We can no longer afford austerity

The discourse here at Westminster continues to be dominated by the Grenfell Tower fire, writes Peterborough MP Fiona Onasanya.

Saturday, 24th June 2017, 4:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th July 2017, 8:47 am
Fiona Onasanya celebrates her win

It’s absolutely horrifying: how could a tower block in one of the richest parts of one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world simply go up in flames like it did?

Why did this happen? What steps should we take to prevent such a dreadful event happening again?

The June 16th issue of the Times led with an article that I found particularly telling: apparently, the aluminium panels that were used on the Grenfell Tower were banned in the United States for buildings over forty feet tall. The same manufacturer also produces a version of these panels that is fire-resistant; according to the Times, the cost per square metre for these tiles is £24. The non-flame resistant panels that were used on the Grenfell Tower cost £22. Using these figures, the Times estimated that the overall saving was only about £5,000.

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That £5,000 was literally the difference between life and death. This fact ricocheted and echoed across social media; I saw one remark which stated that the government “would spend people to save money”.

I believe this assessment is too harsh. I don’t think that those on the opposite benches are so callous that they believe £5,000 would have been too much to spend to prevent this tragedy; some, no doubt, would have reached into their own pockets had they known.

However, what I do think is that the government suffers from a kind of myopia, in which entries in an accounting ledger obscure the real costs and savings. Austerity only clouds their vision further; paradoxically, however, we’re finding that austerity is extremely expensive.

Saving £5,000 on panels for Grenfell Tower was a short-term measure; no doubt the people who did it felt that it was justified by the straight jacket of austerity. No doubt the same people presently have deep remorse. But: in addition to the price paid in death and suffering, there are the costs of re-housing the residents, compensation for damages, costs associated with cleaning up the site, and so on.

Our NHS provides another potent example: extended waiting for operations aggravate conditions, thus costing the service more when the surgery finally does take place. These and many other examples prove an uncomfortable truth: you can’t always save money by cutting budgets. Often, the contrary is true.

I believe that most people understand this principle; they see it in their own lives when services are cut and they’re forced to endure more personal cost or inconvenience to fill in the gaps left behind. Sometimes, those voids are left empty.

At times like these, it’s customary for ministers to say that “lessons will be learned”. Instead, my colleagues and I will keep pushing for meaningful action, leading to better, safer housing, and a substantial change in the government’s policies. It’s clear we can no longer afford austerity: its price is too dear.