The Grenfell Tower tragedy was the UK’s worst residential blaze since the Second World War, and ultimately claimed 72 lives. It is currently being investigated on three fronts – through the coroner’s inquests, a public enquiry and by the police. Even though these enquiries have yet to conclude, it is already abundantly clear that lessons must be learned from Grenfell, and with the recent publication of the report arising from Phase I of the public enquiry, strong themes are beginning to emerge.
Among the most pressing of these is the need for building owners and managers to act swiftly, and pay very careful attention to the testing and surveillance of crucial safety equipment.
In the report on Phase I of his enquiry into the Grenfell fire Sir Martin Moore-Bick has outlined the themes that demand further investigation, and will be covered in Phase II. These include the testing, choice and design of materials used in the building, and the installation, use and maintenance of crucial safety elements including sprinkler systems, fire doors, lifts and the smoke extraction system.
Sir Moore-Bick also points out that the failure by multiple parties, over a period of years, to comply with, or ensure continued compliance with building regulations and related safeguarding legislation played a key role in the tragedy of Grenfell.
Perhaps most importantly of all, he explains how all parties involved in Grenfell had clearly failed to learn from a previous, comparable, fire at Lakanal House in July 2009.
In other words, history has demonstrated that it’s not enough to pledge to learn from previous events. Grenfell has shown with terrible clarity that lip service is not enough, and that without innovation and ‘out of the box’ thinking, the current inertia surrounding building regulations and fire safety will persist. This observation has also been made in various reports and publications made since Grenfell.
This is not good enough. It’s time to change.
Innovation supports regulation
For all of the reasons outlined above, Phase II of the Grenfell Enquiry will have major implications for landlords, housing associations, council housing departments and their agents and managers. But Grenfell has already triggered change.
The current parliamentary green paper on social housing, which makes explicit links to Grenfell, calls for landlords to provide safer, better quality social accommodation and take greater account of tenants’ voices. There is strong and widespread concern, again in light of Grenfell, that building rules have not been adequately enforced for years and this matter is now under scrutiny. The Hackitt report, a review of fire safety and building regulations, was published in May 2018.
While the Grenfell enquiry has scheduled detailed investigation of building regulation and fire safety matters for Phase II, the Hackitt report has already given full and careful attention to many of these issues, albeit in the wider, nationwide, context.
In her report Dame Judith Hackitt states clearly and unequivocally that regulatory tools and enforcement have not been adequate and that major change is needed. She describes the building/social housing sector as having a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality with fragmented and unclear lines of responsibility and accountability leading to ineffective or downright dangerous practice. Whether this is due to ignorance, laziness or because the system discourages good practice is unknown but immaterial: the fact is that current behaviour often puts lives at risk.
What does the Hackitt report call for?
Above all, Hackitt calls for change. The report sets out the principles for a new regulatory framework, intended to change the current culture and enforce appropriate behaviour.
While Hackitt focuses primarily on multi-occupancy and/or high-rise buildings, the social housing green paper and initial findings of the Grenfell report leave no doubt that Hackitt’s call for those creating risk to be held accountable for it will be echoed throughout the sector. All landlords and housing providers need to start listening to those calls – today.
The Hackitt report recommends a very clear model of risk ownership which will hold everyone involved in building management to account, overseen by a new Joint Competent Authority. In the post-Grenfell era, building regulations enforcement will have teeth.
Rather than being based on complex rules and guidance, Hackitt calls for an outcomes-based model of accountability that will apply to responsible parties throughout the lifetime of a building, and this is a crucial point.
In an outcomes-based system, responsible authorities such as landlords and housing associations have the freedom to innovate and look beyond current systems and traditional approaches. What matters is that buildings are protected from fire and residents protected from its dangers, full stop. The approach is not prescribed.
There is intent behind this, naturally. We now know from Dame Judith’s and Sir Martin’s reports that building management – including the testing and maintenance of crucial safety equipment – has been neglected for far too long. We also know that this has occurred within the context of a sector overwhelmed by confusing rules and regulations, which have not been properly aligned, understood or enforced.
Focusing on outcomes and using that change of focus to prompt innovation and thought ‘outside the box’ is the only way to escape such dangerous imprisonment and move on.
What types of innovation?
Of course, asking for outcomes and actually generating them are two very different things. For those operating within a regulatory system that has already been described as largely unfit for purpose it’s even harder, because by definition the ‘tried and trusted’ and long-established routes have failed. The sector has to reinvent itself and its approaches to a very great extent.
One guiding principle that comes from the Grenfell Phase I report is that reliable testing and certification of building materials and equipment, and assurance that these are fit for purpose throughout the building’s lifecycle, are required. These issues will come under much greater scrutiny in Phase II.
This generates an interesting question: to what extent do landlords and building managers actually know what assets they have, and their responsibilities in relation to those assets?
Does their knowledge run to the number of buildings they own or administer, or do they know what they are responsible for right down to the last fire door or smoke alarm? Because post-Grenfell, they absolutely need the latter degree of understanding.
Turning to the responsibilities, how are these accounted for? The average housing association administers hundreds or thousands of properties. In an outcomes-based system they’re going to need information about every fire alarm, every fire door, every safety system. They will have to verify when each of those items was installed, whether it needs servicing when it is due for replacement. That’s a big ask, particularly of major social landlords.
But in an outcomes-based system they just have to do it, no matter how.
Fortunately, we live in a technological age and Grenfell has already inspired some innovative responses in the form of software and asset tracking and monitoring systems. It seems likely that the growing internet of things, with its potential for remote monitoring and connection, will also be useful in this area.
But asset control and surveillance, while it lies at the heart of the practical response to this challenge, and meets the demands of outcomes and accountability, only forms part of the response.
Because the housing sector needs to change more than its protocols and methodologies. Relationships and power balances are also shifting in light of Grenfell. The social housing green paper echoes the ‘outcomes-based’ theme in its intention to provide residents with the ‘tools they need to hold their landlords to account’ including, potentially, the power to recommend or decry them in some (currently unspecified) form of public reporting.
Unsurprisingly, the survivors and bereaved of Grenfell are at the front of the battle for change. They too want a new culture to prevail in the management of housing and demand changes to building regulations and fire safety. Bringing about change on that scale is always going to be hard, but bringing it about in a country that has been dominated by single-issue politics since 2016 and is currently bracing itself for the second general election in three years is even harder.
But nobody – least of all anybody involved in housing provision – can allow politicking and point-scoring to overshadow what is truly important. People must be protected from fire, and the system must change – in light of the Grenfell enquiry, the Hackitt report and all other facts arising. The sector must take new, innovative approaches to generate the safety outcomes now being demanded.
Everyone involved in housing provision must act in response to Grenfell. And it must never, ever, be allowed to happen again.
Tracie Williams, Managing Director of Evident Software