Jim Armitage: Grenfell suggests we must review research funding

A woman views tributes left to victims of the Grenfell Tower blaze: AFP/Getty Images

In all the investigations into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, we should not lose sight of the role government cost-cutting might have played in the monitoring of construction companies and the materials they use.

Until austerity began to bite, the Building Research Establishment was a relatively well-funded organisation which would carry out safety tests on materials and building techniques at the behest of the Government. It tested a huge range of risks, including fire.

However, accounts for the BRE highlight that its funding from Government has been falling dramatically, making its financial life more difficult.

With a shortfall in government work, the BRE must have become increasingly financially reliant on companies which pay it to test their new products.

It would be tempting to suggest that this creates a conflict of interest similar to those in the financial crisis — where credit rating agencies turned a blind eye to risks being taken by banks who were paying them.

Fire safety sources say that’s not the case, and speak in reverential terms of the quality of work the BRE does.

But they do fret about whether it is doing enough of the fundamental research traditionally funded by government: work such as the effect of cladding systems in unusual or new situations, perhaps.

So, what impact has austerity had on the BRE’s funding from Government? In 2010, it received an annual stipend of £250,000. Last year, that had shrunk to £80,000 — and that at a time of a near-unprecedented boom in construction in London.

Something to consider as the Government mulls relaxing the austerity chokehold.

Northern exposure

Former Goldman Sachs guru Jim O’Neill is upbeat about the Northern Powerhouse again.

Lord O’Neill championed the project to get more public and private investment in the north as a Treasury minister. He quit after Theresa May’s team went cold on the idea.

Today, however, he says the exits of Downing Street advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill mean it’s all back on.

We should hope he’s right: the North-South divide is as bad for London as it is for Liverpool.

But figures from research group Tussell suggest there’s much ground to be made up.

Public-sector contract awards to companies fell in the first quarter of the year in Yorkshire and the North-east, while the North-west’s modest increase from £3.3 billion to £4 billion was dwarfed by London’s £14.1 billion, up from £10.1 billion last year.

The London powerhouse marches on.