None of us will have forgotten the fire at Grenfell Towers when the whole nation watched the live news reports in horror as the 24 storey residential block was engulfed in flames and burned so quickly and so fiercely that many residents were unable to escape and periwhed in the inferno. The tragedy led to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, ordering an Inquiry to establish the facts of what took place at Grenfell Tower with the aim of ensuring that lessons would be learned preventing a similar incident in the future.
An interim review carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt, former Chair and Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) produced some very worrying findings. According to Dame Judith’s review, the UK building regulations are “not fit for purpose” and a universal shift in culture will be necessary to rebuild trust with residents of high-rise buildings. Moreover, the interim report has revealed that the current overall system is not working properly and needs to undergo a complete overhaul, news which will be welcomed by the Fire Sector Federation which has called for a revamp of the regulations.
Several major shortcomings were identified in the report in areas of regulations and other areas which affect fire safety, all of which will impact on more detailed recommendations that will be set out in a final report which is scheduled to be released at some point in the spring of 2018. Here are the five main conclusions of the review:
The privatisation of building control has resulted in conflicts of interest. The interim review expressed concerns about the increasing privatisation of the building inspection regime saying that there are concerns that third-party inspections are open to abuse due to the potential conflict of interests. An increase in the level of mutual dependence between contracted inspectors and developers leads not only to a conflict of interest in many cases, but to a loss of expertise in building control in general.
The regulations encourage cost-cutting –documents suggest that the renovation of Grenfell Tower was scaled back due to limits imposed by government on council borrowing for housing. It appears that the regulation system and the way in which it is enacted leaves room for those who want to take short cuts to do so. Dame Judith disclosed that she was “shocked by some of the practices” and that we desperately need an intelligent system of regulation and enforcement for high-rise and other complex buildings which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and ensure that those who cut corners are held to account.
Regulations are too complex with guidance spread across too many documents, leading to lack of clarity. While the regulations are simple, the guidance documents are complex, leaving key definitions unclear and the use of terminology that is open to interpretation.
Dame Judith urges all parties (the construction industry, building owners, regulators and government) to collaborate to remedy the problems identified so far.
Residents’ concerns must be listened to and taken seriously. A Grenfell action group had complained two years before the fire that refurbishment carried out had used cheap materials and that developers had cut corners but nothing was done to address these concerns. The Hackitt report calls for the creation of a clear, quick and effective route for residents to raise concerns and be heard.