Costs saved, lives lost

The deaths of four young firefighters is a tragic indictment of our unwillingness to invest in publi

The tragic deaths of four young firefighters in a blaze in a vegetable packing warehouse in Warwickshire is the biggest loss of life in a single incident for the UK fire service since the 1970s.

As Conservative Leader on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority I vividly remember the shock at the deaths of two firefighters in 2004 in Bethnal Green after a period of over 12 years during which no London firefighter had been killed on duty.

Of course a thorough investigation needs to be conducted into the cause of the fire and the operational decisions made on the day but several features of the Warwickshire incident merit further examination.

The dead firefighters appear to be "retained" firefighters who, rather like lifeboat men, rush from their ordinary jobs to attend incidents usually in their community as and when they are needed.

Unlike many fulltime firefighters, especially those in London who often live many miles from the fire stations on which they are based, retained firefighters are often well known locally, hence the loss in the town of Alcester will be keenly felt.

Beyond metropolitan areas, the retained service provides the core response and in counties such as Devon, Dorset, Norfolk and Lincolnshire retained firefighters far outnumber their fulltime colleagues.

In the strike of 2003 the vast majority of retained firefighters, most of whom are not members of the ever-militant Fire Brigades Union, worked on, not least because they could not betray their local communities.

Their reward for this loyalty was a stubborn refusal by this government to pay them proper pensions on the small retainer and call-out fees they receive and a betrayal by the Fire Brigade Employers (a bizarre collection of male, geriatric county councillors and neanderthal old Labour and SNP politicians from Scotland) to properly recognise their union and give it proper negotiating rights at national level.

Also becoming abundantly clear from the Warwickshire incident is the failure of the building's owner to install a proper sprinkler system.

There are dozens of fires every week, which would barely qualify a fire brigade turnout if a sprinkler system, had been installed. Schools in particular are vulnerable to arson attacks and about two a week are destroyed in a fire in which a sprinkler system would have prevented major damage and allowed lessons to resume the following week.

One of the few (in fact only two) occasions when I have threatened to resign was when my own borough council wished to rebuild a primary school in my ward that had been destroyed by fire without sprinklers in order to save a few thousand pounds.

There are still stupid councillors and frankly negligent planning officers up and down the country agreeing new public buildings without sprinklers.

If there is any silver lining to this dreadful cloud over Warwickshire I hope it is proper recognition for retained firefighters and far more political pressure on fire prevention and protection in new buildings.

Sadly I suspect the fire minister, Parmjit Dhandra, the fourth minister in three years, will dust off his black tie, rush to Alcester, mouth some platitudes and invest no more money in public safety.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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