What price relationships? Imagine for a moment this scenario:
In 2014 David Collins, Chair of the Grenfell Towers Residents’ Association rings Nick Paget-Brown, Leader of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council. Friends for many years they each have the other’s mobile numbers:
“Nick we have some serious concerns about the nature and quality of the work being done during this refurbishment in Grenfell. We’ve submitted numerous complaints but no-one seems to be paying attention. I think this is urgent. We’re talking about people’s lives here.”
“Give me a day or two David and I’ll be over. You can walk me round and show me your concerns and together we’re going to make sure they’re dealt with properly. I promise you.”
That phone call could have resulted in a saving of 79 lives, untold physical and emotional scarring, millions of pounds worth of hospital treatment and tens of millions of pounds worth of property. Put that into the budget projections!
But between these two men and that potential relationship stood a building company, a fire brigade inspectorate, a tenant management company and multiple layers of local council administration. All of these had a role to play and were no doubt staffed by professionals. But something went wrong with some or all of these layers.
And when things go wrong at an institutional level it takes relationships to fix it, personal relationships of mutual respect and trust. The cost of not having these relationships is enormous in this case. Investigations will probably expose all kinds of institutional failures. The biggest failure, which probably won’t get a mention in all the reports, was a failure to put direct personal relationships at the heart of the way a city is run.
How’s Dublin doing?
In Dublin we see the same processes at work though thankfully so far with less devastating consequences. Take the recent closure of a popular Dublin institution, Nealon’s pub on Capel Street. Why did this thriving business with over a hundred years of history close? Because executives at the California-based Investment Fund Oaktree decided that it should. They owned the debt on the building and they wanted the business out of their building.
Think of the layers that exist between the customer buying his pint in Nealon’s and the investor who wants to see his money earn money via Oaktree. In between those two stand Oaktree executives, Nama, the Irish government, the owner who went into debt, the leaseholders, the management and staff of Nealon’s – that’s seven degrees of separation.
It’s possible that the people making decisions affecting the lives of the pint-drinkers and pint-pullers of Nealon’s have never been to Dublin, much less to Capel Street. To them it’s nothing more than a figure on a spreadsheet. There is no personal relationship.
This beautiful old building at the heart of Dublin’s North Inner City could lie idle for years till the market dictates it’s time to sell it on. Nama will argue that the Irish State needed Oaktree’s money and that the market rules. But the lesson of Grenfell is that relationships have a value too. Power brokers need to measure that value before they pull apart the social fabric of the city thread by thread in pursuit of market demands.