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16/09/2020

Grenfell shows we must fortify the link between planning and building regs

The Grenfell disaster shows that a dangerous disjointedness between planning and building regulations. It's a gap that must be closed, says Malcolm Sharp

At the Grenfell Inquiry, as reported by Inside Housing:  “Whilst the planners did accept the switch to ACM (from the zinc) they did not accept a further change – using cheaper face-fixed panels… the aesthetics won out… this was a fateful decision: we know now that the cassette panels have a far worse fire performance than the cheaper riveted versions.”

On the basis of the above snippet, you would forgive the public for assuming that the planning system and planners bear a heavy responsibility for the Grenfell fire. But we know that planning permission is concerned with the aesthetics of those materials, leaving the crucial decisions about their performance to building regs.

Once, planning and building control were both the responsibility of local government and usually in the same department. At times in my professional life I had overall responsibility for both.

Then, before competition, and with planning coming before the detailed building control drawings and approval, it was common to go along the corridor to show applications to building colleagues and ask: “If approved, will it cause you a problem later?”. Indeed, building colleagues had the time to comment on the weekly list for relevant applications.

“There has been a lack of debate in the wake of Grenfell about the need to get planning and building control working more together”

It seems there has been a distinct lack of debate in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire about the need to get planning and building control working more together. And I see nothing in the recently published bill that would lead us in that direction.

As planners, we can‘t absolve ourselves from all responsibility for creating safe places. Grenfell has shone a light on our need to be vigilant about fire safety in writing briefs and determining applications. We need to ensure that there is adequate access for emergency vehicles and that hard and soft landscaping and street furniture do not obstruct access and egress, especially from high-risk buildings.

The RTPI is a member of the International Fire Safety Standards Coalition. I sit on the Coalition’s Standards Setting Committee, which is preparing Common Principles, due for publication in September and to be adopted by the UN in October.

Planning is not front and centre in fire safety, but it has a role to play. Ours is a timely document to challenge current practice.

Malcolm Sharp MBE MRTPI is a planning and local government consultannt and chair of Nottingham City Homes

Image credit | Shutterstock

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