The welfare state built by the postwar Labour Party, had huge accomplishments, like the National Health Service and the spread throughout the country of public housing, known as council housing here. The ideal championed by the postwar Labour health minister, Aneurin Bevan, was of a place “where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and farm laborer all lived on the same street,” and according to Pilgrim Tucker, a housing campaigner, in 1979, 20 percent of the richest 10 percent of Britain’s population lived in social housing.
Mrs. Thatcher introduced the “right to buy” social housing to its tenants in 1980, in an effort to promote homeownership and responsibility. Over time, the nature of social housing changed, as some apartments simply became private rental properties — including an unknown number in Grenfell Tower itself — though their maintenance was controlled by the local council through a nonprofit management agency. And local councils did not build housing fast enough to keep up with demand, especially in big cities.
Under Conservative efforts since 2010 to reduce the national budget and the national debt, state funding was reduced or frozen for many parts of the government, including local councils. Deregulation also meant outsourcing responsibility for fire inspections to owners and builders, instead of civil servants. Private companies were required to use “authorized inspectors” for fire safety, but, as Mr. Freedland pointed out, they worked for builders and developers, and “there was a classic conflict of interest.”
Here the two trends of saving money and deregulation come together: The council had recently spent some $11 million on Grenfell Tower to insulate apartments and cut energy costs, using cladding that was approved under existing building regulations. And those regulations, however inadequate they have proved, are the same for all buildings, not just those of the poor.
The cladding aside, there were other fire-safety issues that were not dealt with by anyone, including the questionable installation of new gas pipes, inadequate fire proofing, and the lack of a central fire alarm or a sprinkler system, though neither was required for a structure built in 1974.
Still, as Mr. Lammy, the Labour lawmaker, said: “You can’t contract out everything to the private sector. The private sector can do some wonderful things, but they have for-profit motives, they cut corners. We’ve all been up to those tower blocks — they exist right across the country. Where are the fire extinguishers on every corridor? Where are the hoses? Are the fire doors really working? Where are the sprinklers?”
The questions are the right ones. But the fight over who is responsible, and over the causes and solutions, will continue, and will continue to mark British politics, divided more now than at any time since the election of Mrs. Thatcher.