As the consultation on how to implement the Hackitt review’s reforms is launched, Joey Gardiner looks at the response to Grenfell so far – and which questions still need answering 

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Source: Mark Kerrison / Alamy

One of many marches for victims of Grenfell Tower in the shadow of the building, wrapped in polythene after the fire

It is two years since the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower on the night of June 14, 2017. The conclusions of Dame Judith Hackitt’s subsequent review of fire safety regulations could not have been clearer: the regulatory regime that approved the 2016 refurbishment and recladding of the tower was not fit for purpose, and the industry itself needed a radical culture change. 

There have undoubtedly been actions taken – the government has brought in a ban on using any combustible material in the external construction of tall buildings; while more than 200 buildings have undergone or are undergoing work to replace cladding systems now seen as unsafe. And last week, the latest significant movement was made – with the issuing of a 200-page consultation on the practical steps to implement Hackitt’s proposed reforms, including a new proposal for a wide-ranging building safety regulator. 

“We should expect the definition of high-rise residential buildings to be expanded”

Graham Watts, CIC

Nevertheless, critics point to the delays besetting the public inquiry and criminal investigation, and the fact that, two years’ on, the government has still not even formally begun the promised wholesale review of the relevant building regulations guidance on fire safety – Approved Document B (ADB) – as signs that little has been achieved. The industry, some say, has not so much changed as simply moved on to other priorities. Here, Building surveys exactly what point the Grenfell response has reached (see Public inquiry and criminal investigation, opposite, and Building safety programme and Regs changes, overleaf) and finds out, following last week’s consultation, what questions remain to be answered about the way forward.

Thomas Lane: Hackitt consultation - an important step

Chloë McCulloch: Grenfell - the slow road to change

Next week: Read Building for the latest insights from Building Live Club’s Hackitt consultation debate

Update: Public inquiry and criminal investigation 

The public inquiry chaired by Sir Martin Moore Bick began in earnest in May last year, and has already amassed an enormous amount of evidence, with nearly 270,000 documents reviewed, including detailed technical reports on how the fire spread and what allowed it to grow so quickly. It has also heard emotional accounts from residents and firefighters of their experiences on the night of the fire. 

However, it has missed its initial target to publish conclusions over what exactly happened on the night. In a recent update, the chair said he now expected to publish the “phase 1” report in October, and will not be making any interim recommendations before its publication. Public hearings for phase 2 – set to determine culpability for the blaze – are now not due to begin until the start of next year.

The Metropolitan Police has interviewed 13 people under caution as part of its criminal investigation into Grenfell, which it has previously said is considering offences of manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, misconduct in public office and breaches of fire safety legislation. In March it said it will not decide whether there is sufficient evidence to press charges until the public inquiry has completed phase 2, likely towards the end of 2021.

Further than expected

Certainly, last week’s consultation has significantly reduced the uncertainty around the future regulatory direction for the industry, even if it has brought a raft of more detailed questions about how specific items will be implemented. The biggest uncertainty seemingly settled by the consultation (for the moment) is over the scope of projects that the new post-Hackitt regulatory regime will cover. Hackitt herself suggested it should apply to buildings over 10 storeys/30m in height, in contrast to existing building regs guidance, which applies more rigorous standards to above six storeys/18 metres. The government’s consultation opts for the lower 18m threshold, meaning significantly more projects will be caught by the new regulations than Hackitt envisaged. 

“My biggest concern is that we’ve had a swing to the fire safety agenda – but that it will inevitably swing back”

Steve Cooper, Tenos

Adrian Dobson, the RIBA’s executive director of professional services, said he “particularly commended” the government for going further than Hackitt on this issue, but for many this move is just the start. The consultation asks whether some non-residential buildings – boarding schools, hospitals, care homes, prisons – should be included under the new regulatory regime for high-rise residential buildings (HRRB), and Dobson says there is a “big debate as to whether other high-risk buildings should be included. I suspect they want to see how this plays out first.” 

Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), which has been co-ordinating the industry’s response to Grenfell as part of the government-appointed Industry Reform Group, says: “We should expect the definition of HRRBs to be expanded.”

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Source: Shutterstock

Three tower blocks having their cladding replaced in Plymouth

Update: Building safety programme

In the months following the fire, the government undertook a series of large-scale tests of a variety of commonly used cladding configurations involving similar aluminium composite material panels to those used at Grenfell, in order to determine if they met building regulations, with most systems failing. As a result, the government declared that nearly 450 high-rise residential and other public buildings had non-compliant cladding systems, and oversaw a programme alongside the building owners to have these buildings remediated.

As of April, less than 100 of these buildings had completed re-cladding works, overwhelmingly those in the social housing or student accommodation sector.

Of about 150 social housing towers affected, all but 21 have started remediation works. However, of 175 privately-owned tower blocks,  just 27 have either started or completed remediation work. Many private building owners have been attempting to get tenants to pay for remediation works, leading to legal disputes holding up works. Last month, the government announced a £200m fund for privately-owned tower blocks designed to break the log jam.

Who will the regulators be?

Another key question (partly) answered by the consultation is who will undertake all this regulation. Where Hackitt had suggested a Joint Competent Authority comprised of the Health and Safety Executive, Local Authority Building Control and fire and rescue authorities, the consultation says government will create a new body – dubbed the national Building Safety Regulator – to fulfil this role. As well as policing the proposals for individual buildings, the government envisages the Building Safety Regulator having a much wider role in both setting the regulatory framework for high-rises, and underpinning the systems that ensure people undertaking work are competent. The consultation itself raises questions as to exactly how far its scope should go.

One of the roles of the Building Safety Regulator will be to appoint a committee to oversee a new competency framework, which will hold a list of every individual qualified to fulfil newly identified “dutyholder” roles in the system, who will be legally responsible for meeting regulations. The CIC has been leading a dozen working groups designed to devise exactly how this new system will work across different professions and trades, and is expected to launch its findings later in the month. 

The CIC’s Watts says the additional requirements on individuals will be enshrined in a new suite of British Standards. “The new body will sign off the accreditation processes put forward by the individual member organisations,” he says. “Trade skills are absolutely part of this, too.”

Update: Regs changes so far

The only concrete change to have been fully implemented in regulations since Grenfell is the government’s ban on the use of combustible materials in external wall constructions for residential buildings taller than 18m. This was brought in in December 2018, despite going against the thrust of the Hackitt Review, which recommended a non-prescriptive approach to building regulations. 

The ban outlaws the use of any combustible material in any part of the wall construction, except a limited list of specific exemptions for minor components such as seals, gaskets and membranes, and has impacted upon the use of cross-laminated timber construction. Lack of clarity over the exemptions has led to a raft of queries as to what exactly is and isn’t allowed. Paul Bussey, technical design lead for fire at architect AHMM and a member of the RIBA’s expert advisory group on fire safety, says: “There’s something like 135 queries that have been lodged with the government regarding different products and techniques.”

The government has also set out its plans to drastically scale back the use of so-called “desktop studies” to prove fire regs compliance – which it terms “Assessments In Lieu of Tests”. In future these will need to be much more tightly linked to performance in real-world fire tests, and fully evidenced. While the regulations haven’t yet been laid, Steve Cooper, director at fire engineering consultant Tenos, says:  “There’s almost an unofficial moratorium on using desktop studies at the moment. Clients are a lot more wary of them, and are generally either going down the linear route [of only using certified products] or undertaking a system test.”

Not cost free

However, this new system will not be cost free.  “Setting up the competency regime will be expensive and involved and there remain a number of question marks over how this will be implemented and monitored,” says Clarissa Smith, partner at law firm Trowers & Hamlins.

The 194-page consultation also sets out the direction of travel of the government’s post Grenfell reforms in other key areas. These include different types of named accountable “dutyholders” under the new regime. As expected this will follow the example of existing Construction (Design and Management) Regulations, with a client, principal designer and principal contractor, but with the addition of a new dutyholder, post-occupation, called a building safety manager. The consultation also sketches out a new framework of criminal and civil sanctions for dutyholders who fail to fulfil their roles, and outlines the key safety information it expects designers, contractors and landlords to collect and keep.

But many questions remain. For instance,  around the role that existing private sector Approved Inspectors will have in the new regime: Hackitt recommended that they should not be allowed to act as building inspectors under the new regime, with Local Authority Building Control given that sole responsibility. The government says it wants to implement this proposal but is concerned not to lose the resource of all the existing trained Approved Inspectors, a circle it has clearly not yet squared. The consultation says merely that: “Policy work is under way to investigate how it might do this.” There is also little clarity on the future regime for regulating construction products.

Most fundamentally, the government, as of last week, has still not kicked off the full review of Approved Document B (ADB), though an updated version containing minor tweaks is understood to be close to publication. This review will be the forum for deciding whether the calls from bodies such as the RIBA for mandatory installation of sprinklers and additional staircases on tall buildings will be addressed. RIBA’s Dobson says: “So far we’ve simply had a consultation on what the scope of the review of ADB should be – the actual review is still to start.”  

Until it happens, he says, the big questions about the level of prescription in building regulations cannot be addressed. “It all comes down to the review of ADB. While there is lots of great stuff in the Hackitt review, you have to ask what has happened when two years after Grenfell we haven’t even started the review of the guidance.”

Will the industry adopt the new regime?

But there is another big question. Trowers’ Smith says the biggest questions remain over the extent to which the industry will adopt the new regime. “The key question will be how readily clients, contractors, developers and building owners will accept the additional cost of implementing this agenda,” Smith says. “While the government would appear to have grasped the nettle, the real success will be in how readily the sector will respond to the regulatory regime.”

Steve Cooper, director at fire engineering consultant Tenos, also says that his concern is whether there will be continued industry commitment to the agenda, as memories of the horrific scenes at Grenfell fade for those not directly affected. “My biggest concern is that we’ve had a swing to the fire safety agenda – it has become a focus – but that it will inevitably swing back. The question is how this emphasis on fire safety will be sustained,” he says.

Key influencers: the people who are driving change

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Dame Judith Hackitt – Hackitt is continuing to be involved in the sector to attempt to drive implementation of the package of reforms she laid out in her report. A former chair of the Health and Safety Executive, Hackitt will welcome the consultation, but has been criticised for her insistence on non-prescriptive regulations.

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Sir Ken Knight – The former firefighter and chief fire and rescue adviser to the government was immediately appointed to chair the government’s expert advisory panel in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy to help formulate the government’s response. His advice helped shape the Building Safety Programme and he is still thought to have the ear of ministers.

Graham-Watts

Graham Watts – The chief executive of the Construction Industry Council (CIC), the umbrella body for construction industry professional bodies, has become a key organiser, marshalling the industry’s response to the Grenfell tragedy. Working alongside Build UK and the Construction Products Association, the CIC has developed a new system for ensuring the competence of construction professionals, due to be launched this month.

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Martin Moore-Bick – The retired court of appeal judge was initially a controversial choice to head the inquiry because of an earlier decision in a case brought by a tenant against Westminster council, which he found in favour of the council. Critics, including local Labour MP Emma Dent Coad, called for him to stand down, but he has made clear his intention to fully investigate the fire, including the deregulation of fire safety standards. 

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Clive Betts – The Labour MP chair of the communities and local government select committee has made the body an influential critic of the government’s approach, adding to calls for a more prescriptive approach to building regulations than envisaged by Hackitt.

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Source: Shutterstock

Civil servants – With no certainty that secretary of state James Brokenshire will survive the imminent government reshuffle when a new Conservative leader is chosen, the civil servants driving the response to Grenfell have become more significant. The key directors are seen as Neil O’Connor, in charge of building safety policy and advice; Andrew Pattison, in charge of the review of building regs; and Andrew McNeil, heading the Grenfell response programme.