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The Grenfell Fire, Four Years Later

Four years to the day from Grenfell we mourn those who died but also take stock of what has happened since then.

On the positive side, we have the Fire Safety Act which brings flat front doors and external walls into the scope of Fire Risk Assessments under the Fire Safety Order. Whilst long overdue, many risk assessors did cover flat front fire doors with varying degrees of success, but the enshrinement in legislation and the proposed frequency of fire door checks can only be welcomed. The inclusion of external walls was not really a big issue until we started cladding buildings, effectively making their reaction to fire performance much worse. This was something that was first significantly highlighted after the Lakanal House fire which killed six in 2009 but which was not adequately acted upon by the government at the time, despite warnings.

We also have the Building Safety Bill which is working its way through parliament. There is much to commend within the bill, including the setting up of a new regulator and especially the three gateway stages which stop further progress unless certain conditions are met. Gateway 2 (permission to build) should stop or significantly reduce the use of Design & Build type contracts that give rise to poorly designed buildings, which are difficult to install adequate passive fire protection into. The inclusion of specific duty holders will concentrate minds and prevent much of the buck passing and assumption that it was the responsibility of others, which is a depressingly common feature of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry testimonies.

On the debit side, bringing external walls into the scope of Fire Risk Assessments brings the problems of lack of skilled assessors and associated knowledge to able to do what is a difficult and complicated job sometimes at height. Methods are being developed to deal with this, but the draft PAS 9980 on evaluation of external walls is still a work in progress, and still has a lot of comments to be reviewed. The definition of ‘buildings in scope’ which relies on height must be broadened into total risk; height is important, but not the only arbiter.

Then there is the cladding crisis. Pushing the Fire Safety Bill through without the amendment to prevent leaseholders from having to pick up the costs of remediation will leave a generation of people whose dreams of property ownership may be shattered with huge bills and much facing bankruptcy for something that was not their fault. The grapevine suggests the delays to the Building Safety Bill are to allow a more acceptable solution to be worked out. Let’s hope so.

Finally, in considering the fire safety of the built environment, it’s not just cladding… ASFP were paid by the equivalent of MHCLG to do a report on passive fire protection of some representative large public buildings in conjunction with BRE and Warringtonfire. The report concluded that there were widespread deficiencies of fire protection not usually visible caused by poor design, the use of unskilled labour, and corner-cutting to assuage the ‘cost is all that matters’ ethos of the construction industry. The report concluded that there might well be a catastrophic fire associated with these issues if not addressed The report was dated 2003… So, let nobody say deep-seated fire safety problems were not known about. They were and concerns were raised, but in a climate of falling overall fire deaths, they fell on deaf ears.

It’s so important to ensure that proper passive fire safety measures are built into buildings. They are the bedrock of fire safety, not just today as we mark the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell fire, but for always.