By Colin Wiles, housing consultant.

In the 1970s the New Musical Express used to publish “Rock Family Trees” charting the genesis of rock and pop bands. Someone like Eric Clapton would be connected to dozens of other individuals and groups in a confusing matrix of lines.

I was reminded of this when reading Inside Housing’s excellent reports from Phase 2 of the Grenfell Public Inquiry. After a while, the interconnected web of contractors, sub-contractors, suppliers, designers, architects and other consultants starts to make you feel confused and giddy. In fact, their star reporter, Pete Apps, tweeted a diagram in an attempt to explain how they all related to each other.

One of the early conclusions from the current public inquiry is that the various actors involved have been able to hide behind this confusion. There was no one in overall charge, no chain of command, no desk where the buck stopped.

Part One of the inquiry came to the overall conclusion that the cladding and insulation were the primary cause of the fire’s spread. It will be interesting to see what conclusion the current inquiry reaches in 18 months or so from now.

The draft Building Safety Bill, published in July, is an initial response to the catastrophe of 14 June 2017. In particular it takes forward some of the key recommendations of the Hackitt Review, published in 2018.

As a reminder, Dame Judith wrote that: “The primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible rather than to deliver quality homes which are safe for people to live in. Some of those undertaking building work fail to prioritise safety, using the ambiguity of regulations and guidance to game the system. There is also a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities – there is ambiguity over where responsibility lies, exacerbated by a level of fragmentation within the industry…”

All of this, she wrote, had created “a race to the bottom with ‘insufficient focus on delivering the best quality building possible, in order to ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe’”. The bill aims to clear up the issue of ambiguity and responsibility with two key measures. The
first is to set up a new building safety regulator within the HSE, which will create a more stringent safety system with the power to impose sanctions.

The regulator will publish a new framework and improve standards within building control offices, even taking on this role for major buildings.

The bill also introduces a duty holder system for every building (“the buck stops here”). This will be split into gateways covering each stage of the building’s life – the design and planning stage, the construction stage, and the occupation stage, with a different duty holder at each gateway. Registered providers will become the accountable person or duty holder at the occupation stage and will have to apply for a safety certificate before the building can be occupied. They will also have to appoint a building safety manager.

The regulator will assess the handover from one stage to the next, monitoring a “golden thread of information” to be held digitally so that all parties can access it. There will also be a stronger role for residents’ organisations in monitoring safety.

On top of this, the regulator will have teeth, with the ability to issue stop notices on shoddy construction projects, to issue compliance notices, and the power to issue unlimited fines or two years in prison for offenders. The regulator will also have powers to close poorly performing building control offices.

This all sounds positive. But the bill does not address one of the fundamental problems of fire safety – the rewriting and relaxation of building regulations in the 1980s that allowed combustible materials to be fitted to the outside of buildings.

In previous blogs I wrote about
the measures that were taken after the Great Fire of London (1666) to require that future buildings were built only of stone or brick. Between 1667 and 1984, London had 28 district surveyors who enforced the London Building Acts, and these specified, among other things, that external walls must be fireproof and that no cavities should exist that allowed vertical fire to spread vertically.

If they had been in force at the time that Grenfell was refurbished it is very unlikely that the fire would have spread as it did. To read more on this, it is well worth looking at this remarkable letter from a former district surveyor – “The old maxim in the service was: first, make sure it does not fall down; secondly, make sure it does not burn down; and thirdly, use your common sense for all other matters.”

I hope that Phase 2 of the Grenfell Inquiry will recommend a fundamental rewrite of the building regulations to bring us back to a place of historical common sense where safety comes first. But that will mean addressing the “race to the bottom” that Dame Judith Hackitt described. The question is whether concerns about the cost of doing this will trump safety.