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Fire Safety Event - Learning the lessons from Grenfell

16 April 2018

There is a distinct element of stating the bleedin’ obvious about the conclusions of Dame Judith Hackitt’s first interim report into the Grenfell Tower fire, but having them out in the open is nontheless welcome, BAFSA’s Stewart Kidd told a packed Fire Safety Keynote Theatre this afternoon (12 April).

Giving his own personal views on developments and public documents issued so far, Stewart claimed it is no surprise that Dame Judith’s overall conclusion in her interim report, ‘Building for a Safer Future’, is that the current fire regulatory system is not fit for purpose. He summarised her other recommendations as follows:

  • Regulations and guidance must be simple and unambiguous
  • The person(s) responsible for buildings must be identifiable and accountable
  • Those responsible for fire prevention must be competent
  • There is a need for stronger enforcement and penalties
  • Products must be properly tested and responsibly marketed

“All very platitudinous,” concluded Stewart, “but nice to have it said, I suppose.”

He then moved on to the work of the Secretary of State’s Independent Expert Advisory Panel, chaired by Sir Ken Knight, which got to work very soon after the June 2017 disaster. One of its main, early acts was to call for fire testing to be carried out by the BRE to establish the behaviour of different types of ACM cladding in a fire. Said Stewart: “But why does it take a major fire for this kind of reminder or emphasis to be issued by government?”

A more useful announcement from the panel, he felt, was the one about ACM with polyethylene filler (category 3) installed with fire breaks and cavity barriers not meeting the Building Regulations. A total of 82 buildings are thought to be affected. “At least we now have a name for the problem,” Stewart observed.

In his opinion, the “villain of the piece” is the 2006 document from CLG’s then housing directorate, which stated, as a target for 2010, “all homes to be decent homes”. Stewart explained: “This meant free of category-1 hazards, but sections 4 and 5 of this rather large document didn’t mention fire safety anywhere. They talked mainly about thermal comfort, fuel efficiency and external insulation.”

Returning to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report and its seven interim recommendations, he singled out the statements that Approved Document B lacks clarity, that there are inherent problems in consultation with the Fire & Rescue Service, that risk assessments should be annual and shared with tenants, and that the Government should restrict the use of desktop studies.

The most important recommendation in Stewart’s opinion, however, was 1.86 – regarding the need to demonstrate sufficient layers of protection to ensure building safety doesn’t over-rely on compartmentation. “That’s a huge admission of past incompetence,” commented Stewart. He also expressed his satisfaction at the inclusion of sprinkler systems among the recommended retrofit measures to be considered.

Reflecting on missed opportunities, Stewart warned against considering Grenfell as a “once-in-a-generation fire”. He said: “No matter how good we think we are, fire will always take us by surprise.” By way of evidence, he referred to the Coroners’ Letters sent after the Lakanal House and Shirley Towers fires. “These pointed out a lot of these issues back then, including considering the use of sprinklers in common areas. But the London Borough of Southwark (responsible for Lakanal House), for example, decided it wasn’t cost-effective to install sprinklers in all residential tower blocks – although Southampton did so in the Shirley Towers blocks. In 1999, the report into the Garnock Court fire found that cladding will burn and cause big problems. Apparently, CLG issued a circular at the time, saying that cladding should be Class 0-rated but this seems to have disappeared.”

What Stewart said he found most interesting was the fact there was no reference to the London Borough of Southwark’s non-compliance with Section 3(2) of the Building Regulations. In his view, “this would have triggered the requirement for the use of sprinklers, and Grenfell would have been sprinklered…”. He also pointed out that there was no invesigation of the stay-put policy at Lakanal, and the fact it only had one staircase was overlooked.

He concluded: “Maybe the judge in the Grenfell inquiry will look at these things now. We may end up getting some change but I have to say, I’m not planning on buying a new copy of the Building Regulations just yet!”