Together we must tackle inequality

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Over the past month we have all had cause to reflect on how we can rebuild our society in the recovery that will follow the coronavirus outbreak, and how we must work together to tackle the underlying injustices in our society.

No one could fail to feel the impact of the distressing murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May and the global response it provoked.

We at the British Safety Council have pledged to renew our efforts to ensure that injustice for ethnic and minority groups is a thing of the past.

The publication on 16 June of a report by Public Health England into the impact of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic groups also demands a response – its findings are stark: “There is clear evidence that Covid-19 does not affect all population groups equally compared to previous years, all-cause mortality was almost four times higher than expected among black males for this period, almost three times higher in Asian males.”

It will take more time and more analysis to establish how these apparent health inequalities can be addressed, but it is likely they are linked to inherent inequalities in housing and employment, key drivers of wellbeing.

The report’s conclusion commits to scaling “up action across government to tackle structural root causes of inequalities such as housing and employment”. And there is no greater indictment of the housing challenge than the legacy of Grenfell Tower – three years ago this June.

The statistics on the building safety programme are shocking. There are still 300 high-rise residential and publicly-owned buildings with the same flammable cladding which caused the fire at Grenfell Tower. While the government has approved £270 million of funding for the removal and replacement of unsafe ACM, the pace of progress has been far too slow.

Back in 2017, the government politely asked building owners to “do the right thing”, to remove cladding and not to pass the costs onto their leaseholders. But the government has declined to enforce this and in some cases the courts have told leaseholders they must accept the costs.

Attempts to empower local authorities to enforce replacement of cladding have also failed – not least because years of underfunding of councils and HSE mean that even if the will is there to step in, the resources simply are not.

While this means that far too many residential buildings are unsafe, it is also creating a living nightmare for tenants. A poll carried out for Inside Housing showed that nearly three quarters (69.5 per cent) of affected leaseholders are anxious or worried on a daily basis and over a quarter (25.5 per cent) have had to seek medical attention for mental trauma.

I do not envy the government’s current in-tray – but we will maintain pressure on the Ministry for Housing to bring in the new Building Safety Bill at the earliest opportunity and to ensure that dangerous cladding is removed, protecting residents from the risk of fire and giving leaseholders the certainty they need.

Police brutality in the State of Minnesota, a new virus that discriminates against BME people (as well as against the old over the young and against men over women), and an accidental fire in a tower block in Kensington tell the same story in very different ways. It is a story of people being overlooked or ignored, side-lined and expected to fall silent because of the colour of their skin.

As the lockdown eases and as we return to life more like the one we remember from before coronavirus, we must all ensure that the economy we rebuild tackles the troubling inequalities in our society.

Mike Robinson FCA is chief executive of the British Safety Council


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