|Photo from twitter via Shannon McKarney|
Astl allegedly hired a "homeless person" and in just a few hours presto! There were stairs down to the community garden. Take that "bureaucracy".
And, of course, all of the reactionary local media and pundits, as well as many members of the general public, scored this as a victory for the little guy that showed if we just got rid of all the "red tape", let folks like Astl and the private sector take charge, we could have all the things the city needed built faster and cheaper and he just proved it.
Except, of course, he did no such thing. All he proved is that anyone who paid no regard whatsoever to important safety or accessibility regulations, to such minor details as making sure the stairs have a proper foundation so that they won't collapse after a few months while being used by someone, to the stairs' longevity, or to the use of proper building materials for a public stairway, could build a visibly crappy and unsafe set of stairs in a short period of time for a relatively small sum of money.
The stairs he built are not remotely akin to an acceptable set and this is transparently obvious with even a cursory look at any photos of them. If a contractor built those for me in my backyard I would refuse to pay them.
The media pictures were kind to these stairs (they had their ideological reasons for this I suspect) and even in those they look like junk. If you turn to sources that provided more revealing reporting and photos of the stairs, such as a thread posted by Shannon McKarney on twitter, you see that the stairs are clearly dangerous. They would not pass any number of essential city codes that, you know, want to ensure you are unlikely to permanently injure yourself or die using them.
They would also be totally impossible to use for people with accessibility issues and you have to step over a parking barrier to get to them! They are a total joke.
In spite of this Mayor John Tory actually thanked Astl for "taking a stand on this issue" and he was also de facto applauded by his local Councillor, the singularly ineffective and forgettable seat warmer Justin Di Ciano.
Right wing politicians and the mainstream media love stories like this that they can frame as showing that "initiative" and "getting things done" are being strangled by regulations, unions, bureaucrats, etc.
After all, if the city would allow folks like Astl and private companies to use the ultra cheap labour of "homeless people", ignore all the "red tape" and "just do it" we could have dangerous stairs to everywhere tomorrow and they would cost the taxpayers so much less money.
Wouldn't that be great?
There is a direct line from this thinking to the agenda of deregulation that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster that killed so many in London last month. In the United Kingdom governments waged war on so-called "burdensome regulations" for a generation to lower costs and "free" the private sector. As the New York Times noted:
Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market.
George Monbiot put it even more clearly in the Guardian:
For years successive governments have built what they call a bonfire of regulations. They have argued that “red tape” impedes our freedom and damages productivity. Britain, they have assured us, would be a better place with fewer forms to fill in, fewer inspections and less enforcement.When politicians, columnists and the media in Toronto applaud the construction of a visibly incompetent set of stairs in a park this is the agenda that they are doing it to reinforce.
But what they call red tape often consists of essential public protections that defend our lives, our futures and the rest of the living world. The freedom they celebrate is highly selective: in many cases it means the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor, of corporations to exploit their workers, landlords to exploit their tenants and industry of all kinds to use the planet as its dustbin. As RH Tawney remarked, “Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”
Should properly constructed, safe, accessible, concrete stairs in this specific park that meet regulations and that are built using experts and properly compensated workers cost $65,000 or more? To be honest I don't know as I am no more an expert than the mayor or any number of pontificating columnists are. But I do know I would rather have them cost that than have substandard, inaccessible stairs installed that end up killing or harming someone just to save the city an amount of money that in the scheme of things is tiny.
And make no mistake that if these folks had their way costs would absolutely be cut through the elimination of such pesky things as safety and accessibility regulations. If they could combine this with slashing labour costs by destroying the city's unions and paying workers substandard wages or by contracting work out to companies with dubious labour practices (and there are lots of these in the construction or building sector) all the better.
Sadly, they also convince many members of the public with simple-minded narratives that the regulations meant to protect them are actually somehow a bad thing.
Heed Tawney's warning. Freedom for the pike is, indeed, death for the minnows. If these political forces succeed they would not just be cutting regulations for park stairs. And that should worry us all.