Editorial Board

After the London Tower Fire

Weak leadership has turned a terrible disaster into the U.K.'s latest political crisis.

First shock, then anger.

Photographer: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

London's worst fire since 1945 has killed at least 79, and hundreds have been left homeless. Initial shock over the Grenfell Tower disaster has given way to anger over the authorities' tone-deaf, hesitant response -- and over the suspicion that the conflagration was easily avoidable.

Responding well to a blow such as this demands of the authorities a mixture of compassion and calm managerial competence. You might expect one of those to come at the price of the other, but a government that fails on both counts is, and deserves to be, in serious trouble.  

It would be unfair to suggest that Prime Minister Theresa May was unmoved by the horror of this event. But she failed to convey much sense of solidarity with the victims -- partly, it seems, because she's timid about contact with the public in settings she cannot control. The contrast with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who mingled affectionately with the affected families, was painful to watch.

A firm grip on subsequent developments would have helped, but that didn't happen either. The first response was disorganized and inadequate. Since then, the government has begun to act -- but even allowing for the public's impatience, there's been a seeming lack of urgency in discovering the causes of the fire, arranging support for the victims, and assuring people in similar buildings that their safety is of paramount importance.

The U.K. has an unfortunate record of investigating incidents such as this slowly, letting inquiries drag on, and then failing to adequately implement the findings. After a tower-block fire in 2009 killed six, an inquest found that botched renovations were partly to blame. The local council pleaded guilty to breaking fire-safety regulations. A thorough review was promised -- and it has yet to be published.

Lack of public confidence is compounded in this case because there'd been warnings in advance -- potentially dangerous power surges, multiple complaints about fire-safety standards, and reports that tenants were stonewalled or even threatened when they spoke up.

Nearly 60 percent of local-government councils in the U.K. own high-rise towers. All of them face rising maintenance costs and severely limited resources. The government needs to make it clear that whatever went wrong in this case -- either badly framed regulations or a failure to enforce the existing standards -- will be urgently put right and that the necessary funds will be found. More than its credibility is at stake.

    --Editors: Therese Raphael, Clive Crook

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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