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  • Ellen Bassett

Rethinking the Regulatory State (A Slight Reprise)

I’ve been thinking about regulation—why we have it, how to make it better (more equitable, efficient, etc.), why some people hate it, and its relationship to vibrant urban areas for a couple of decades now. (Just writing that makes me groan.)

I came of age in the Reagan Era when dismantling the regulatory state was a priority. It is odd how benign and almost principled that appears right now in light of our current president and his simply reactionary and unexamined repealing of Obama era milestones. Clean power plan? Individual health insurance mandates? Control of pesticides? All aimed at protecting health, safety and welfare—wiped out with a signature. And done at the behest of industries such as oil and gas, companies like Dow Corning, and extraordinarily rich individuals like the Koch Brothers.

So if you are breaking out champagne because the regulatory state is off your back, I’ve written in another post (on our African Urbanism website) that you might want to contain yourself. In that post (see: I focused on Nairobi.

But here I’d like to talk about London.

The New York Times has an absolutely devastating article examining the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. (See: ) In case you missed it, this was the fire in a tower that housed lower income Londoners. It burnt from the outside in—as the new cladding on the building was highly flammable and shot up when a fire started on a lower floor due to an explosion in a refrigerator.

The NYT headline alone catches it: “Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety." As the story relates, the UK is one of the few places in the developed North in which these materials (manufactured by the successor to ALCOA) can be used. They have not been allowed as cladding in the USA for over 20 years. Ironically—really tragically—while the residents had been complaining about housing quality for a long time some of the key improvements they needed (sprinkler systems, for example) were not the renovation priority. No—beauty was! The building was an ugly Brutalist structure (sorry Brutalist lovers—a lot of people think of it as ugly) and the now affluent neighborhood around it wanted the building to be “pretty.” (PRI has nice coverage: )

What is most interesting about the analysis is the fact that the weakening of fire regulations (or rather the failure to keep them strong) was due to successive British governments—Labour and Conservative—wanting to “free businesses from the burden of safety regulations.” This is not just a Republican cause—the Kool-Aid has been drunk across the political spectrum.

Their freedom cost at least 79 people their lives in what I can only imagine is a very terrifying and painful way to die.

There are reasons for regulation—so the next time someone extolls getting government off your back—do me a favor and thank the regulatory state. Thank it for your cleaner air and water (go Clean Air and Water Acts!). Thank it for having all the digits on your fingers after a day at the factory (go OSHA)! Thank it for the house you have that does not collapse underneath you due to a contractor cutting corners on cement (go municipal building inspectors)! Thank it for that bald eagle you just watched fly overhead (go Endangered Species Act)! (I could go on and on but won’t.)

Enough with trash talking the public sector.

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