What should we make of the post-Grenfell reaction?

Patrick Mooney looks at the reaction so far across industry and government to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in the context of inaction since the Lakanal House fire before it, and the continuing questions over safety.

There are lots of things we can do to address safety concerns in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster without waiting for the public inquiry or the independent review of Building Regulations to report on them. Many of these are practical things that can and need to be done urgently for the benefit of worried residents and concerned landlords.

At the end of July the Government announced that a review of Building Regulations and fire safety was to take place, but the reporting timescale means we will not see its initial findings until November or December at the earliest. It is unlikely that tenants will be comfortable with the timescale of the official response, and they will understandably demand meaningful actions to safeguard their lives and homes before the year ends.

Arguably, the review to be led by Dame Judith Hackitt is taking place eight years too late, as it should have happened in the wake of the Lakanal House fire in Southwark in 2009, rather than after the Grenfell Tower fire in June this year. Belatedly this new review does at least appear to meet the brief set by the Lakanal coroner, given the review’s particular focus on high-rise residential buildings.

Without even a hint of irony, the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said it was clear Building Regulations and fire safety standards need to be examined urgently. “This review will ensure we can swiftly make any necessary improvements. Government is determined to make sure we learn the lessons from Grenfell Tower fire and ensure nothing like it can happen again.”

But John Healey, the Shadow Housing Secretary, was surely speaking for many people when he criticised the testing programme for being confused and slow. “It has taken more than six weeks since the Grenfell Tower fire for the Government to release test results of just 82 of the 4,000 tower blocks around the country,” he said. “Landlords still can’t get other types of cladding tested and ministers still can’t say how many high-rise blocks are unsafe.” Healey called for the Government to expand the testing programme and publish the results in full.

Cross sector

Dozens of residential tower blocks across the country spent much of the summer with exposed insulation and in some cases a patchwork of cladding on them, while residents and owners anxiously waited for guidance and reassurance from the Government.

With more than 80 occupied tower blocks failing the combined cladding and foam insulation fire test, the housing sector needs a sharpened, visible focus on ensuring the safety of residents in the short term, before major works like the installation of water sprinkler systems can begin. The problem of what to do now affects the whole housing sector as it was revealed 47 of the blocks to fail the tests are owned by local authorities and housing associations. That means at least another 35 blocks are owned by other organisations, including private landlords.

While the brief for the Hackitt review is to focus on building regulations and fire safety, there are things we in the housing sector can urgently do ourselves to restore tenants’ confidence and safety, namely to:

  • Review and clarify the guidance given to tenants on what to do in the event of a fire breaking out.
  • Review and clarify the guidance given to tenants on what to do in the event of a fire breaking out.
  • Identify funds and other resources for essential safety works and building modifications to be undertaken.
  • Test the adequacy of fire risk assessments currently in use and make changes to the testing regime on a ‘quick wins’ basis, that do not require formal changes in regulations or bureaucratic processes.
  • Prepare a range of standard specifications for a range of standard safety works, such as retrofitting of sprinkler systems, installing secondary fire escapes,improving smoke detection and fire alarm systems and fire doors
  • Establish an effective whistle-blowing system that allows any concerned person, whether they are a tenant, member of staff, or a contractor, to raise worries about possible hazards or safety breaches. This needs to be combined with a feedback process, so residents canfeel their voices are being heard and acted upon.

Agenda

We need to ensure the issue of tenants’ safety is not allowed to slip down the agenda behind other issues such as how we ensure new housebuilding targets are met, or how value for money savings are delivered to fund the rent cutting regime. Safety cannot be allowed to take second fiddle again, it is much too important and the price of inactivity was tragically demonstrated in the many lives lost since the Lakanal House fire.

The terms of the reference for the Hackitt review will only be published after the terms of reference for the wider Grenfell inquiry have been confirmed. This is following a rather testy set of meetings between the judge, the Grenfell Tower task force (established in the main to support the council’s efforts) and the tower’s residents and supporters.

We know from the Government’s announcement in setting up Dame Judith Hackitt’s review, that it will examine the following areas:

  • The regulatory system around the design, construction and on-going management of buildings in relation to fire safety
  • The regulatory system around the design, construction and on-going management of buildings in relation to fire safety
  • Related compliance and enforcement issues• International regulation and experience in this area

Residents and landlords can take a good degree of comfort in Dame Judith’s background as a former chair of the Health & Safety Executive. She will report jointly to the Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and the Home Secretary Amber Rudd.

To allow discussions with tenants to start in earnest, the Government could usefully give assurances to landlords that money will definitely be found to pay for necessary safety works. Tenants in Camden showed some understandable reluctance in returning to their tower block homes, after their high profile overnight evacuation immediately after the Grenfell fire, while tenants in Salford have expressed worries about their high-rise homes, which some of them described as “living in a tinderbox.”

Deregulation

Immediately after the fire in mid June, Ministers were quick to suggest that money would be no object in sorting out safety concerns and allaying residents’ worries over whether they would wake up in the morning. Once the initial horror wore off, so apparently did the Treasury’s commitment to pick up the bill, and the leaders of councils and housing associations were left wondering what they could afford to do on their own. Eventually the Chancellor revealed that additional financial resources could be found for councils, but other landlords want to know what help they will receive.

Leading safety experts got frustrated at the lack of meaningful progress, so one month after the Grenfell fire, they wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, demanding that Government scraps its deregulatory approach to health and safety and treats spending on safety works as an investment in property. In a particularly damaging and stark comment on the cutting red-tape approach first espoused by David Cameron and George Osborne when they were running things in Downing Street, the letter’s authors wrote:

“Arbitrary rules were imposed to establish deregulation of health and safety, such as a requirement to abolish two health and safety regulations (and more recently, three) for any new one adopted.

“This mind-set has meant that, even when it was recommended and accepted that mandatory fitting of sprinklers would make homes or schools safer, this was rejected in favour of non-regulatory action. In practice, this approach favours inaction.”

The letter’s authors offered their organisations’ services to fast-track work on reviewing and finalising the relevant Building Regulations. As the comments came from respected organisations like the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, the British Safety Council and Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, who are not normally associated with knee-jerk reactions or hysterical demands, it is likely Ministers took their views seriously.

Public inquiry

It beggars belief that Building Regulations remained unamended and clouded in misunderstanding, for so long after the Lakanal House fire in 2009. Successive ministers from the former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles onwards may be called to give evidence at the public inquiry to explain their relative inactivity, but in the meantime residents are impatient for action to be taken in this calendar year.

Away from the ‘red-tape’ issue, landlords are finding it difficult to establish what are reasonable costs for works to retrofit water sprinkler systems into their tower blocks. There is also an urgent need to clarify the advice given to residents in the event of a fire and whether ‘the stay in place, rather than evacuate’ guidance is still valid. The Manchester fire service has changed their advice for residents to evacuate. There is also the issue about what fire risk assessments should cover, who is qualified to do them and the status of their recommendations.

Birmingham City Council estimated it would cost £31m to install sprinklers in its 213 tower blocks, while Portsmouth City Council calculated a cost of £12.2m for 13 buildings, giving a range of £145,500 to £938,450 per building. Meanwhile the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association said retrofitting sprinklers in Scotland could cost an average of £300,000 per block. The total bill across the whole country will be enormous and we probably do not have the specialist labour to complete this work as speedily as we, or the residents would like. While landlords wait for confirmation of help to pay for the retrofitting of sprinkler systems, Croydon Council announced that retrofitting sprinklers in 25 blocks above 10 storeys would cost £10m, leaving just £2.5m in its Housing Revenue Account (HRA) for all other works to its entire housing stock. The council’s leader asked for its HRA borrowing cap to be lifted and rent controls to be handed back to councils. He had not received a reply before Parliament rose for the recess and there was some confusion over what DCLG officials shared with ministers.

Funding priorities

It is possible the Government is worried about the cost of doing this work, while at the same time honouring its commitments to fund the new housebuilding programme to fix our broken housing market. It should not worry too much as both are urgent capital spending programmes – they are infinitely more important (and cheaper) than the High Speed rail link to Birmingham (and beyond) and the capital’s Crossrail 2 project. Lives do not depend upon either of these two rail projects and they will take so long to complete anyway, what is the harm in another year or two’s delay?

If Ministers fail to make meaningful progress over the next few months on the safety agenda, who is to say that the protesters who have lobbied with some success against Kensington & Chelsea Council, won’t turn their anger and frustration on the Government and possibly be joined by others? The council is not enjoying its time in the spotlight but worse is probably to come when the public inquiry gets underway and they are asked to explain cost savings to the block’s refurbishment, their choice of works and the materials used, and what came of residents’ concerns about safety.

Hopefully health and safety is no longer a term of abuse and those employed to advise us on how to minimise risk and prevent dangerous incidents, must be listened to and have their recommendations acted upon. The Communities Secretary Sajid Javid has a chance to push through the changes demanded by the safety professionals. He also has an opportunity to change the Government’s mindset about the worth of social housing and those who live and work in it.

For the last seven years, Whitehall has looked upon local government and the welfare budget as two giant cash cows, to be milked for major parts of its austerity savings. With homelessness continuing to rise and benefit cuts contributing significantly to rent arrears and high levels of evictions, the time has come for a serious re-think. News that corporate manslaughter charges are being considered against the owners and managers of Grenfell Tower will make the owners of other tower blocks more focused on improving safety.

As well as changing the mindset on health and safety and building regulations, and finding money for local government to solve housing problems, Mr Javid could reach out to form a better relationship with councils and housing associations. The housing White Paper showed he is capable of listening and writing fine plans to tackle many of our housing ills. Now comes the test to combine all of the fine words with effective actions and to ensure that another Grenfell Tower fire or similar tragedy does not befall the housing sector in the foreseeable future. The country demands and expects nothing less.