All words, no action
The right noises are being made following the fire at Grenfell Tower, but what really matters is what happens next.
It has now been a year since the fire at London’s Grenfell Tower, in which 71 people died. The public inquiry into the tragedy began last month, eliciting heart-shredding impact statements from those affected. That the inquiry will last two years is both sobering and depressing, and bears testimony to the seriousness and shocking impact of such a disaster.
For our industry, a key development in this process was the publication last month of a 186-page report by Dame Judith Hackitt, which preceded the public inquiry and had the remit to look at the role – and presumed failings – of the construction, design and engineering sectors in the lead up to the incident.
This week, the 35 member organisations of the Construction Industry Council met to consider their position in light of the report’s findings. I bet many at the meeting had feared that the Hackitt review would place responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the construction industry. In a calamitous situation like this, someone needs to carry the can and it’s easy to attack those that designed, built, maintained and clad the building. Regardless of Hackitt’s real remit, I believe a common view before its publication was that the review was intended to blame the builders.
To our surprise, the scapegoating of those working in the built environment did not happen. Let’s be clear: the report was far from a ringing endorsement of our sector, describing “deep flaws” and calling for radical reform of an industry in which Hackitt says “the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible rather than deliver quality homes that are safe for people to live in”.
However, I sensed a collective sigh of relief by the industry when she delivered a measured, more than sensationalist, document. Rather than making specific recommendations about individual changes to guidance, or pointing the finger, her approach was to suggest that the government devise a whole new regulatory system to deliver safe buildings. The headlines therefore had to be all about the Hackitt review’s failure to ban combustible cladding.
What she did say, quite rightly, is that it is absolutely vital we increase accountability for everyone involved in building and managing homes. And the industry itself seems, by and large, to have welcomed the report’s findings – although the RIBA fumed about the decision not to ban the cladding and others, ironically, felt it did not go far enough. The RIBA had campaigned for four key recommendations, even though these may in some ways limit architectural scope for future projects. The first was the adoption of non-combustible cladding for existing and new buildings above 18m, meeting the European class A1 standard. The second was an insistence on more than one means of escape – so that in all new multiple occupancy residential buildings with three or more storeys, two staircases have to be provided. They also wanted sprinklers and centrally-addressable fire alarms to be retro-fitted on existing residential buildings above 18m as “consequential improvements” where “material alterations” are carried out.
In other words: if you spend money, it should be directed towards fire safety first and a mandatory requirement for sprinklers and addressable alarms in all new and converted residential buildings, as is already required in Wales. Let’s be clear: these recommendations, if adopted, are going to raise construction costs.
But it will take some sort of industry consensus on the RIBA suggestions followed by government action to ensure changes are made and things happen quickly and I am not holding my breath. It has to be said though that the public inquiry appears to be demanding action in spite of the fact that we are in political paralysis at the moment, with legislative gridlock as Brexit saps all governmental energy and time.
The right noises have been made about the importance of the Grenfell fire, as you would expect when such a tragedy hits. But if the prime minister was really serious about the governance of the built environment – be it housing, planning or new building regulations – she would not have replaced government heavyweight Sajid Javid with the relatively unknown James Brokenshire as the new secretary of state for housing, communities and local government.
To get major changes like those suggested to happen quickly you need the force, vigour and political capital of the likes of Michael Heseltine or a Chris Patten – not someone whose main experience in government has been an ineffective period in the Northern Ireland office and stint at the home office overseeing security and immigration, while apparently deporting members of the Windrush generation.
What we need is for a special commissioner to be appointed to work directly with the prime minister – someone who has the power and authority to cut through civil service inertia and get things done.
Speed is of the essence here. If required, we need new legislation passed, supported by cross-party consensus and on the statute books by Christmas. Hand wringing is simply not enough.