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Russell Wangersky: Cutting red tape can lead to disaster

London police say the Grenfell Tower fire started in a fridge freezer, and then spread rapidly because of extremely flammable exterior cladding and insulation materials — material which should not have been used on the building.
London police say the Grenfell Tower fire started in a fridge freezer, and then spread rapidly because of extremely flammable exterior cladding and insulation materials — material which should not have been used on the building.

Looking at pictures of the remains of the Grenfell Tower apartment block in London — charred wreckage where at least 79 people died — it’s hard not to shudder, just imagining what it must have been like during the fire.

Russell Wangersky

London police say the fire started in a fridge freezer, and then spread rapidly because of extremely flammable exterior cladding and insulation materials — material which should not have been used on the building.

Det. Supt. Fiona McCormack was blunt about the fire: “Given the deaths of so many people, we are considering manslaughter as well as criminal offences and breaches of legislation and regulations,” she told the Reuters news service.

Clearly, the fire will be remembered as a terrible tragedy.

But we should think about it in another light as well — as some have already argued, the fire is a wake-up call about why governments have regulations, and why it’s important that those regulations be enforced by impartial inspectors.

We live in a time where it’s extremely popular to campaign, and then deliver, on promises to “cut red tape.”

Often, the measure of the success of such reductions is arbitrary in the extreme. U.S. President Donald Trump has said the federal government in that country could lose as much as 70 per cent of its regulations, and has set a standard of having government agencies remove two regulations for every new regulation they want to put in place.

When provincial governments launch red-tape reduction efforts, they often measure their success in the type of regulations that have been removed, not the reasons behind the removal. More often than not, it’s simply a numerical measure of the number or percentage of regulations that have been taken off the books.

Newfoundland and Labrador did it before, and is doing it again. One of the fascinating things about the process is that, at one point, the government issued a news release patting itself on the back for removing “more than 27 per cent” of government regulations, without talking about what regulations were actually removed.

The Maritime provinces have joined up to do the same; in Nova Scotia, the measure of whether the effort is successful doesn’t focus on the types of rules removed, but on a benchmark, along with tax cuts, of saving businesses $25 million in costs.

But what’s generally not discussed is the fact that regulations are actually put in place for a reason. There aren’t people just sitting around giggling and saying, “This will waste a lot of time.” Regulations are put in place to address problems. Sometimes, they don’t address those problems very well, and sometimes, over time, the problems the rules are meant to solve disappear of their own accord, and the rules become redundant.

So, yes, regulations sometimes need to be removed, streamlined or reassessed, so that they don’t become a waste of everyone’s time.

But there are babies, and there is bathwater: throwing out the right part of the tub’s contents is critical.

The problem is that you can’t simply remove the rules and expect that everyone will live up to their obligations. Even with regulations, there are people willing to cheat. That’s why we can’t even depend on self-administered codes of conduct to keep us safe.

You don’t need to be a building inspector to know you shouldn’t cover the outside of a multi-storey building with highly flammable materials. But people will do exactly that.

Simply put: if people could be trusted to do what was right, instead of what benefited them the most personally, we would not need regulation.

But because it is clear that is not the case, we need both rules and people to enforce them — and we have to be aware that red tape reduction has risks, too.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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