Fire safety and Conservative controversy : Playing politics or playing with fire?

Image: “Houses of Parlianent in Grenfell-Style cladding” by Zoom Rockman from Private Eye 2017

Over a week ago, on Monday the 7th of September in the House of Commons, the Fire Safety Bill passsed its first reading. This did not go without controversy as Conservative MPs voted to defeat a Labour amendment to the Bill.

Read the debate in full here:

Our local Kensington MP, Felicity Buchan voted with her party and unsurprisingly this has not gone down too well with some locals and supporters of our community Here are some reactions on social media:

Here are some reactions from Labour

And here is what Felicity Buchan had to say :

Fanning the flames?

What do we think? Well, as sure as dogs bark, and cats meow; most MPs vote with their party , so we cannot say we are exactly too surprised if our Conservative Party MP obeys the whip and toes the party line.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that residents and local community groups who have had postive meetings with Felicity Buchan before and some who held out hope that she might have taken a stand on this, do feel very betrayed and angry.

Kensington MP Felicity Buchan

But is all what it seems?

Here is some of what Gill Kernick in excellent fellow North Kensington blog The Grenfell Enquirer has to say:

This was a vote about certain specific amendments to the Fire Safety Bill as proposed by Labour. It was not a vote about whether or not to bring the Recommendations from the Inquiry into law, which is what seems to be being reported.
It is also unclear whether these amendments are sound… And we don’t seem to be considering that.

Read the blog post in full here:

Grenfell, the Conservative vote & why we are missing the point

And this is what a Conservative source said to us about the Labour amendment: “Labour put down what is known as a ‘wrecking amendment’, designed for the Government to vote down. It’s a typical opposition ploy that all parties do in opposition. An example would be an amendment to the Queen’s Speech (which the Government has to pass), saying that nurses should get a pay rise; the Government duly votes against and the opposition then says the Government doesn’t think nurses deserve a pay rise, even though that might not be the case ”

Fair point – that’s party politics we guess – but a further Conservative source told us they believe that “everything will be done in the end in the right sequence”. Sadly, THINKers do not share their confidence in this.

While not all Conservatives have approached this Bill and issues of fire safety with bad intentions, we have little faith for other reasons that this Conservative Government will ever really act and put the necessary changes into place, and here are a few brief glimpses into why…..

No smoke without fire

Inside Housing also reported from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry on Monday the 7th of September and over emails between (Grenfell Tower contractor) Rydon’s Commercial Manager Zak Maynard and sub-contractor Harley Facades, with Maynard’s email saying “and we are quids in!” as a result of savings made by switching to the cheaper (and far deadlier) aluminium composite cladding.

Private equity firm Coller Captial, fron 2009 until 2015, owned a fifth of Rydon, through Jersey-based Cavendish Square Partners, and the boss and founder of Coller Capital, Jeremy Coller also donated money to the Conservative Party in the same year.

Last year, Private Equity News reported that Boris Johnson’s brother, forner Minister Jo Johnson (who will soon be in the House of Lords), was set to be the ghostwriter of Mr Coller’s autobiography.

Also elevated to the House of Lords by Boris Johnson this year along with his brother, is another high profile Conservative, Sir Edward Lister. Forner Leader of Wandsworth Council from 1992-2011 where he was controversially known to have sold off council housing to absentee investors, after that , Lister, known as Eddie to his friends, (who include the notorious Peter Bingle), became Boris’ London Deputy Mayor with responsibility for policy and planning until 2016, when he was appointed as Chair of the Government’s housing regulator the the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) which later became part of Homes England in 2018.

Boris Johnson & Sir Edward Lister

At the beginning of this year the Financial Times reported that Lister had last year “joined the board of a Jersey-based holding company for a housing start-up (TopHat) without any public disclosure” and that his “directorship was not announced by the government or the company and it does not have to be disclosed in Jersey, meaning there was no way for the public or bosses of rival housing companies to find out about the role.

One board member of the HCA under Lister, was Anthony Preiskel, who had a background as a property developer and also sat on the board of KCTMO during the Grenfell Tower refurbishment and was there until 2017 just after the Grenfell Tower fire.

Back to some more Twitter responses and here is what fire safety expert Phil Murphy had to say:

This is the British Standards Institution, the national standards body responsible for technical standards and safety.

We thought to have a closer look at some of the membership of the board of the BSI:

One Non-Executive Director of BSI since last year, is Ian Lobley. Mr Lobley’s background was as Managing Partner at 3i Group plc, the FTSE 100 international investor focused on mid-market private equity and infrastructure. The same year that Coller Capital invested in Rydon, they also invested in Mr Lobley’s conpany.

This might seem like a slight deviation on our part from the main subjects of fire safety and homes, but many like us would hope to see some indication of the focus of those on regulatory safety boards to not be purely profit-driven.

Moving back firmly to the main subjects of this blog post, another Non-Executive Director of the BSI is Douglas Hurt, who also happens to be a Non-Executive Director of new homes developer Countryside Properties Plc, where he is also Chair of their Audit Committee .

Safety first? People before profit? We’re not so sure about that…...

An example of how Countryside Properties treats some of their leaseholders can be found here

Claims made by the Government and their supporters that they are fully committed to fire safety in homes and people before may also appear to be extinguished in the minds of some when looking through a list of Conservative Party donors over the past decade and seeing where their interests and priorities lie:

John Bloor of Bloor Homes has donated over £1.6million, Residential Land Ltd have donated over £200,000, Canary Wharf Group have donated over £135,000, regular Tory Conference sponsors Thakeham Homes have donated around. £120,000.

Developers of Millbank Tower Reuben Brothers – David and Simon – also have, according to the Financial Times , donated nearly £200,000 .

Reuben Brothers are also the developers partly behind Paddington Walk where leaseholders have had to pay out £3.5 million to have dangerous cladding removed.

Jamie Ritblat of Delancey reportedly donated £50,000 to the Conservative Party shortly before his company purchased the former Olympic Village (which is now “East Village E20”) for redevelopment at a knock down price.

Delancey are now part- owners of the Earl’s Court Site, having bought it from Capco late last year.

Other notable Conservative donors in the property development business have also have included Nick Candy, Tony Gallagher of Countywide Developments Ltd the late Tony Pidgeley of the Berkeley Group and also media magnate and former pornographer Richard “Dirty Des” Desmond of Northern and Shell – his alleged dealings with Tories and the Government over the Westferry Printworks housing scheme and affordable housing do not make for comfortable reading for some. See this:

…Which certainly calls into question the conduct of Boris Johnson and especially that of Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.

So any hopeful residents looking to Jenrick for action will likely be in for huge disappointment as he seems to think his top priorities in the job are being the developers’ BFF and advertising Taylor Wimpey – that’s if he lasts much longer in his post that is.

He who pays the piper calls the tune?

To us, all the above just points to self-regulation from this Government, with their friends in certain places bending Ministerial ears towards their own interests. (We could say worse, but as a little North Kensington community blog, we do not have the resources to handle encounters with multi-millionaire property tycoons and their lawyers.)

Burning issues

So THINK will not be flooding Felicity Buchan’s inbox with complaints; we do know she reads our blog and we hope she sees this post and our points and concerns.

It is not purely just the regulations or lack of that we feel fired up about in this case; it is questions of independence of some of those who are supposed to be in charge of regulating, the transparency issues or possible conflicts of interest there may be in some cases, and we agree firmly with the Grenfell Enquirer on the point about lack of accountability structure.

And while it still may be early days, from how we have seen of the primary interests of the Prine Minister and several of his colleagues and how some of them appear to operate (the cronyism, the cosy relationships with property development bigwigs for example) . We have seen enough in the way of indicators as to whom and what Boris and his Government colleagues may or may not take notice of to have more than just a hunch that they will do very little.

After all, some of those who are in charge are and were, part of the problem in the first place.

We‘re sorry to state the obvious , but people voted for Johnson’s Government and this is what we are stuck with; which is far from reassuring to all the residents living in homes with potentially dangerous materials and other possible fire safety hazards..

So we will leave the last word with one such resident whose Tweet says it all really:

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