Industry and government in the dock after Grenfell

The Grenfell Tower fire has placed government, the building industry and the way it operates in the public spotlight like never before. Key questions need answering to ensure that such a disaster can never happen again. Andy Walker reports.

Grenfell Tower - before and after.

With the total number of those who perished in the Grenfell Tower inferno still unknown, a public inquiry has been announced and questions are rightly being asked about the government, local authorities, fire safety, building regulations and the way that the construction industry goes about its business.

Given that the spread of the fire is widely believed to have been due to the cladding used on the tower following its renovation in 2015, there are some critical questions for the industry and the inquiry to answer. Exactly what do the building regulations and guidance say about fire safety measures? Are the regulations too ambiguous or not clear? Is the cladding of the type used at Grenfell and other similar properties illegal or isn't it? 

If the cladding is ‘banned’, how can so many local authorities and design and build refurbishment teams have got it so wrong so that more than 600+ buildings ended up being covered in similar cladding? Despite one government minister claiming that the cladding used at Grenfell was “banned”, it beggars belief that the industry would regularly fit non-compliant cladding that has been deemed unfit for use in the UK.

Attention will inevitably focus on the building regulations and how these were applied and adhered to. The public inquiry should look at these issues in detail but the industry should expect that a very strong light will be shone on its working practices, procurement processes and how costs are allocated in a sector where ‘value engineering’ is often the norm.

The government is under the spotlight too. Fire safety experts had previously warned that a government delay in reviewing building regulations was endangering tower blocks throughout the UK. Following the fire at Lakanal House in South London in 2009, which claimed six lives, fire safety failings were uncovered in the resulting investigation. These failings included inadequate fire risk assessments and panels on the exterior walls not providing the required fire resistance.

Following the Lakanal fire, the then housing minister Gavin Barwell said last year that the government would review part B of the Building Regulations 2010, which relate to fire safety. That review has yet to happen.

Speaking to Infrastructure Intelligence on the morning after the fire, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group, Ronnie King, said that building regulations “haven't taken account of the Lakanal House fire inquest, or updated recent accredited research”. King said that he and others had called for the regulations to be reviewed following the Lakanal fire as people’s safety was being compromised. 

King also said that new build structures above 30 metres would also require automatic fire sprinkler protection but that as Grenfell Tower was an older building he presumed that this would not have applied for the refurbishment. “I can’t believe that this fire would have spread the way that it had if there had been water suppression,” he said.

King, a former chief fire officer for 20 years with 40 years’ experience in the fire and rescue service, said that the All Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group had failed to persuade successive government ministers, including the then housing minister Gavin Barwell, to review the building regulations because they could be endangering tower blocks throughout the UK. There are still 4,000 tower blocks within the UK which have the same regulations applied to them. And following tests, more than 150 tower blocks have been found to be fitted with combustible cladding.

The government were warned, by King and other experts, but for whatever reasons their warnings went unheeded. “We made strong pleas to government get the regulations reviewed and said that there is going to be a tragedy and you will be held responsible,” King told me. 

King said that the review of the legislation being demanded would have covered all aspects of fire safety on tower blocks, including sprinklers, internal compartmentation and prevention of fire spreading up a building and penetrating buildings. “We said repeatedly that the regulations weren’t good enough and needed to be addressed,” said King.

Nobody listened to those warnings made years ago. They must be listened to now.  

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