The final report by Dame Judith Hackitt into the current building regulations and fire safety has been published today. This follows last year's dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower in West London, that led to the loss of 71 lives.
While the report makes a number of good recommendations, it falls short of providing the kind of safety regime that is needed.
Since the fire took place, many unions have been involved in supporting members who were caught up in the tragedy or assisting the families of union members who died. To prevent a repeat, they have been campaigning for strong, clear regulation and enforcement to prevent any possibility of these appalling events happening again.
We also recognise that many trade union members work in high-rise offices, many of which could have the same vulnerabilities as residential high-rise buildings.
At the time of the fire, I said that fire safety had suffered massively because of the Government’s obsession with deregulation and we need to make sure that the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire are learned and that we can be confident that tower blocks are safe places to live and work in.
The TUC therefore welcomed the inquiry, and many of the concerns that unions, victims groups and others had expressed were echoed in the interim report that Judith Hackitt published in December last year. She said that the current building regulations were “not fit for purpose” and a “universal shift in culture” was needed. She also said that the kind of cost-cutting that seems to have taken place at Grenfell was actually encouraged by the regulations. One clear message was that she was concerned over the privatisation of the building inspection regime that had taken place leading to conflict of interest and “mutual dependence” between inspectors and developers.
From a quick read of today’s follow-up report, it makes some positive recommendations, including toughening up fire testing and the improving the way buildings are certified as safe. It also looks at issues of competency and the need for more involvement of residents, although many of the problems relate to the initial construction, before there are any tenants to involve. Although the proposals will simplify the system they do not fully tackle many of the real problems around the need for a strong statutory approach to regulation.
One recommendation is the establishment of a 'Joint Competent Authority' involving the Health and Safety Executive, Local Government (building control) and the Fire Service. Any proposal to improve the effectiveness of the regulatory framework through pooling expertise must be welcome, but the question of who the regulator is, has hardly been the main issue. Instead it is the cuts in their numbers.
A Joint Competent Authority will only be effective if the bodies involved have got sufficient resources, and we have already seen big cuts in levels of both inspection and enforcement action from all three of the regulators over the past 8 years.
The Authority will also have to know who to deal with at every stage of the life of a tower block, including design, construction and during its use, yet, given the rows that are going on over the issue of the responsibility for cladding on existing high-rise blocks, it is clear that there is considerable confusion over who is accountable. Is it the builder, the freeholder, the management body, or the individual leaseholders, which is why the report’s proposal for a named “duty-holder” is a step forward.
The report seeks to create a framework for residential buildings over 10 stories. This is disappointing. Although Grenfell Tower was a residential building many of the faults in the system apply to other buildings, including offices, hospitals, etc. We should be ensuring that the changes apply to every type of higher risk property.
Tougher action needed
Unfortunately, the report could have gone much further. Trying to take an overview of the whole process is commendable but much of what is proposed remains very cumbersome and is dependant on the industry producing and owning guidance. However one of the criticisms of the current regime is that it is not based on simple clear rules that everyone can understand.
There will be disappointment that a ban on flammable cladding does not feature in the report. This proposal had wide support from architects, insurers and most developers, as well as being supported by the public with 90% of those polled supporting such a ban. The argument that Judith Hackitt makes, which is that the changes she proposes would mean contractors and architects would not in effect be able to use such materials, is not reassuring given the past history of following guidance in the industry.
Likewise there is a clear case for a legal requirement for a sprinkler system and a second means of escape in all high-rise buildings. These have both been recommended in the past following fatal fires but successive Governments refused to implement them.
But the biggest question is over resources. The recommendations will be of little help unless the government ensures that there is a strong enforcement regime of inspections and, where necessary, prosecutions, and that means giving the three joint regulators sufficient resources to ensure that all new and existing high-rise buildings are safe.
It must of course be remembered that this enquiry was only looking at the building control regulations and was unable to look at many of the wider issues which will be considered by the separate enquiry which to be held into the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. However that report could be several years away and we must not forget that tens of thousands of people are currently living or working in high-rise buildings, and they need action to protect them now.
The £400 million that the Government has given to remove cladding from social housing is a step forward but it has still done nothing to even consider the issue of high-rise buildings used as workplaces. The lack of government action on this to date, almost a year after the disaster, is a scandal.
If we are to ensure that our homes and our workplaces are safe we need simple, clear regulations and strong enforcement. Although this report goes some way towards achieving that, there is much more that needs to be done.
The TUC has published advice for union representatives on fire safety which you can find here.