From deaths caused by the financial crash to unsafe buildings such as Grenfell Tower, an ideological commitment to deregulation costs lives. So how did the idea that we are being ‘strangled’ by petty rules become so pervasive?
Everyone loves to hate “red tape”. The EU rules and regulations that supposedly restrict Britain’s freedom were the primary theme of the non-racist wing of the leave campaign during the referendum. Brexit, we continue to be told by its champions, is a golden opportunity to make a “bonfire of red tape”. Red tape supposedly hurts everything from small businesses to individuals’ job prospects and the grand projects of visionary governments. There has been a concerted campaign against it for decades. But how bad is it really?
Such questions have been lent new urgency in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. The Daily Express, with spectacular perversity, suggested that EU energy-saving regulations were to blame for the installation of the cladding to the outside of the building. In fact, regulations on building materials and fire safety are a matter for national governments. (The chancellor, Philip Hammond, suggested last weekend that the flammable cladding used might be illegal in the UK, as it is in other countries such as the US and Germany.) But what is known, as George Monbiot points out, is that in 2014 the government rejected the idea of obliging construction companies to install sprinkler systems in new buildings – as part of its commitment, it explained, to a “one in, two out rule for regulation”. It is surely just a coincidence that, according to Property Week magazine, the Conservative party received more than £1m in donations from property and construction companies in the year to the 2015 election.
That “one in, two out rule” was part of the tape-burning zeal of the last Tory government, summed up most piquantly by the 2011 Red Tape Challenge invented by former David Cameron adviser Steve Hilton, wherein a mass of citizen “armchair auditors” was supposed to help identify bad regulations.