Viewpoint F

Jonathan O’Neill, FPA managing director, puts forward his view that action needs to be taken soon to prevent another Grenfell Tower

ORGET WAITING for the implementation of building regulations that could take at least three years to become law – if we

really want to ensure that ‘another Grenfell’ never occurs again, this is what needs to happen now. With the second anniversary of the Grenfell

Tower tragedy approaching – the worst loss of life from fire in the UK since WWII – I was recently asked to address a meeting of installers of fire alarm and detection systems to give my view on where the fire sector is, and in particular how they are likely to be affected by any of the changes already announced, or that are likely to be announced in the immediate future as a result of that appalling tragedy.

Where we were

I think it is worth reminding ourselves of where we were with fire prior to June 2017. At that time, fire was very much the good news story. The shift to preventative activity which fire and rescue services (FRSs) had embraced around the turn of the century had paid dividends. Deaths and injuries had fallen by around 60%, and calls to FRSs were down by a similar number. Civil servants fielded very few awkward questions about fire and, from what I can ascertain, as far as Whitehall was concerned in relation to fire, it was job done. Sadly in my view, the consequence of this was that they took their eye off the ball. Austerity began to be felt in the FRSs and the attitude appeared to be that, as demand was falling, FRSs needed fewer resources. Support for fire policy for FRSs in Whitehall,

for the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 [FSO] and for fire in the built environment dwindled to virtually nothing. We didn’t have a major building regulations review regarding fire for more than 12 years, despite building materials and our methods of construction changing unrecognisably during that period. For some, the signs that something was amiss had been there for a considerable time. Bigger buildings made of more environmentally

6 MAY 2019

friendly combustible materials, combined with new response times and a changing attitude to risk by the FRSs meant that, whilst the insurance industry was seeing fewer fires, they were getting larger – much larger. At the FPA, we tried to alert officials and

ministers of this, but we weren’t heard. And then in the early hours of the morning of 14 June 2017, Grenfell happened. Words failed us.

Where we are

On the face of it, nearly two years since the fire, government action has been pretty woeful. The only thing to apparently change is the ban on combustible cladding, and that took virtually 18 months to be implemented. In reality, however, I have to concede that

there has actually been quite a lot going on. We have had the first phase of the public inquiry with its resultant harrowing evidence being heard. And we have had Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, Building a Safer Future, Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report, which was published in May 2018. I was told that we should expect the full

government response to the Hackitt Review some time before the second anniversary in June of this year. This has been expertly crafted by the 200 new civil servants who have been drafted into the Building Safety Programme unit at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). Admittedly, it troubles me that government announcements seem to be centred around anniversary dates rather than being evidence led and following considered debate. Nevertheless, the government is undoubtedly under some pressure to make a building safety statement on or before 14 June this year. What should we really do to make sure

that we don’t lose another life in a tall building fire? A ban on single staircases as the sole means of escape for buildings in excess of 18m in height seems to be an easy win for me. And personally, I agree with and believe

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