LONDON — “Regulation” is a boring word with unpleasant connotations, especially in Britain. Schools, offices and governments have regulations. British students, employees and businesses seek to get around regulations. Regulations are thought to cost money, time and effort, preventing people from engaging in more productive activity. One of the most important arguments against the European Union in Britain during the Brexit referendum campaign last year was that the E.U. is widely believed to be a source of time-wasting regulations.
So loathed, in fact, is “regulation” in Britain that the expression “bonfire of regulations” is a phrase that is used frequently, evocatively and emphatically, in headlines and conversations, especially by the current Conservative government. The former minister for environment (and now leader of the House of Commons) was said to have promised a bonfire of regulations for farmers. Bankers were said to hope for a “bonfire of regulations” in the wake of Brexit. At least until now, a “bonfire of regulations” was, when used by a member of the government, meant to be a liberating, positive thing.
But the fire at Grenfell Tower, a blaze that last week engulfed a high-rise apartment building in one of the wealthiest boroughs of London, has suddenly given a horrific new meaning to that expression. Although it’s still too early for final conclusions, all of the preliminary evidence shows that the fire began in one apartment and then spread with unprecedented speed thanks to the cladding, a form of insulation recently added to the outside of the building. This particular type of cladding was flammable, and in other countries, including the United States and Germany, there are clear regulations forbidding its use on high-rise buildings. The company that worked on Grenfell Tower nevertheless put it on the building’s exterior, either because (and this is still a point of debate) there weren’t such regulations in Britain, or because they were easily violated.
Other regulations may have been broken, too. There were no sprinkler systems in the building, and no working fire alarms. Tenants had complained about these faults in the past, but they were ignored or not heard. The result: A major backlash against deregulation is coming, and it will be aimed squarely at the Conservative government. Every future call for deregulation, every demand for “less red tape” is now going to be examined in a completely different way. The expression “bonfire of regulations” will never be used again with such enthusiasm, and advocates of deregulation will be cautious or even silent.
Already very controversial, the further politicization of the regulatory debate is unfortunate. For the larger point about regulations is that they are not, in and of themselves, either good or bad thing at all. Some of them, like those that ban flammable insulation, can save lives. Others, which really do choke entrepreneurship, are negative. To be meaningful, a discussion about regulation has to be specific and careful, not political or ideological — a discussion, in other words, that isn’t going to be possible in Britain for a long time.