The fallout from the Fire Safety Bill amendment

Over 3 years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a cross party committee of MPs calls for the government to honour its promises to ensure that unsafe cladding is removed from all high rise buildings, amidst a national argument over who is responsible and an ongoing inquiry into the causes of the fire. Keith Richards

Whilst the blame game has rolled out, the government has pushed the responsibility for dealing with the fall out from the tragedy as far from Whitehall as possible. Now, Fire and Rescue Services increasingly seem reluctant to engage and advise, Landlords don’t have the resources to resolve the issues and naturally, they want to offset the costs where-ever that option exists and Lenders will not lend and insurers caveat their cover. Meanwhile, people continue to live in fear, in high rise buildings wrapped in materials that MHCLG condemned over two years ago.

We see, in the modern world, that the Government is less and less prepared to set the rules; instead they ‘give guidance’ and expect businesses, advisers and individuals to make informed decisions and accept responsibility for risk management; ‘Use that insulation if you decide the total risk score is acceptable’… ‘Wear a mask when in this public space, but not in that one’… ‘Meet your friends in a pub, but not at your home’… ‘Demonstrate that your mitigation factors make your specific combination of insulation / cladding acceptable’…

This perception that the market can decide for itself takes us to the root of the Grenfell problem… the changed Building Regulations and deregulation of assessment introduced in the 1980s, which opened up the system to market forces and relinquished public control over standards. ‘The Market’ has always pressed for ‘innovative’ land uses, creative ways to optimise plot ratios and for constant stretching of design boundaries in searches for more cost-effective building solutions. Industry has responded with a dazzling variety of new materials and techniques, opaque testing methodologies and oblique materials marketing strategies. The result has been significant evolutionary change in the form of new buildings, and those existing ones re-modelled for alternative uses in the last couple of decades and maybe the processes of control have not kept pace.

All the time, as local government has been de-funded, local authority building control has gradually diminished as a functional entity. We arrive at the Grenfell inquiry, with a highly experienced former Building Control officer in breakdown because he was unable to do the job he trained to do, assigned to a specialist project he had no credentials to manage and relying on the perceived expertise of the project team. All the time, the team assumed that Building Control would ensure the refurbishment met the requirements of the Regulations.

Mixed and confusing messages, uncertain and ill-defined responsibilities, over-stretched boundaries and audacious marketing practices are reasonably foreseeable consequences of lapsing control and deregulation of governance. So are the unintended outcomes and collateral damages. As more of the Grenfell back story is exposed, the more it seems that the root cause of the tragedy is inadequacies in management, control and procedural process; tellingly, these failures are not constrained to this one project; they are endemic.

We can be thankful that the Government has established changes in Building Regulations and banned certain products; and the industry response, seems to have been favourable. Thus, the risks of similar design flaws arising on the many high-rise projects of the last two years have been appropriately mitigated. But legislative change doesn’t address the many faulty buildings that are contemporary with, or pre-date, Grenfell, so Government needs to take responsibility, accept its part in the situation and deal with the material flaws exposed by the fire.

Thankfully, a line has been drawn under the austerity that was perhaps one reason for the governments apathetic approach to the cladding removal dilemma – the Treasury funding offered to the industry has never been close to enough to resolve the problem. Yet this year, after a false start, and amidst controversy about the Governments direction of travel in the CV-19 fight, funding has been committed to the tune of multiple £billions to protect the economy, save jobs and look after favoured sectors such as hospitality during the Covid crisis.

Even if much of this defensive expenditure might arguably have been mis-directed, misguided and ineffective, it is abundantly clear that when there is a will to resolve a problem, there is a way. So, it seems absolutely clear that it is time for the government to step up, fully commit the funding needed to ensure that the homes still wrapped in combustible cladding systems are made safe, as soon as possible; and defer any concerns about recovering the expenditure from culpable parties, to a suitable future point.

Then, looking to the future, a similar tragedy must never be allowed to occur again. It is heartening to see now in process, the legislative changes encompassed in the recently released International Fire Safety Standard – Common Principles (IFSS-CP), the imminent Building Safety Bill and the Fire Safety Bill. Will these developments create a new and definitive approach to assessment, validation and management of building safety and draw long overdue, fundamental changes in the control of building design and procurement? Time will tell.

If you would like to discuss this further, please contact Keith on 07860 216141 or at keith.richards@tridentbc.com.

Sign up to our Newsletter