The government needs to ensure that changes recommended by the review of building and fire safety regulations actually happen – perhaps by putting its hand in its pocket
The review of building and fire safety regulations launched by the government last Friday is an almost inevitable outcome of the Grenfell tower tragedy. Nonetheless, official confirmation that the regulations will be scrutinised is hugely welcome.
In the six weeks since the blaze that killed at least 80 people tore through the Kensington tower block, the government’s immediate focus has understandably been on clarifying the condition of similar blocks when it comes to fire safety. But the hard reality is that the scores of tower blocks whose cladding and insulation has been failing new government-commissioned tests have been constructed against the backdrop of the existing regulatory regime – and that is striking evidence that something in the system is wrong. Until that system’s failings are addressed, and faith in it restored, it cannot function to protect the people who use these buildings, or to reliably guide the clients and project teams working on current and future schemes.
The timeframe set out for the review – terms of reference published this summer, an interim report by the end of the year, and a final report by spring 2018 – may feel slow, given that its conclusions will not be reached until nearly a year after the fire. But this a reality of public process, and against that backdrop the detail given in the conclusions of the interim report will be key. If the industry has a strong sense of the direction of travel by Christmas, the lessons from Grenfell can start to be incorporated into projects far sooner than the review’s final sign-off.
It is vital that the timeframe for the consultation, and the implementation of its recommendations, does not slip as public attention turns elsewhere
Vital, too, is that the timeframe for the consultation, and the implementation of its recommendations, does not slip as public attention, currently focused on Grenfell, turns elsewhere. Evidence that emerged after two previous fatal fires – one in Ayrshire in 2000, and the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009 – has signally failed to be incorporated into building regulations. This review, and the changes that must surely follow it, are, tragically, already long overdue.
While the review is strongly welcome, there is, however, another aspect of the government’s latest response to the fire that raises troubling questions. This is on how it will tackle the issue of who will pay for the upgrades to buildings deemed unsafe as evidence from the fire emerges.
Alongside the announcement of the review of the building regs, the communities department said that it had written to all local authorities and housing associations to outline funding arrangements for upgrades to buildings. The department said it expects “that building owners will fund measures designed to make a building fire safe”, and “will draw on their existing resources to do so”; although the government would work with them to ensure “current restrictions on the use of their financial resources do not prevent them from making essential fire safety upgrades”.
In short, this puts the onus for funding work on local authorities and housing associations using existing financial resources, rather than receiving a top up from the government. And while central government coffers aren’t exactly overbrimming, those of the many local authorities and housing associations have long been exhausted by government cuts.
If the government can find £1bn to shore up its own position by offering a sweetener to the DUP, it should be able to come up with the cash to make buildings safe
This raises the worrying prospect that some of these bodies may have to look to diverting resources from other services to fund improvements – services that may well be helping improve the lives of those same low-income households that are likely to be living in at-risk blocks. If these clients have constructed their buildings to standards deemed suitable by central government, particularly those built or refurbished since the regulations were last revised, in 2010, it seems only right – and practical – that they should receive some support in adapting them.
If the government can find £1bn to shore up its own position by offering a sweetener of a funding package to the DUP (the implications of which for Northern Ireland’s infrastructure are explored this week on page 30), it should be able to come up with the cash to make safe buildings that tests have deemed dangerous; if not for every local authority or housing association, then for those that will struggle most to do so themselves.
With the building regulations inquiry running alongside a public inquiry into Grenfell itself, and a host of industry-led initiatives into how buildings withstand fire, there’s every reason to have confidence that, under such scrutiny, the measures that will make buildings safer will be laid bare. What the government has to ensure is – unlike in the recent past – these measures are implemented in practice. With the regulatory changes, and the financial help, necessary for that to happen.
Sarah Richardson, editor