How do you solve a problem like Building Safety?

The Grenfell Tower tragedy

Immediately following the Grenfell Tower tragedy of 14th June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May vowed a tragedy such as this would never happen again. She stated that an urgent public inquiry would be constituted and “chaired by a judge to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible.” As well as “to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly.” 

The initial post-Grenfell political statements focused on High Rise Social Housing being the issue. This was probably because Grenfell was a High Rise Social Housing block. We are now 50 months on from Grenfell and there have been a series of further fire incidents and political reactions. The resulting Building Safety Crisis has grown exponentially to include tens of thousands of residential apartment blocks of all heights and tenures.

The Building Safety Crisis

Today’s Building Safety Crisis has rendered large swathes of the property market unsellable due to known and unknown issues with combustible external wall systems. Many remediation projects have stalled due to a lack of funding, materials and tradespeople. Private leaseholders and social housing providers are having to pay eye-watering costs for insurance and waking watch patrols. If private leaseholders fail to pay these interim and remediation costs (normally in the £20,000 – £80,000 range), they risk forfeiture of their lease and homelessness.

Some of these blocks are no doubt materially dangerous and should not be occupied until remediated. Some could do with improvement, whilst others may in fact be perfectly safe. The key point is; there is no agreed way of measuring and benchmarking risk across the building stock. What we have now is an unregulated EWS1 system that is and always has been wide open to innocent misinterpretation and organised fraud.

The Government response

On the face of it, the Government could be applauded for their response. They convened the Grenfell Tower Inquiry and commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct an independent review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Since then they have committed to the biggest changes to building safety regulation in a generation via the Fire Safety Act 2021 and the Building Safety Bill.

The stark reality is 50 months on from the Grenfell tragedy, very little improvement in relation to Fire Safety has been achieved. Despite (Hackitt) working groups discussing different aspects of the Building Safety Bill, courses for Building Safety Managers being launched, and law firms advising clients on the liability incurred by the proposed Accountable Person regime.

Turning to the Fire Safety Act 2021, the inclusion of external walls and flat entrance doors within the scope of the Fire Risk Assessment is good news. In addition, the proposed inclusion of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry Phase 1 (GTIP1) Recommendations as regulations is a positive step. On the downside, the GTIP1 recommendations will be 2 years old on 31st October 2021, and as yet the Home Office has not formally announced the new regulations or start date for the new Act.

The impact on Building Safety

The combined effect of this sweeping regulatory change and lack of clarity is confusion and paralysis. The property management industry is having its strategic focus, finances and people diverted from the immediate, urgent need to make existing buildings safe. The same friction that is making flats unsellable is further binding the moving parts of an already creaking Building Safety machine.

From what we can observe, as outsiders looking into the Government, there seems to be a forlorn hope that some new legislation will magically fix the Building Safety Crisis. To date, we have yet to see a Government route map out of this crisis. This tends to suggest a distinct lack of strategic planning and stakeholder communication.

Time to act!

Thankfully disasters such as Grenfell Tower are rare, sometimes described as once in 100-year events. But that doesn’t mean we won’t experience the next event in the coming days or months. We only have to look at the Milan fire last weekend to see that the opportunity for these incidents to occur is ever-present.

50 months post-Grenfell we are living on borrowed time in relation to Building Safety. Immediate solutions to stabilise the situation and assure safety are significantly overdue. We have been proposing a simple, practical solution to the Government since November 2018. It places the existing regulatory regime at the heart of the stabilisation and crisis recovery activity.

Our recommendation

Multi occupancy residential buildings have required a suitable and sufficient Fire Risk Assessment since Oct 2006. Prior to this, they were all visited and licensed annually by the local Fire and Rescue Service. We can debate whether current Fire Risk Assessments are ‘suitable and sufficient.’ In our opinion, they are not, but they do represent a good start and will improve significantly with the implementation of the Fire Safety Act 2021.

The solution we have promoted to the Government since November 2018 is for all Fire Risk Assessments to be formally published by Responsible Persons to a central Fire Risk Assessment register. Failure to publish would be an offence. The FRAs held within the register would be made available to those with a legitimate interest (Local Fire Service, Residents, Regulators, etc).

Assistive technology would be employed to read the FRAs and identify unacceptable residual risks, errors and fraud. This ranking would target enforcement activity and educate Responsible Persons to improve their approach to Fire Safety.

Alongside the register and its assistive technology, there needs to be a significant investment in Fire Service enforcement resources and education activity. Our firmly held belief is that measuring and influencing behaviour is the key to making and keeping residents safe in their homes.

From a data perspective, not only do we need to understand individual buildings, but we also need to understand systemic risk across multiple buildings and building managers. Life-saving data is hiding in plain sight within Fire Risk Assessments but the Government and Fire Service appear dismissive or perhaps scared to leverage this rich seam of data.

Instead of taking the low-hanging fruit (early) and building up knowledge and understanding in an iterative manner, the Government has chosen a revolutionary and over-engineered path to Building Safety that is currently trapped in a soup of complexity and unsustainable cost.

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