ConHome Diary: Missing the LibDem Conference, Overseas Aid & Why Justice for Grenfell
15 Sep 2017 at 13:56
Sometimes you look at the way government works – or doesn’t – and you scratch your head in bewilderment. It has been revealed that any money we provided to Caribbean Islands to help them rebuild after Hurricane Irma cannot come out of the International Development budget, it has to come out of the Treasury’s contingency fund. It is because it cannot be classed as Overseas Aid because the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda and Anguilla are British Overseas Territories. There’s that word again – ‘Overseas’. This is one of those occasions where Cabinet Ministers need to get a grip of civil servants and the government machine. And if Cabinet Ministers can’t then the Prime Minister should. The Department for International Development has enough trouble spending its budget each year on projects which are worthwhile. Come the end of the financial year they’re still literally throwing money at projects like the Ethiopian Spice Girls in order to meet the 0.7% of GDP commitment. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of the fact that we are what Andrew Mitchell calls an ‘International Aid Superpower’, but this department’s operation have still not been brought under control. And frankly, given her well known views on the subject if Priti Patel can’t do it, no one can.
Yesterday Sir Martin Moore-Bick opened the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster. I am afraid it is quite clear that there is nothing he can say or conclude which will satisfy the political activists who purport to speak for the Grenfell survivors and residents. Anything short of saying it was all the wicked Tories’ fault will be portrayed as a whitewash. And the gullible media will no doubt fall for it. Yes, there were undoubtedly huge failures on the part of the Tenant Management Organisation (on which the new Labour MP for Kensington sat for several years) and there were also failures by Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council, especially in the immediate aftermath of the fire. There seems to have been little accountability for major decisions and little notice taken of warnings which were given in advance on various blogs.
When the Blair government insisted on housing associations being formed to take the housing stock out of direct local authority control in 2003, I remember thinking this was an odd way to run things. I remember it because I was a candidate in North Norfolk at the time and the same thing happened there. I am not saying that this decision brought about the disaster at Grenfell, but these housing organisations in some areas became a law unto themselves, with direct democratic accountability disappearing.
Social housing has been a low political priority for decades. I’m not just talking about the lack of new council houses being built, I am talking about the maintenance of existing housing stock. For decades Labour councils all over the country, have regarded voters in social housing as a client state – people who wouldn’t consider voting for anyone else. Year after year, they’d vote in Labour councils who lamentably failed to make council estates fit and proper places to live in. Not all Labour councils, but especially those in big cities. Take Glasgow, for example. Iain Duncan Smith wasn’t alone in being appalled by what he found on the Easterhouse Estate all those years ago. But the same thing was happening in Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, London and Liverpool. To govern is to choose and Labour councils chose to ignore run down estates in favour of other projects.
Some Conservative councils were no better either. Even during the Blair/Brown years when money was literally chucked at Labour councils, they did little to improve their housing stock. Shame on them all. Why should we be surprised that people who live in these areas have become totally disillusioned, not only with politics but society in general. There are too many people who live in conditions the rest of us would find appalling and unacceptable. We should not therefore be surprised when some of them fall into ways and live lifestyles the rest of us can never relate to or understand.
My point is this. Whatever failings there were in Kensington, Grenfell was not one of these estates. The fire cannot just – if at all – be blamed on long term failings of wider housing policy, in my opinion. It can, however, be blamed on decisions made locally by people who were either uninformed or should have known better. It happened because of failings in the building design and the materials used. Surely that much is clear. From the way this terrible disaster has been described by some people, it’s as if the Prime Minister herself had lit the match. Politicians are to blame for many failings in housing policy over the years, but surely we have to hope that Sir Martin Moore-Bick ignores the siren voices who just seek to blame local and national politicians. The blame for this terrible event lies in many places, but surely primarily on failings in design and materials are the most obvious immediate causes. Hopefully, we will soon know for definite.
I’m going to make a confession. I miss going to the LibDem conference. Call me a masochist, but I always enjoyed going. However, for the last three years I’ve missed out, if that’s the right phrase. I miss the beards. I miss the sandals. I miss the intensity on the faces of people who really felt their debates mattered. I miss the little exhibition stands for all the different LibDem pressure groups who were usually completely barking mad, but vehemently believed in their cause. I miss the white haired old lady on a motability scooter who would scoot around the conference centre running down anyone in her path, daring people not to get out of her way. I miss the LibDem delegates, who, when I was running the conference bookshop, would think nothing of asking for a discount on a 50p postcard. Actually, I don’t miss them at all. But the LibDem conference is the only one of the three conference which actually decides party policy. The event actually matters. You can’t say that for either of the other two. Which to be honest, may be for the best.