After Grenfell

The Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people (including 17 children) on 14 June 2017 has prompted extensive commentary and speculation. Mark Stephens reviews the various inquiries and reviews that have been established since the Grenfell Tower tragedy last June.

John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, likened the disaster to social murder, the result of political decisions. The same tragedy has also become a vehicle for the world view of some on the right such as the journalist Christopher Brooker who blamed the fire on EU regulations for insulation standards allegedly introduced to counter global warming.

Professor Mark Stephens

With such a divergence of opinion, it is clearly important that the causes of the fire are identified and measures taken to ensure future safety.

The fire is now the subject of at least three inquiries or investigations, as well as a review of building and fire regulations.

The Public Inquiry, established in August has the following terms of reference following the recommendations of its chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick:

  • Design, construction and refurbishment of the building
  • The scope and adequacy of the relevant regulations, legislation and guidance
  • The actions of the local authority and other bodies before the tragedy
  • The response of the London Fire Brigade to the fire, and
  • The response of central and local government in the aftermath.

These are narrower than many survivors and politicians had wanted, but Moore-Bick considered issues such as the provision and management of social housing and local government finance “would raise questions of a social, economic and political nature which in my view are not suitable for a judge-led inquiry.” The Prime Minister agreed.

Nonetheless, some of these issues are likely to be considered by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its separate “project” announced in December 2017. The Commission has taken this initiative of its own volition. In Following Grenfell, a briefing paper, it  indicates that whilst there will be some overlap with the inquiry,

“… we will be focusing on our areas of expertise to ensure the human rights and equality dimensions of the fire and surrounding circumstances are not overlooked. We will concentrate on those areas that we believe are not being explored in the public inquiry or elsewhere and we will prioritise those areas where our contribution is likely to have the most impact.”

The term “project” reflects the EHRC’s decision not to use its formal inquiry powers to conduct this review, at least not at this stage. It will examine both the procedural efficacy of the Public Inquiry and a series of rights issues (under the Human Rights Act) that may have been violated. These include:

  • The right to life
  • Support for survivors, in particular children
  • The State’s duty to provide adequate and safe housing
  • Access to justice
  • Prevention of discrimination.

There is also an criminal investigation into the fire being conducted by the Metropolitan Police, which is unlikely to be completed until 2019.

Meanwhile an Independent Review of Building regulations and Fire Safety, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt issued an interim report on 18 December. In the foreword to her review Dame Judith states:

“My goal is to ensure that we create, within a much more robust overall system, a process that ensures there is effective oversight of materials, people and installation.”

She finds that:

“…it has become clear that the whole system of regulation, covering what is written down and the way in which it is enacted in practice, is not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so.”

Taking some comfort from the improvements in the management of workforce health and safety during her time as chair of the Health and Safety Executive, she believes that the construction industry is capable of reform in the area of fire safety, too.

But this will require cultural changes in the sector, as well as better regulatory procedures:

“The mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings to others must stop.”


 “Changes to the regulatory regime will help, but on their own will not be sufficient unless we can change the culture away from one of doing the minimum required for compliance, to one of taking ownership and responsibility for delivering a safe system throughout the life cycle of a building.”

The interim report itself identifies a series of weaknesses in the current regulatory system, including overly complex and unclear guidance, unclear allocation of responsibilities, and weak compliance and enforcement procedures. There are no adequate mechanisms for residents to voice concerns about fire safety.

She appears to be critical of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee (BRAC) (a quango):

“Its focus over recent years has been mainly on energy efficiency and the deregulatory agenda and less on fire safety and other aspects of the regulations…it is not clear whether BRAC’s role is to proactively advise on initiatives and priorities or purely to take direction from government.” (para. 1.12)

A culture in the industry that seeks merely “minimum compliance, not ensuring safety for the lifetime of the building” (para. 1.17) is also highlighted. England, she suggests, is lagging behind other countries by failing to ensure that, particularly in complex and high-risk buildings, the range of professions are sufficiently competent. Evolutionary design, facilitated by “design and build” leads to differences between what is originally proposed and what is actually built.

Compliance systems, too, are inadequate. The use of private sector Approved Inspectors are perceived by many to be less independent of their clients than local authority building control, and the former rarely refer cases to the latter. However, in any case, local authorities are deterred from pursing cases in the courts due to costs and the failure of courts to impose sanctions that are sufficient to deter bad practice. It is common for building work to begin before plans have been approved, and work may be enclosed within the structure of the building before an inspection takes place.

Dame Judith is unable to detect any single or simple reason why 200 high rise residential buildings in England have been found to have been fitted with the kind of cladding that was implicated in the Grenfell fire. However, she is critical of the failure to fully test compound systems rather than merely their individual elements, and of the use of opaque desktop studies to test materials which may not replicate real-life conditions.

The interim recommendations include:

  • Clearer presentation of guidance contained in Approved Documents.
  • Ensuring that people working in the design, construction, inspection and maintenance of complex and high-risk buildings are suitably qualified.
  • Identifying better ways of incorporating fire safety into building design.
  • Reviewing the handover process on new high-rise buildings.
  • In particular, ensuring fire safety information is passed on to the “responsible person” for fire safety after the building has been completed occupation of the building.
  • Requiring at least annual fire risk assessments of high rise residential buildings.
  • Restricting the use of desk-top studies for testing cladding and other materials.

Final recommendations are expected to be issued in the spring following further consultation with the sector and other stakeholders.

Image courtesy of Chiraljon