Comment

18.06.18

Grenfell, one year on

Source: PSE June/July 2018

In the year since the Grenfell Tower disaster, the LGA has been working tirelessly to ramp up fire safety regulations and ban ‘desktop’ fire safety tests in order to prevent such a tragedy happening again, writes Lord Porter, chairman of the LGA.

The heart-breaking accounts of the survivors and bereaved of the Grenfell Tower fire which have opened the public inquiry into the disaster remind us that – despite all the necessary debate over the technicalities of fire safety and building regulations – this was a human tragedy.

We must never forget that at least 72 people lost their lives in the most unimaginable way. The tragedy that unfolded that day can never happen again, and that has been the LGA’s focus since the awful events of 14 June last year.

A total of 46 blocks owned by 15 councils were found to have cladding and insulation systems which failed one of the fire safety tests ordered by the government following the fire last summer. Local authorities affected acted swiftly to implement precautionary measures where necessary and remove flammable materials.

While they got on with what they needed to do to ensure people are safe in their homes, the LGA was involved in public and private conversations with the government about the financial implications. It is great that the prime minister has honoured the commitment made last summer to meet the unexpected exceptional costs for councils arising from major remedial fire safety work on high-rise buildings. This funding is coming from the existing Affordable Housing Programme and will be replaced in the 2021-22 programme.

The number of buildings across the pub lic and private sectors found with flammable cladding and insulation systems gave strength to our arguments that there had been a systemic failure, and that the system of ensuring buildings are safe was broken. That is why the LGA successfully led calls for a review of building regulations and fire safety legislation.

In our submission to Dame Judith Hackitt’s subsequent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, we set out 18 measures needed, including for Approved Document B to be re-written to address the complexity and lack of clarity of the building regulations, and for the use of desktop studies as a route to fire safety compliance to be banned.

It was good that Dame Judith’s final report agreed that the current system is not fit for purpose and set out a range of   recommen-dations for its long-term reform. The LGA supports the majority of the recommendations, in particular the call for stronger sanctions and enforcement at design, construction and occupation phases. We have also raised concerns about the difficulties that have been caused by the commercialisation of building control, so it is right that Dame Judith has recommended restricting the role of approved inspectors.

A key recommendation is that a new regulator – the Joint Competent Authority – should be set up. It would bring together council building control functions, fire and rescue services and the Health and Safety Executive, working together to maximise the focus on building safety. There is a lot of detail to be worked out about this proposal and it is critical that the LGA and councils are involved in this process.

A disappointing omission

While Dame Judith’s report sets out a vision for the future, these reforms will take time to implement. The immediate priority for local government is making certain that the buildings in which people live, work and visit are safe today.

However, it was disappointing that Dame Judith has stopped short of banning combustible materials and the use of desktop studies, both essential measures to improve safety.

There is increasing evidence that the BS8414 test – which analyses the fire performance of external cladding and insulation systems – is not a test that can be relied upon. The work carried out by the Fire Protection Association for the Association of British Insurers demonstrates that, in real-world conditions, we cannot rely on a system that has passed the test to perform adequately in the event of a fire.

This has led the LGA to the view that only non-combustible materials should be used on buildings over 18m high.

In the last year, we at the LGA have learned more about cladding and insulation than we ever thought we would want to know. We don’t pretend to be experts, but it is abundantly clear that this is a no-brainer. We can no longer have a system in place which enables an argument about how flammable material can be before it is allowed to be put up on the outside of buildings where people live.

Despite Dame Judith not recommending a ban on combustible material, it was great to see that the new secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, James Brokenshire, has listened to our concerns and recognised the urgent need to act by announcing a consultation on a ban. We continue to urge the government to introduce this ban as quickly as possible.

The use and misuse of desktop studies has also been at the heart of our broken system of building regulation.

Currently, if no fire test data exists for a particular cladding system, a desktop study can be submitted. We have consistently said that desktop studies cannot substitute for real-world tests of cladding systems, including in our evidence to the Hackitt Review. We urge the government to hold firm against industry pressure that seeks to allow their continued use.

We have raised concerns about the government’s consultation on desktop studies, in particular the fact that the accompanying impact assessment admits that the preferred option would result in more desktop studies being used.

However, we are encouraged by the comments made by Brokenshire in Parliament on the day the final Hackitt report was published, when he said he would not “hesitate to ban” desktop studies if it cannot be demonstrated that they can be used safely. This is a significant shift from what is in the consultation document, and we remain adamant that they cannot.

No one should have to live in fear about their safety, be that in the buildings  they live in, work in or visit. Councils are ready to play a leading role in making sure a new system of building regulation works.

At the LGA, we continue to work hard to make sure the government resists industry pressure and puts in place the changes that ensure our residents remain safe and secure.

Top image: c. Paul Williamson via iStock 

 

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