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Speaking for the Sector - September 2020

01 October 2020

The Government has recently issued two documents – the Fire Safety Bill and the Building Safety Bill – heralding enhanced legislation for the construction sector post-Grenfell Tower. As Dennis Davis duly observes, preparation by the industry and effective enforcement courtesy of the authorities will be the key pillars upon which demonstrable improvements are fashioned

JUST AS summer turns to autumn, we learn from Government announcements about how the standard of safety in buildings is set to advance over the next decade. The publication of the Fire Safety Bill is accompanied by a fire safety consultation specifically set to draw forth views on (among other things) how to introduce, proportionately, the first stage recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. 

In parallel, the partner Building Safety Bill outlines the new “fundamental reform of the building safety system” designed to “give effect to policies set out in the ‘Building a Safer Future’ consultation” and, importantly, covers both building construction and occupation. 

This is action on a scale not seen very often and, frankly, is to be warmly welcomed. Two major Government departments are working hard simultaneously to create a safer built environment. This is desperately needed given that, three years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, stressed residents are still living in high-rise buildings awaiting remediation works, while those residing in lower rise structures with similar cladding are also – and quite understandably – concerned.

Designing the frameworks to regulate buildings and clarifying expectations of the conditions surrounding occupation has produced probably the most extensive legislative programme centred on fire safety that we’ve seen in many years. This demands recognition and, indeed, applause.

Daunting task 

However, introducing a legislative programme of this kind is a somewhat daunting prospect. Looking ahead, the future could – and certainly ought to be – so different to the one that allowed us to stumble into the Grenfell catastrophe and the needless and tragic loss of so many lives. The perspective of the fire sector is apt: learn from and rectify inherent faults, raise awareness and understanding, give support and realise the correct tools to do the job. Thereafter, regulate and enforce. 

Equally, we realise this isn’t all plain sailing and, as we seek to understand not just the intent, but also the likely outcomes in terms of different practice, we will encounter difficult periods ahead. This is not because of a lack of vision or effort as parts of the fire sector attempt to pick up on and use the Fire Safety Bill or the Building Safety Bill, but simply due to the fact we know effective application is to be made within a very diverse environment. 

Buildings are not all the same even though they may have similar uses. They don’t conform to one specification, but instead exploit innovation and materials. We enjoy some buildings more than others because they’re ‘different’ or have ‘character’ and seemingly make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable. This is a world wherein ‘exceptions’ thrive and the individuals involved have vastly different opinions and budgets.

Regulating buildings has always been a complex process unless you’re in favour of ‘sameness’ and blanket controls. The new provisions will have to relate not only to those buildings ‘in scope’, but also the broader legacy of our building stock. All will eventually fall under the new controls. 

As a direct consequence, there are many questions to be addressed in terms of what we have in front of us. What we have is a plan that’s very detailed in certain parts and somewhat broad in others. Inevitably, initial optimism is tempered by a keen eye searching for the detail. 

Time for preparation

That said, many members of the Fire Sector Federation have been actively working in various roles across national groups trying to prepare for what we’re about to witness coming into practice. 

Tackling concerns around limitations of capacity and competency, envisioning the new regimes and practices that may evolve with different enforcement and regulatory bodies and thinking hard about how any process can remain in step with an industry like construction that constantly changes design, materials, procurement, industrialisation methods and standards. It’s nothing if not a detailed mix.

What we must do now is try to ensure that the proposed arrangements, complete with a ‘golden thread’, gateways, a new building safety regulator and duty holders, etc really deliver the intended outcome once fully introduced. Realistically, that will take years. Only then will we truly know if the legislation in place passes the acid test and preserves life.

Here, a degree of ‘old school’ philosophy enters the equation. It’s about a belief that most of the people, most of the time will do their best to comply with the law and construct and manage safe structures, but ensuring everyone does so for most of the time is no easy task. Efficient enforcement is a clear requirement, but precisely how that will be achieved given the parlous state of public finance just now remains to be seen. 

As we speculate as to how many sunny days lie ahead before the colder temperatures dawn, we might also ponder quite how well the initial phase for higher risk buildings will translate into the rest of the complex world of the built environment. The devil is, as they say, always in the detail.

Dennis Davis is Executive Director at the Fire Sector Federation (www.firesectorfederation.co.uk)