It is crucial that the Grenfell Tower fire proves to be a radical turning point for a new and improved era of building and fire safety.
Although nothing can be done to change what happened in west London in June 2017, which claimed 72 lives, we can and must prevent similar disasters.
For this to happen, there must be fundamental change around fire safety. Over the past two years there has been slow but significant work, including a major regulatory review, some removal and replacement of combustible cladding on the outside of high-rise residential buildings and regulations to ban certain use.
But this is only the start and does not go far enough. To avoid another fire like Grenfell from happening there must be more radical and wide-reaching reform. Essentially, the entire system itself needs redesigning and rebuilding.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety, Building a Safer Future
), published in May 2018, made 53 recommendations for improvement. The government accepted every single one and produced an implementation plan last December.
What we now have to ensure is that these actions happen promptly and work well in practice.
It is heartening to see that, at last, there has been some movement on this. A consultation recently closed on reforming the building safety regulatory system and, alongside this, a call for evidence on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which IOSH highlighted for attention.
So, if and when the government’s proposals are implemented, how might the future system look and who will be affected?
One noticeable change will be around responsibilities and accountability. The safety of a building must be an integral consideration throughout its entire lifecycle, including its design, construction and occupation. It has been proposed that the same dutyholder groupings model applied to the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 will be used – a linkage that IOSH advocated during the CDM review.
Dutyholders will be required to demonstrate that safety risks are being managed. They will be called on to demonstrate their own competence and that they employ competent people – another area that IOSH has strongly emphasised.
They will also have to produce a “safety case”, a type of permissioning regime used in industries such as nuclear, petrochemical and railways, to show that they are taking actions to reduce a building’s safety risks. The government highlights that management system principles may provide a reasonable basis for these. This is where another new element will come in: the introduction of a “gateway system”. This will be a series of points that must be satisfactorily passed, taking a safety-case approach, before the next phase of a development can proceed.
There will be three gateways:
- Before planning permission is granted – requiring the applicant to submit a “fire statement” with their planning application and the relevant planning authority to consult with the fire and rescue authority.
- Before construction starts – requiring dutyholders to demonstrate how they comply with building regulations by providing full plans and supporting documentation.
- Before occupation begins – requiring dutyholders to hand over building safety information and secure registration and the building safety certificate, providing assurance of risk management, before occupation is allowed.
Importantly, occupation is where the concept of a new “golden thread of information” will feature prominently. Those who have designed and constructed a building will need to ensure all information around safety is passed on to the client, to form the basis of the “safety case” in occupation. Information handover is a critical feature that IOSH has highlighted.
It will also be essential that whenever a building is renovated, the “golden thread” is updated to reflect changes and ensure those responsible for the management of safety understand the original design intent and any subsequent changes.
The occupation stage also introduces the new “accountable person”, a role which, as well as complying with the building safety certificate and safety case requirements, must name a competent “building safety manager”. Notably, these occupation-stage changes will apply to both existing and new builds, following a transition.
It will be the responsibility of a single “building safety regulator” to ensure these new requirements are enforced. They will oversee the design and management of buildings, with a strong focus on ensuring the stricter regime for buildings is effectively enforced, using a range of powers. In addition, there would be “mandatory occurrence reporting”, extended structural safety reporting (to include fire safety engineering) and whistleblowing protections for those raising concerns.
Safety must be an integral consideration throughout the design and construction phases, as well as the occupation
The question is, do these proposed changes go far enough? One key point to make is that the proposals go further than some of the Hackitt recommendations, such as suggesting a new statutory objective for all those involved in the process to promote building safety, as a cornerstone of a new culture.
And although Dame Judith Hackitt focused on new buildings above 30 m (or ten storeys) in height, the changes being consulted on apply to new buildings 18 m or above (or six storeys). This is quite a significant difference and will mean many more multi-occupancy buildings would be covered by the new system.
That said, the changes would only apply to residential buildings. IOSH has questioned whether this should be widened to other premises, including workplaces because it is vital that people are covered by robust regulation around building safety, both at home and in work settings. We need to consider how workplaces, such as hospitals, prisons, supported and sheltered housing and educational buildings, could and should be included in the new regime.
This is where the call for evidence for the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 can provide useful intelligence. The order provides a regulatory framework for ongoing management of fire safety in non-domestic premises and the common parts of multi-occupied residential buildings.
It obliges those responsible, typically business owners and employers, to carry out fire risk assessments to ensure staff and others who use the building are safe.
This evidence call, which, like the building safety system consultation, is now closed and analysing responses, invited views from those involved on whether it is fit for purpose.
Crucially, through it, the government has aimed to discover whether the order provides sufficient fire safety arrangements for “higher risk workplace buildings” when compared to the reforms proposed in the building safety system consultation for residential premises.
It also sought views on whether relevant aspects of the residential reforms proposals should be applied to workplace buildings where necessary.
Although it is encouraging to see new consultations, evidence gathering and some green shoots of progress related to Building a Safer Future, there is an enormous amount still to be done.
As the report’s author said herself at IOSH’s 2018 conference last September, she can’t rule out another Grenfell if the changes she recommended aren’t implemented swiftly.
We can’t turn back the clock and stop Grenfell from happening. But we can take action to improve training and skills and support a real culture change to prevent other tragedies and ensure a system that is fit for the future.