Grenfell: how has building safety changed, five years on?

It is five years to the day since Grenfell Tower caught fire. Tragically, 72 people died in the blaze, shining a spotlight on the construction industry, its regulations and the government responsible for enforcing those rules.

Since then, an inquiry into the fire has moved through its first and second phases and Dame Judith Hackitt has published a report criticising the industry for failing to self-regulate and cutting corners. Thousands of buildings have also been found with significant defects on them, while the government’s Building Safety Bill received Royal Assent in April.

Construction News takes a look at what the industry has done to tighten up safety, and what is yet to be achieved.

Some progress has been made, according to the director of the Metal Cladding and Roofing Manufacturers Association (MCRMA) Carlton Jones, who references the industry’s acceptance of the “polluters pay” principle; the idea that those firms who were responsible for defects on existing buildings should be the ones to rectify the problem.

But he argued some issues remain untouched. “Government has not grasped the nettle on a number of things,” he said, pointing in particular to skyrocketing professional indemnity insurance costs and skills shortages in construction industry fire safety.

Installers of rainscreen cladding, essential to the process of remediating cladding, are in demand and are not being trained fast enough. Also hampering the progress is a push by government to make the industry pay without having details of what industry will be paying for. The Construction Products Association, for example, have refused to accept the terms of government’s demands on this basis.

“DLUHC (The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) do not have the full facts about the size of the issue and costs,” Jones said. “The construction sector cannot and will not issue an open cheque without knowing the facts.”

CPA chief executive Peter Caplehorn said that, although it is little consolation to people affected by the tragedy at Grenfell Tower and in similar situations since, some changes are in the works.

“I believe it is clear that progress is happening across a number of key areas: competence; training; clarity and trustworthiness of product information; more stringent and robust regulation; and better working practices between industry, regulators, residents and relevant parties,” said Caplehorn.

But much discussed in the years since the fire is the push for self-regulation of the construction sector, instead of the use of a regulator. A report released yesterday on the Grenfell Inquiry pinpointed shortcomings at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) as a key reason for the flaws in the fire safety industry.

Professor Luke Bisby, the expert witness to the inquiry, concluded in the report that a “picture of increasing freedom for industry and increased regulatory complexity” has developed within the industry, where increasingly complicated regulations fail to achieve .

“This is coupled with a profound lack of competence of actors involved at all stages, from regulation to design to construction to investigation, and apparent complacency/inaction from government.”

The move towards innovation, he added, was used as a pretext to bring materials quickly to market without knowing their safety values.

“The hazards of new materials, products, and systems appear to have been insufficiently understood or, where they were understood, overlooked in the interests of innovation (and economy),” Bisby said.

“Prescriptive rules constrain such innovation and increase the costs and times of creating new materials,
products, and systems.”

Therefore, the industry and government have a decision to make.

“Since the 1960s, there have been regular calls for both ‘freedom’ and ‘clarity’ – I would suggest […] that, in the context of prescriptive regulation, these characteristics are mutually exclusive,” Bisby said.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “The Grenfell Tower tragedy must never be allowed to happen again and our thoughts are with the bereaved families, survivors and residents at this incredibly difficult time.

“So far, 45 of the UK’s biggest housebuilders have signed our developer pledge and will contribute £5bn to fix their unsafe buildings. We expect them to work swiftly so people feel safe in their homes and we will be carefully scrutinising their progress.

“The Building Safety Act brings forward the biggest improvements in building safety for a generation, giving more rights and protections for residents than ever before.”

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