo: homeowners, builders and local governments. They have created a dense web of counterproductive rules and practices.
Other nations have their own unnecessarily dysfunctional systems. America’s approach to healthcare is an excellent example. The United States spends far too much and gets too little, yet refuses even to consider copying cheaper and more successful systems in other affluent countries. The deep problem is the lack of a U.S. consensus about the good of universal care. There are many small reforms, but anything like a substantial reformation is politically impossible.
Or consider the persistent shortfalls of Greek tax collection. Analysts at the Dianeosis think tank estimate evasion costs the government 6 per cent-9 percent of GDP each year. Then there is the problem of unemployment in Italy and France. Both countries have for decades commissioned expert reports on job creation, which governments have all but ignored. For all these issues, better solutions are well known but the national commitment to adopt them is lacking.
Over time, the politically powerful groups which gain from the existing system become ever more entrenched, making new approaches more difficult to imagine. But the power of these groups is more a symptom than a cause. They would be swept aside if the national agenda changed.
And priorities do sometimes shift. In the 1960s, few economic habits were as entrenched in developed countries as industrial pollution. Powerful corporate lobbyists warned that mandatory emissions limits threatened economic calamity. They were overruled. Pollution fell dramatically: emissions of sulphur dioxide in North America have dropped by 70 percent since 1970, according to Clio Infra data.
Around the world, the anti-pollution consensus is now strong enough to steamroll over all opposition. Volkswagen and other makers of diesel cars may have hoped to cheat or lobby their way out of reducing small particle emissions, but discovered that the environment now matters more than fuel economy. Recently, environmental awareness has extended to climate change. Even oil companies now profess to be in favour of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
The pollution revolution was essentially cultural. Country by country, people changed their hierarchy of values. Clean air and water for all became more important goals than any company’s desire for higher profit or increased physical production.
The lesson from the action on pollution and the inaction on so many other persistent problems is that when bad national habits are accepted as normal, nothing less than a cultural revolution will do. The recognition of this hard truth helps to explain why Emmanuel Macron, the new president of France, called his campaign book “Revolution” and insisted that the national will to change is more important than a “thousand detailed proposals”.
Good luck to him and any imitators. The changes required to solve deep-set problems all require a stronger sense of shared national purpose. Everyone pays taxes and everyone should have decent housing, healthcare and jobs. In the last few decades, it has seemed that history was moving in the opposite direction, away from larger and more responsible governments and towards a more individualistic and privatised approach to policy.
Still, history is unpredictable. A year ago, almost no experts thought Macron’s promise of revolutionary improvements would propel him to the presidency and his party to an absolute majority in parliament. Perhaps it is significant that the Grenfell Tower fire has provoked great indignation. After all, hope and anger are the stuff revolutions are made of.
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