Not exactly a role model anyone in Britain would choose to copy. Yet it is this kind of loss of contact with reality that seems to have been the fundamental causes of the horrible Grenfell fire. Our leaders have taken to passing many laws, introducing endless new initiatives and setting brave new targets. They just haven't got round to allocating the resources that are needed to deliver the actual service or empowering public officials to act effectively. Then they have tinkered and re-organised with what is being delivered so frequently that the people trying to provide us with services don't know whether they are coming or going.
So we have detailed and complex legislation about what standards our fridges should comply with. Yet we have 4 fridge fires a week in the UK and the insulation material burns fiercely. We also have a fire service which warned about this risk but was powerless to actually do anything to enforce change. Similarly we have standards which building cladding must comply with before it is authorised to be used on any building. Yet somehow those standards allowed a product onto the market that was banned in Germany and in the USA and which was capable of being ignited by a burning fridge and then spreading so rapidly up the building that people couldn't get out. We have a building inspection system which is meant to ensure that appropriate materials are used and buildings are safe. Yet the inspectors passed this building as safe. The UK also has strong legislation insisting that all buildings above a certain height must have sprinkler systems. Then it has legislators who thought it too expensive to insist that older buildings fit these whenever they had a programme of refurbishment.
When one small part of a system in one location fails it is reasonable to put that failure down to bad luck. When a range of different dangerous materials are used in different places then you have something more fundamental. You have a systematic problem. At every stage in the system things should have operated to stop a fire breaking out or becoming a problem. At every stage in the system something went wrong with the implementation. Not just in one borough in one block. Across the country in hundreds of building projects. The system broke down and warnings from residents that they knew their building was unsafe appear to have been batted away by council officials and not listened to by elected councillors.
This was not a simple case of austerity politics and shortage of money. The actual cost of fitting a safer form of cladding on Grenfell Tower was only £5,000. It seems to me that what we have is a problem with our approach towards delivering public service which goes well beyond housing problems in local authorities. The problems are emerging across the board.
Austerity hasn't been imposed in isolation. It has been accompanied by decades of over complex re-organisations and obsession with target delivery which is gradually destroying the public services that ordinary people rely on. For example, very few people now know who is actually responsible for governing most of our schools. Yet we learned this week that these governors find it necessary to pay 1,300 head teachers over £100,000 per year. This explosion of executive pay is presumably necessary so that they can employ the best people to inform their staff that they must face up to their tenth year of real term pay cuts and the parents that the school is cutting funding by an average of £400 per child next year. Instead of being able to rely on honest and disinterested advice from a teacher about the education of their child the public now receives advice from an employee of an academy chain competing to attract enough 'customers' to remain in business.
Similarly it is also no longer possible for any ordinary person to understand who is responsible for running their local hospital or how to influence any decisions that are made there. Great layers of apparently democratic processes exist if you are expert enough to search for them. There are even elections for public representatives to sit on advisory boards. But hospital trusts get told by central government to come up with "sustainability" plans and force through yet another round of re-organisation, cuts and outsourcing. The public representative bodies are powerless to resist. We have a complex and opaque system of governance which has been changed so regularly that almost no one expects to be able to implement properly the last cure all government initiative before the next one comes along.
The grinding regularity of the pointless changes in organisational structure is every bit as crippling as the actual financial cuts. It leaves staff feeling that they are delivering the service despite the system not with its support. The impossibility of organising anything effectively in the midst of unnecessary complexity becomes demoralising. Good people enter public service determined to do a decent job and all too often get ground down by the impossibility of doing it well. Instead of teaching people they are producing evidence that they have done it well. Instead of helping patients they are sat on the computer keeping service records up to date. The result of this cocktail of intrusive oversight, pointless reform, over complex regulations and funding shortages has been to drive a great many excellent people out of the public sector. Money and respect are to be found by working for profit and those who get in the way of what the private sector wants to do quickly find that they don't have a good enough lawyers or enough staff available to fight back.
The result is events like Grenfell Tower. On paper if you look hard enough you can find all the elements of a system which ought to make such an event impossible. In practice none of the people who saw what was coming had the power to prevent it. They were able to do little more than issue warnings and appeal for people to listen. Some of those in authority were so callous that they were busy spending £2.5 million on attracting better opera to Kensington and Chelsea instead of listening to concerns of residents. Most of the councillors up and down the country who allowed their electors to live in the 600 death traps that have already been identified were trying to do a good honest job and simply couldn't see the importance of this one issue amongst all the others they were trying to understand.
This sort of problem cannot be fixed by money. Though it will help. What is required is for public officials to be given the confidence and power to act on their own initiative in a system that is simple enough to operate. We need to put an end to constant top down re-organisations. We need to massively reduce the monitoring and reporting burden. Instead we need to make elected local people accountable for the functioning of local services and give them the power to make those services work.
We live in a global world of great scientific and economic complexity. We don't need to add to that complexity by creating labyrinthine systems of government that the average citizen feels powerless to influence. We need strong links between citizens and local representatives who have clear responsibility for understanding what is going on in their lives and delivering the services they need. The system therefore needs to be simplified and made visible.
When the public becomes cynical about the ability of people who are supposed to work on their behalf to deliver a reliable service and feel powerless about their ability to get their needs understood and acted on by those in authority then we are in a very dangerous situation.
Just ask Mr Gorbachev.