Westminster meeting hears views from architects and specialists in social housing

The Grenfell Tower fire was a “catastrophic” event which will inevitably lead to an overhaul of the way that similar blocks are built, maintained and assessed for risk in the future, a panel of experts concluded yesterday.

As new tests on cladding revealed failures on material fitted to schools in the capital, a meeting hosted in Westminster by the All Party Parliamentary Group for London’s Planning & Built Environment heard that a radical re-think around social housing and building regulations was urgently needed.

Disasters such as Ronan Point in 1968, Summerland in 1973 and Lakanal House eight years ago led to changes in standards that “made things better”, said Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture. “It is very important that we learn the causes of Grenfell, and put the mechanisms in place to avoid similar disasters in future,” he added.

Pat Hayes, managing director of Be First, a regeneration firm owned by the London Borough of Dagenham, said a key lesson would be around the adaptation and refurbishment of existing, older buildings. He argued that the physical integrity of older buildings which underwent refurbishment, or where new wiring or TV cabling was installed, simply could not be compromised.

“Removing dangerous material, such as asbestos, is fine, but what replaces it? For example, taking out fire doors because they are ‘ugly’. Or fitting cabling and ducting into old buildings that compromise the structure. Thermo-efficiency also needs to be looked at, so that what you are putting up, such as cladding, doesn’t increase fire risk.”

Hayes also highlighted the role of building control and how regulations could result in what he called “numerous overlays, where a series of pragmatic decisions ended up, in some cases, compromising safety”.

He also questioned the regime of approved inspectors, which saw the local authority as a ‘competitor’ to be undercut. “They will approve a plan from an office somewhere, but won’t be on site. There is a real issue around the deregulation of building control.

“At the end of the day we should be building better housing, particularly with the surge in popularity of build-to-rent’, so that we are not creating problems for the rental population of the future.”

Describing the Grenfell fire as “catastrophic”, Adrian Dobson, executive director at the RIBA, said any inquiry into the disaster must look at procurement and also the role of fire testing, including the reduction of the fire services’ function in the construction of similar blocks.

“There is no line of responsibility from initial design through to completion, no ‘clerk of works’ who in past times would oversee things,” he said.

Sam Webb, a former architect who acted as an adviser to the families of some of those who died in the Lakanal House fire in 2009, said Grenfell residents had been fatally failed by the system and described the fire as an “atrocity directed at poor people”.