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News report: Many failings behind Grenfell tragedy

Words: Simon Wicks
Grenfell Tower

A constellation of failings, from outdated regulations to various impacts of privatisation, are likely to be behind the Grenfell Tower disaster, experts told a Parliamentary group last week.

Speaking at the All Party Parliamentary Group for London’s Planning and Built Environment, senior local authority figures and built environment experts said it was unlikely that a single cause would be found for the fire that killed at least 80 people.

Instead, a litany of failures, unintended consequences and missed opportunities – some going back decades – are likely to have created the environment in which such a fire was possible.

These included:

  • Building control regulations that have not kept pace with design and construction.
  • A lack of accountability in projects governed by splintered procurement procedures, with numerous contractors and subcontractors.
  • Old housing stock poorly adapted to modern uses – especially, cable TV and thermal insulation.
  • Fragmented management of social housing amid the mixing of tenures in formerly solely owned council blocks and estates.
  • Limitations on council powers to inspect buildings – particularly where former council properties have become privately owned under the right to buy.
  • The competitive building inspection regime that encourages approved inspectors to undercut councils.
  • A leaching away of expertise, resources and powers from local authorities, particularly in architecture and design.

“We need a fundamental review [of regulations] in light of modern building methods and modern ways of living,” said Pat Hayes, managing director of Be First, a regeneration company owned by Barking and Dagenham, and former director of regeneration and housing for Ealing.

Sue Foster, strategic director of neighbourhoods and growth in Lambeth, noted that local authorities have limited powers to deal with both the probable causes and the aftermath of events like Grenfell.

“There’s an assumption that as local authorities we are responsible for everybody. We now have multi-tenure blocks – householders, leaseholders, subletting to tenants. We don’t have the same powers for all of them,” she said, adding: “DCLG is suggesting we take on a local leadership role. Fine, but we will have to have the powers to do that, as regulators.”

A catalogue of potential causes

The APPG, a non-statutory, cross-party Parliamentary group convened by The London Society, and chaired by Rupa Huq, Labour MP for Ealing and Acton Central, determined to take a sober look at the implications of Grenfell Tower for London’s housing stock. In the event, it provided an at times nuanced analysis of the many possible causes of Grenfell that drew attention to the complexity of the tragedy.

Speaking afterwards, Manns, a director at Colliers International and Society trustee, said: “This feedback highlights not only the interrelated nature of housing and planning issues but the importance of wider social policy questions around local authority resourcing and accountability”.

Sam Webb, an architect who was an expert witness at inquiry into the similar Lakanal House fire in Camberwell, London, in 2009, was extremely critical of the government’s response to the court’s findings.

In particular he maintained that Approved Document B – the building control regulation covering fire safety – was in dire need of updating. Webb maintained that then communities secretary Eric Pickles was made aware of this by the coroner investigating Lakanal, but no action was forthcoming.

Webb went on to say that the Home Office “knew very well what the risks were in buildings all over” but “sorting it out would make far too many people homeless”.

Building control regulations were singled out by most of the panel for criticism. Pat Hayes felt they had failed to keep pace with changes in design and materials, but also that they did not get to grips with adaptations to buildings.

He maintained that buildings like Grenfell were likely to be compromised by adaptations to modern living – such as the installation of cable television, which generates heat, or improvements in thermal efficiency, such as cladding.

“Should we be looking at these buildings more in terms of how we improve thermal efficiency and if we cannot should we be taking them down?” he asked.

Then there was the “critical issue” of management of housing stock, which had been substantially changed by a combination of deregulation and privatisation.

The “unforeseen impact” of the right to buy was a loss of control by local authorities over living conditions and implementation of regulations, said Hayes. For example, many private landlords had replaced “unattractive” but extremely robust fire doors with cheap plastic doors that wouldn’t resist a fire for “30 seconds”.

“The relationship between householders and councils, particularly in large towers, needs to be looked at,” he insisted, as well as “the role of building control and building regulations” which over time had edged away from “the point of greatest safety”.

Lambeth’s Sue Foster noted the resistance that local authorities would find if they requested entry to private homes for inspection. She also noted shortcomings in tenant management organisations for some kinds of building, implying that local authorities had greater resources to look after such buildings more effectively.

“We also have tenant management organisations managing part of the stock,” she said. “I think however attractive and desirable that is, it’s something that will need revisiting.”

“Should we be looking at these buildings more in terms of how we improve thermal efficiency and if we cannot should we be taking them down?” - Pat Hayes

One of the biggest issues to emerge from the discussion was the building inspection regime. Formerly the sole preserve of local authorities, it had been opened up to competition from approved inspectors.

Pat Hayes recalled that when at Ealing “developers and constructors who had used council building control were in a minority, and we had very clear records and a paper chain”.

He continued: “The buildings we didn’t have any information on at all were those inspected by approved inspectors. We are seen as a competitor of theirs and their business model is largely based on undercutting the council.”

Because they were allowed to sign off plans under certain circumstances, approved inspectors would not necessarily visit sites – unlike local authorities.

Sam Webb slammed the lack of sprinklers at Grenfell and in other blocks, arguing that sprinklers would have prevented the fire from even starting. Other panellists noted that sprinklers can in some circumstances cause buildings to collapse – in other words, the effectiveness of sprinklers, as with the advice to stay in a flat during a fire, is contingent on the building retaining its original integrity.

Next steps

Panellists considered the consequences of Grenfell and the next steps for local authorities and social housing. While stressing that they could not pre-empt an inquiry, they argued for reform of building regulations, greater powers for councils to inspect private residences, better housing management frameworks and powers and resources to manage strong and considerate emergency responses – a lack of emergency housing was considered a particular problem.

Adrian Dobson, RIBA’s executive director of members argued for “the need for independent fire certification from local authorities for lots of categories of buildings”. He also suggested that fire safety experts from outside the UK provide oversight of safety and estate regeneration schemes.

Sarah Davies, head of project management for London-based developer Pocket, stressed that all new homes needed to be built to modern standards. In particular, in estate regeneration, “we need to keep up the pressure with knocking down a lot of these buildings and only keeping the ones that are worth keeping”.

Sue Foster asked for a delay in the implementation of the one per cent cut to social housing rents. Intended to reduce benefit payments, this would take away the resources she needed to deal with the aftermath of Grenfell – in particular the inspection and upgrading of blocks under her authority. She also called for greater flexibility in using right-to-buy receipts to improve and provide local authority housing.

Overall, the session raised as many questions as answers – in particular on issues of accountability in a social housing environment fragmented by privatisation and a shortage of resources and powers. It also illustrated the complexity of the tragedy, the impact on everyone involved and the difficulty of responding to this.

“Four weeks on, there’s been significant activity,” said Foster. “There’s some clarity, but I think an awful lot of uncertainty remains. [To understand what happened] is going to take time and need inquiries and evidence.

“I’m really concerned that we are able to respond based on the evidence and understand fully what the consequences of Grenfell will be.”

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