A damning verdict on the building regulations and fire safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 18.

Six months on from the disaster that changed everything it sometimes feels like not much has changed.

Despite the promises made in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, progress has been painfully slow on rehousing families from the tower and surrounding block.

The police will not complete a full forensic assessment and reconstruction of how the fire spread before autumn 2018 and potential suspects in the criminal investigation will not be interviewed until after that.

Interim findings from the public inquiry were originally due by Easter 2018 but the judge leading it says the scale of the work that is required means that will not now be possible. No date has been set for the final report.

With up to 2,400 witnesses to be interviewed, 31 million documents to be examined and 383 companies identified as having played some role in the refurbishment of the tower, it’s not hard to find good reasons why things are taking so long.

Establishing the causes of the fire to stop the same thing happening again will be complicated enough but that is just part of getting justice for the victims and survivors.

Finding who was to blame will take time and all the while questions will remain about building safety elsewhere.

Tangible progress towards finding some of the answers comes with today’s publication of the interim findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

Any landlord out there hoping for clarity on what sort of cladding it is safe to install on a tower block (as many clearly are, based on Inside Housing’s report this week) will come away disappointed.

The key findings are much more general:

  • a culture change is required – with industry taking greater responsibility for what is built – this change needs to start now
  • the current system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise buildings is not fit for purpose
  • a clear, quick and effective route for residents to raise concerns and be listened to, must be created.

At first glance, you wonder why it’s taken six months to reach conclusions that seemed obvious in the first few days after the fire: this was a failure of regulation, governance and management on just about every conceivable level.

However, look beyond that summary and it’s clear that Dame Judith’s report will mean fundamental change.

Wherever you look – whether it’s the regulations, roles and responsibilities, competence of key people, control of what gets built, product testing and quality assurance, and a route for residents to raise complaints – she finds that key parts of the system are unclear or inadequate or both.

The report goes into the long history of building fires dating right back to Ronan Point gas explosion in 1968. The official inquiry into Ronan Point found that it was in compliance with the building regulations even though one corner of it collapsed like a pack of cards.

On through the housing fires at Knowsley Heights, Garnock Court and Lakanal House, and the non-housing ones at Summerland, Bradford City, King’s Cross and Piper Alpha the call has always been for lessons to be learned and stricter standards to be enforced.

However, as Dame Judith’s introduction makes clear further concerns soon came to light in the wake of Grenfell, including fire safety concerns at the Chalcots Estate and structural safety issues at the Ledbury Estate that seem to go right back to the aftermath of Ronan Point.

She says her focus is on creating ‘a better system for the future’ but that the system is about much more than just the regulations and includes the people working within it and how they work with each other, the roles and responsibilities of organisations that enforce and set standards and all those who interact with the system during the use of a building.

As an engineer working in the chemicals industry, she says she was used to projects being specified and designed to that specification, to any changes being properly managed, recorded and reviewed and to the same philosophy running through the life cycle of what’s built.

Damningly for the construction industry (and for the clients that employ it):

‘After some four months leading this review, 
it is clear that this same systematic, controlled approach to construction, refurbishment and management of occupied buildings is not by 
any means universal. There is plenty of good practice but it is not difficult to see how those who are inclined to take shortcuts can do so. Change control and quality assurance are poor throughout the process. What is initially designed is not what is being built, and quality assurance of materials and people is seriously lacking.

‘I have been shocked by some of the practices I have heard about and I am convinced of the need for a new intelligent system of regulation and enforcement for high-rise and complex buildings which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and will hold to account those who try to cut corners.’

She concludes that ‘the mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings to others must stop’.

That may be easier said that done in an industry based on subcontracting and passing risk down the line.

Recent scandals about new-build homes have shown that problems with the building regulations and standards go beyond fire safety to energy efficiency and much more besides.

However, Dame Judith compares modifying the regulations without addressing ‘clear systemic failings’ to a paint job on ‘a fundamentally non-roadworthy vehicle’.

Landlords waiting for direction from the review on what cladding materials to use are urged ‘not to wait but to consider what materials have already been identified and tested as safe’ and to make sure that those who carry out remedial work are competent and that the work is quality assured.

She also says the met people who argued for one quick fix to make things better and ‘do something’ quickly but that ‘I believe we must be very wary of this type of thinking, and the evidence tells me this is not what residents want’.

In this light, any recommendation on sprinklers will have to wait until the final report. Many people who have given evidence so far called for them, pointing to action elsewhere in the world, but there was also caution about seeing sprinklers as a panacea and about the challenges of their use in existing buildings.

However, the building regulations currently only stipulate that building work on existing buildings should be ‘non-worsening’ to fire safety as opposed to improving it. The report finds that ‘this seriously limits the scope of the law to improve fire safety in pre-existing buildings’.

Anyone wanting more will find some of it in the more detailed sections on the ‘direction of travel’ for the rest of the review.

But the rest will have to wait for a summit with key stakeholders early next year and then for the final report.

Six months on from the fire, this first official report reveals the scale of the task ahead even at the more technical end of the various inquiries to make sure that lessons are learned and residents are kept safe.

Change is coming for everyone involved in the construction, management and refurbishment of high-rise homes and not before time.

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