After a formal opening in September, the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire being led by Sir Martin Moore-Bick has been involved in detailed process issues. A lengthy “procedural hearing” was held 11th – 12th December, dealing mostly with legal matters, timetabling and the scope of the inquiry.
Meanwhile and out of the public eye, ex-chair of the HSE, Dame Judith Hackitt, has been leading an investigation into how building regulations impact fire safety. Whilst the newspapers follow Moore-Bick, those involved in designing, constructing and managing houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) and other high-risk buildings should be following the Hackett inquiry very closely, and looking at the provisional recommendations of the interim report published just before Christmas.
Whilst even in the hours following the fire there were calls for new laws to be layered on existing laws, Hackitt’s inquiry is more considered. She warns us to be wary of the ‘if we just do this one thing, it will all be better’ thinking. Instead, Hackitt calls for “cultural and behavioural change … across the whole sector to deliver an effective system that ensures complex buildings are built and maintained so that they are safe for people to live in for many years after the original construction.” At the heart of the problem, Hackett sees a culture with a mindset of doing things “as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings to others.”
Whilst Moores-Bick is unlikely to deliver until sometime after the first anniversary of the fire, the final Hackitt recommendations are expected “in the spring” and the interim report flags the areas likely to be covered. This includes new, streamlined systems of regulation and enforcement for high-rise buildings “which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and will hold to account those who try to cut corners.”
As well as expectations on government, the roles and responsibilities of all “those who interact with the system during the use of a building” will be more tightly defined. This will include housing associations, councils and tenant associations, as well as other landlords and property management organisations. But Hackitt warns those in charge of buildings not to wait for prescriptive instructions, but to take action now, based on what has “already been identified and tested as safe.”
Further recommendations likely to be detailed in the final report include:
- The repeat frequency for fire risk assessments might change from the unspecified “regularly” to at least an annual review.
- Tighter controls on handover from building developer to building manager, so that any remedial measures identified must be fixed before occupation.
- Those in charge of buildings will have an obligation to make sure they have all the information they need to maintain safety.
- The use of desktop studies as evidence that “alternative” building materials are acceptable might be restricted to more limited circumstances, or banned altogether.
- Changes in how the competence of those involved in the design, construction, inspection and maintenance of high-risk buildings is established.
The last of these points is one organisations can prioritise straight away. No reputable organisation would dream of using anyone who wasn’t on the Gas Safe register to work on gas appliances – but how many organisations check that the people maintaining their fire doors have a third-party accreditation? The interim report suggests that new standards will cover fire risk assessors, engineers, building control inspectors and anyone installing and maintaining fire safety systems (for example, doors, alarms and sprinklers) and other safety-critical systems. Optional standards are already available for most of these, and anyone responsible for repair and refurbishment works should make sure that only competent people are used, and that any remedial works are quality assured.
One of the influential contributors to the Hackitt inquiry has been the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It calls for change to go further, seeing a “more rigorous, independent and regulated system of fire risk assessors” as second best to its preferred option of returning to the pre-2005 system of formal fire certification from fire brigades for higher risk premises.
Whilst Hackitt’s report is still undecided on the issue of sprinkler systems, pointing out the practical challenges and weaknesses in their effectiveness, the architects have already made their judgement. RIBA call for mandatory automatic sprinkler or other fire suppression systems in all new housing (as has been the case in Wales since 2016), although elsewhere in their submission this is qualified as a requirement for residential buildings over three storeys in height. RIBA also want all new and converted houses and flats over three storeys to have at least two staircases (Grenfell had just one route out).
Housing associations and others responsible for building safety should take note of three further recommendations from RIBA without waiting for further legislation or reports.
Hackitt points that that whilst changes to the regulatory regime will help, on their own they will not be sufficient. A new culture is needed which moves away from doing the minimum required for compliance, to taking ownership and responsibility for delivering safe places to live.