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By Alistair McIntosh, HQN CEO
The tables have turned since the Strawbs shot up the charts with this hit in 1973. If it came out today, they’d need to change the lyrics to in actual fact you do get me, I’m part of the Union. Back in the ‘70s, for many the unions were a self-interested bunch of yobbos that could act with impunity. That was the point of the song. And, along with a few other things, it drove Thatcher to power. But day in and day out at the Grenfell Inquiry we hear that the unions are the last professionals left in the UK with a scrap of decency about them. She picked the wrong side in the long run.
Members of the fire brigades union turned up first at the Inquiry and told the truth. Now the degree and qualification-laden white collared building professionals are supposed to be in the dock. But they’re not.
You don’t get them, instead some barrister shows up in their place and after shedding a few crocodile tears starts wriggling to get their client off the hook. True to form they blame everyone else for the shortcomings that led to the deaths. Then to make matters worse, the silks want immunity for their clients before they deign to appear. How dare they? And when these witnesses do talk you can be sure their barristers will have told them what to say, like a pensioner training a budgie. Can you imagine the vituperative fury Piers Morgan would have worked himself into if the FBU tried that trick? But it didn’t cross their minds.
The fire brigade bosses didn’t try it on either. Dany Cotton showed up and said what she said. It went down badly. She really thinks they did all they could on the night. I can’t comment one way or another as I’m not an expert, so I just don’t know. But if you do think she was bad, wait till you read what the building professionals have been saying. The emails that have come out are simply dreadful. By now you’ll have seen them in the papers. Who does the quality control in these firms? No one can agree on who does what, and the jocular tone hits a raw nerve. Some of them couldn’t even get the spelling of Lakanal House right, never mind learn from that blaze. It’s not good enough by a long chalk.
So far the unions are coming out of this sorry situation a lot better than the private sector. They’re not saints and they don’t claim to be. But at least they’re honest and we know what they’re supposed to be doing.
The other thing that strikes you about the Grenfell Inquiry is the cast list. How many contractors, suppliers and consultants can you get in one room? This Guinness Book of Records approach is no way to get things done. The barristers for all the firms seem totally confused as to who’s responsible for what. And I wonder if we’ll be any the wiser at the end of it. There’s even an argument about what a clerk of works is! Since the very dawn of time, this role has been the lynchpin of quality. Who knows what’s going on here?
If this lot don’t sort themselves out then the building industry will have to change. No one in their right mind will buy a flat in a block where the folk charged with constructing it are arguing like ferrets in a sack. We’ve seen blocks put up since Grenfell that aren’t safe. So we’ve still not learned.
What should we do? It’s time for the government to act in much the same way as they’re doing with the trains. We need to boost the skills and make sure there’s the capacity to deliver. Scrap all the division and rancour of contracting. And we need to give people confidence that they can buy or rent safely in blocks. We must build more blocks to meet the housing crisis. Is it time to bring in some form of government-backed indemnity? There’s no way I’d buy a new flat without one. Let’s face it: if build quality improves it’ll cost nothing. We need to back ourselves here.
Maybe you agree with me, maybe you don’t. But the next Labour leader should have the answer to this. We need more unions with the freedom to be honest, less divisive privatisation, and the wise use of public money to put the faith back in housing.