5th September 2019
Fire Safety Post-Grenfell: Where Are We Now?

The morning of 14th June 2017 is one that few will forget. The nation awoke to shocking news footage of a blazing fire ripping through Grenfell Tower, a 23-storey tower block in West London. Seventy-two people lost their lives in the inferno, which quickly spread from a fourth-floor kitchen to engulf nearly the entire building; in the wake of the disaster questions began to be asked about why the fire had spread quite so rapidly. A public inquiry later revealed a raft of safety failings, the most significant of which was that the external cladding surrounding the building, made of aluminium composite material (ACM), was highly flammable. This type of cladding was subsequently banned in December 2018, although there are still hundreds of high-rise buildings across the country covered in similar materials.

In the two years since the fire, an independent review of England’s current building and fire safety regulations was published, and the government has recently concluded a consultation on proposals for a new regulatory framework focusing on high risk residential buildings (HRRBs) over 18 metres high.

Reviewing the regulations

England’s building regulations, first published in 1965, are divided into two sections; Approved Document B covers fire safety matters within and around buildings. In July 2018, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced a full-scale review of Approved Document B, and published a revised version in July of this year. The amendments imposed stricter rules on the materials that could be used for external cladding, and clarified the buildings to which these rules applied.

Building a Safer Future

The above amendments were based on the interim Building a Safer Future report, an independent review of England’s building safety regulations. The final 2018 report, more commonly known as the Hackitt Review after its author, Dame Judith Hackitt, made a series of recommendations intended to tighten the regulatory oversight of new buildings and improve the focus of building safety at the design, construction and refurbishment phases. Recommendations included the appointment of a dutyholder who would be ultimately responsible for building safety at all stages; the establishment of a ‘Joint Competent Authority’ (later changed to ‘Building Safety Regulator’ in the government’s proposals) to oversee the delivery and maintenance of safe buildings; and giving residents more of a say in the system and the ability to voice their concerns. The government consultation built upon these recommendations, and the feedback received from the consultation is currently being analysed at the time of writing.

Simply not good enough

However, there has been widespread criticism of the official response to the Grenfell tragedy. A Parliamentary report published in July by the Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee concluded that safety reforms post-Grenfell have been too slow and “simply not good enough”. It said that, despite the government having made £600 million available to remove dangerous cladding from other vulnerable buildings, the process was moving too slowly, leaving thousands of residents living in fear of a similar fire. The report commented that despite the government’s promise to “urgently review” building regulations in the wake of Grenfell, nearly two years had passed before proposals were published for consultation.

Other organisations also believe that more could be done. The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) called for an expansion of the proposed regulations to include all buildings at risk of fire, not just those over 18 metres. It also warned that a focus on competence and compliance was key to the success of any new regulations. Similarly, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said that England’s building safety regulations were lagging behind other countries, including Scotland and Wales, and that the proposed measures needed to be tougher. It called for the extension of the regulations to non-residential buildings of any height, including prisons, hotels, hospitals and schools.

Full speed ahead

It is clear that there’s still a long way to go before the wrongs leading to the Grenfell disaster are righted. In the wake of such a widely reported national tragedy, the government is under pressure to move quickly and implement new regulations that will ensure the safety of residents living in high-risk buildings. Head of the National Housing Federation, Kate Henderson, has called upon new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to make post-Grenfell safety work a priority; meanwhile, many wait with bated breath for the outcome of the government consultation and the next step on the long journey towards better fire safety.