Jane Duncan OBE is a former President of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and Chair of its Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety.
Anniversaries of tragic events are moments of sadness and reflection. They also serve as an opportunity to take stock of the lessons that have been learnt. Yesterday was the the second anniversary of the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower where 72 people lost their lives and many more had their homes and possessions destroyed – a disaster that sent shockwaves across the world.
When Theresa May announced that she was stepping down as Leader of the Conservative Party, she referenced the public inquiry she initiated after the fire as a promise to deliver a system that makes sure “nothing like it can happen ever again…so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.
It will only be possible to understand how the fire occurred at Grenfell Tower after the police investigation and independent public inquiry conclude. But this was not the first fire of this type to claim lives, other fires have been occurring, and hundreds of buildings remain unsafe. As a result, the construction sector is rightly under scrutiny. Was the cause just an unfortunate series of incidents, or was it symptomatic of an industry being pushed to deliver more for less money?
This is not an easy or comfortable question to get to grips with. To answer it, the Government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to lead an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Although the RIBA did not agree with every recommendation, Dame Judith’s report did correctly identify key failings – including regulations that are not fit for purpose, lack of independent oversight and the low levels of competence and accreditation of those involved in the design, construction and maintenance of higher risk buildings.
However, two years on, there is little difference between the fire safety regulations now, and those in place before. This huge failing means we cannot be confident that a similar tragedy will not occur.
James Brokenshire announced a ban on combustible cladding that came in to place in December last year. This was a welcome move. But questions over testing regimes means that there is still a great deal of uncertainty over what is ‘safe’. Limitations to the extent of the ban mean buildings such as schools, hospitals and care homes are excluded and continue to present a risk. Additionally, disputes between building owners and tenants about who should pay for new, safe cladding and the removal of dangerous cladding continue.
Outside of the cladding ban, let us not forget that new residential buildings are still being built to the same regulations in place at the time of the fire.
The RIBA has made a number of recommendations to UK Government to improve fire safety in buildings; an extension of the ban on the use of combustible cladding, a requirement for sprinklers and centrally addressable fire alarms in all new and converted residential buildings and the requirement for an alternative means of escape in buildings (usually a second staircase) over 11 meters.
These recommendations have been reached from an extensive review of available evidence and international comparisons which paint a poor picture of England relative to Scotland and Wales – let alone the US. There is an argument that it should be left to industry to raise standards, with no need for central government to get involved. But without strong baseline regulations there is no clarity for industry or robust protection for the public. Fire safety must be a given, not a lottery.
The Government has initiated many consultations relating to Approved Document B – the building regulations covering fire safety and its proposals for a new building regulatory system were published last week. But what happens next will be a decision for the new Prime Minister, and not the one whose time in office was marked by this tragic event.
As time passes, it is critical that we do not treat what happened at Grenfell Tower as one moment, affecting one tower block but make the changes that are needed to ensure people of all ages in all communities can sleep safely at night.
This anniversary cannot be used to reflect on how far we have come because the simple truth is that not enough has been done. We should be able to promise that this will not happen again, but until the Government puts the right regulations in place, we cannot.