Log in | Register
28/09/2017

Reflections on Grenfell parts 4-6

Words: The Planner
Grenfell Tower

What can we learn from the Grenfell Tower disaster? Tony Lloyd-Jones, Geoff Payne and Patrick Wakely share their thoughts

Reflection 4: Implications for global building standards and international cooperation

Tony Lloyd-Jones

A disaster is frequently a crucial tear in the social, political and economic fabric of the times, an epoch-making event.

At Grenfell, a tragic decision to switch the specification of the rain cladding from a more to a less fire-resistant kind was made without regard to the relevant building regulations approved document. Under other circumstances there may never have been a fire or any concern with the cladding in this instance. A refrigerator bursting into flames on a balmy night on the lower floors of a high rise is not a common occurrence.

However, the fact that, by now, dozens of other tower blocks in the UK have been shown to be at risk from the kind of cladding that can delaminate and spread fire vertically as at Grenfell (and as the Lakanal House fire in 2009) suggests a far wider systemic failure.

A long period of austerity in the public sector, combined with a weakening of the regulatory framework and monitoring capacity, are key factors in the events leading to the disaster. Current building regulations are comprehensive but complex, increasing the uncertainty as to how the changing technology of assemblies combining rain cladding with thermal insulation and vertical cavities should be tested.

"Without the collective leadership of the European Union, international climate change agreements would not have been possible"

Concerns about fire regulations and growing uncertainties about blurring of responsibilities for quality control in procurement and implementation of building works have long been raised by experts and professional associations concerned with fire safety and building design. This applies in particular to switching responsibility for fire safety to self-certification by landlords and away from certification by the fire authorities in 2005 legislation (Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005).

The findings of a public inquiry will be long in coming. The UK’s right-wing media, meanwhile, spreads misinformation. It was quick off the mark to blame the Grenfell fire and its consequences on EU and UN climate change targets rather than due attention to the safety requirements that a primarily domestic regulatory regime should ensure. 

Brexit offers right-wing politicians a “golden opportunity to throw EU regulations on a bonfire”. But without the collective leadership of the European Union, international climate change agreements would not have been possible.

Climate change will bring more frequent disasters. In the UK, where existing residential buildings are estimated to contribute 25-30 per cent of carbon emissions, retrofitting is essential. Equally, with regards to immediate fire safety risks, across the world there is a huge legacy of tall buildings with combustible cladding, notably in China and the Gulf countries.

In a world of globalised supply chains and increasing demand for transnational standards to facilitate free trade, more – rather than less – international co-operation in sharing knowledge is vital to prevent further tragedies like Grenfell. 

Recommendations

  • Strengthen international cooperation in researching, sharing knowledge and agreeing common standards for fire safety in tall buildings.
  • Develop international standards for safe retrofitting of residential buildings to improve their thermal efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.
  • Think twice about Brexit.

Further reading

Tony Lloyd-Jones is an architect/planner and reader in international planning and sustainable development at the University of Westminster. A specialist in climate change and disaster management, his research has included an EU-wide study on retrofitting housing to reduce carbon emissions.


Reflection 5: Recognising housing and land as expressions of social inequality

Geoff Payne

Housing and land are physical expressions of the social inequality that current economic models have made inevitable, and systemic change is needed.  A ‘form’ is needed to follow an all too evident ‘failure’. So how does the Grenfell disaster highlight our professional responsibility to present alternatives?

The way that the housing sector is managed – or mismanaged – has never been more evident than today. After decades in which both Conservative and Labour governments have been obsessed with home ownership as the key policy goal, the needs of the young, the poor and other vulnerable groups, such as refugees, have been relegated to the sidelines.

"This is the only sure way to prevent short-term savings leading to massive long-term costs"

The implication is that if you have not been able to join the asset-rich groups who bought homes when prices were genuinely affordable, or acquired a heavily discounted public rental property under the ‘Right-to-Buy’ programmes, you must be the cause of your own misfortune and therefore undeserving of state support.

The impression given by Kensington and Chelsea Council is that the tenants in Grenfell Tower should consider themselves lucky even to live in the borough and should not therefore complain in case they are moved out of London. Such neglect of the basic needs of all citizens to live in a safe, secure and affordable home is a logical consequence of policy, not accident.

Far from encouraging de-regulation in the name of promoting investment, it is high time to revert to previous regimes in which a cadre of highly qualified and independent professional building surveyors and engineers were empowered to approve or reject building construction and renewal projects on the sole basis that they meet safety standards. This is the only sure way to prevent short-term savings leading to massive long-term costs. You cannot put a price on human life.

Recommendation

  • The maxim of turning a crisis into an opportunity applies now more than ever. The first priority for change is to create a housing market in which the range of supply options reflects the diversity of needs. The state has enormous potential powers to manage the land and housing markets in the public interest by the selective use of taxes on undeveloped land or empty properties, and can influence land values by granting, withholding or imposing conditions on planning permission.

Further reading

Geoff Payne is founder of Geoffrey Payne and Associates and an architect/planner who has advised the World Bank, United Nations and governments on aspects of low-cost housing and settlement planning.


Reflection 6: Creating partnerships for the development and management of social housing

Patrick Wakely

In October 2016 the British government, together with the governments of another 166 countries, endorsed the United Nations New Urban Agenda (NUA).

Throughout its 175 clauses the NUA gives significant emphasis to the efficiency, efficacy and equity of participation and partnerships in the planning, development and management of cities and housing. These include the maintenance of health and safety measures, disaster preparedness and humanitarian relief, recovery and development in the wake of disasters.

The fire in Grenfell Tower tragically demonstrates that this endorsement has been intentionally or, perhaps, unwittingly ignored by both national and local governments. All local authorities, including the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), accept, if not encourage, citizen and tenant participation in local affairs.

"Authentic partnerships are based on mutual trust and understanding of the goals, objectives and aspirations of all partners, by all partners"

However, this is generally little more than a politically correct gesture, confined to complaints about the administration of local services or concerns, such as for safety. In the case of Grenfell Tower, the residents community group brought concern for safety in the case of fire to RBKC only a few months before the tragedy, but was ignored.

Partnership, however, is much more than an arrangement for communication or token consultation on decisions taken unilaterally by a public authority. It is a voluntary agreement that engages all (potential) stakeholders, including social housing tenants’ organisations and relevant national and local government authorities to collaborate in order to reach mutually respected aims, sharing both the risks and benefits of actions and activities.

Authentic partnerships are based on mutual trust and understanding of the goals, objectives and aspirations of all partners, by all partners. They therefore depend on high levels of transparency and communication between partner organisations, agencies and institutions, and must be backed by clear legal Articles of Association that spell out the obligations, roles and relationships of each.

Effective social housing partnerships need not be administratively cumbersome or unable to act in emergencies. With the provision of access to appropriate IT support facilities, including social media, all partners in the procurement, maintenance and management of a social housing estate can be effectively, equitably and transparently engaged in collective decision-making and action at speed where required. Thus, avoiding misjudgements such as the hasty and obscure decision unilaterally taken by the London Borough of Camden to evacuate several hundred resident families from potentially unsafe buildings on the Chalcots Estate over the weekend of 24-26 June 2017, following the Grenfell Tower disaster, occasioning considerable hardship, distress and confusion.

Recommendations

  • The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) should immediately draw up detailed and explanatory terms of reference for the establishment of ‘Social Housing Partnerships’ for every social housing estate to be sent to the leader of every local government (London and other metropolitan borough councils, city and town councils, rural district councils). These terms of reference should advise on partnership membership that includes:

       - responsible and informed representation of planning and building (health, safety and amenity) control agencies, backed by their technical teams, principally for new housing development

       - local authority housing department functions, principally for the management and technical maintenance of existing social housing estates

       - most importantly, the terms of reference should spell out the local authorities responsibilities and functions to support the organisation, leadership and membership of tenant representation of each housing estate’s ‘Social Housing Partnership’ through training and other capacity building mechanisms.

  • The DCLG should provide national government grant funding to every local government to cover the cost of establishing and maintaining a Social Housing Partnership in every existing and planned social housing estate in the country in order to overcome local political opposition to this cost as a call on council tax revenue. The grant should include the employment of new or transferred professional/managerial support staff, with responsibility for supporting (enabling) the development and functioning of tenant community organisations and leadership and representation in the Social Housing Partnership.

Further reading

A Ladder of Citizen Participation (Journal of the American Institute of Planners, Vol.35, No.4, 1969)

Patrick Wakely is professor emeritus of urban development at the University of London. He was director of the development planning unit at University College London from 1989-2003.

More reflections on Grenfell

Tags