Culture Change Must Follow Grenfell Tragedy

Posted in The Industry on August 01, 2017

The terrible tragedy of the Grenfell Tower block fire has put the role our industry plays in keeping people safe in buildings into sharp focus.

There is now a criminal investigation underway to establish whether refurbishment work on the tower breached Part B of the Building Regulations. Fire prevention experts have speculated that the fire spread so quickly because the cladding used had a polyethylene (PE) core, which produces a flammable gas when heated.

However, there are also serious questions being asked about the design of the internal escape routes – and whether these were compromised. The fact that fire fighters reported being blinded by smoke within minutes of the fire starting suggest the fire and smoke compartmentalisation did not function as it should have.

It is a sad fact that it usually takes a fatal incident to prompt much needed changes to safety measures, but there was another serious tower block fire in 2009 – and lessons were not heeded then. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and Rescue stated that successive Housing Ministers had been "sitting on evidence" since the Lakanal House fire that led to six deaths.


The group's secretary Ronnie King said he would not have expected the Grenfell fire to spread so quickly if the building had been fitted with sprinklers as recommended for all such residential blocks in the review that followed Lakanal House. Another outcome was an agreement that Part B should be revised in 2013, but this is still delayed.

Sir David Amess, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety, has also been calling for changes to the regulations for 11 years, but successive governments have been more inclined to reduce the 'burden' on businesses by removing so-called Red Tape in a bid to boost economic growth. But at what cost? The Ronan Point disaster in 1968 led to a total revision of Part A of building regulations and a completely new approach to gas safety. Will Grenfell Tower become the incident that changes the state of complacency around building regulations?

The exact circumstances of the Grenfell fire will take some time to establish, but one major general issue must surely come into focus: The low cost mind-set that dominates every tender process.
This has been a source of concern for the industry going back decades. The Lord Simon Review condemned falling standards caused by cost cutting – and his report was published in the 1940s when the country was setting out to rebuild after the Second World War!

It is perfectly possible that everyone involved with the Grenfell Tower refurbishment project will be exonerated and able to show that their work fully complied with legislation and was correctly signed off and approved.

On the other hand, specific failings may well be identified and individuals punished, but the important point is that the project process has weaknesses, which must be addressed. Service and maintenance work is particularly vulnerable to a cost cutting culture and public sector budgets are under severe pressure due to the government's 'austerity' measures. Therefore, the 'out of sight out of mind' status of many fire safety elements – including ventilation hygiene and fire/smoke damper maintenance – tempts some building managers and operators to take a risk in order to save a few pounds. It is also something many of them find hard to understand and manage – they are often not fully aware of the chance they are taking by reducing service frequencies or accepting low bids for work.

While the cause of the Grenfell fire has not been established; and clearly a number of factors contributed to this horrific incident, one positive thing to emerge should be a sharper focus on the role of building maintenance in keeping people safe. This will then put the onus on firms carrying out essential refurbishment or maintenance work to prove their competence and qualifications – and to quote realistic prices that cover the real cost of providing a full and professional service. Fire safety maintenance must be given the status it deserves, but this is an area that poorly resourced local authorities are struggling to manage properly. This must be addressed in the wake of Grenfell and a national system of enforcement put in place that works in tandem with competent person schemes backed up by regulatory bodies like the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

Nobody deliberately sets out to make a building unsafe, but continually racing to the bottom on price is a recipe for disaster. Something positive must emerge from the ashes of Grenfell Tower in order to respect the legacy of the victims and enforcing professional standards of building maintenance and safety could help to ensure we never see anything like this tragedy again.

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