Reflecting on Grenfell Tower one year later, Mark Shepherd argues that a comprehensive reform of building regulations is the only option to prevent such disasters in future
THE EVENTS of 14 June 2017 – when a 24 storey residential tower block in North Kensington became completely engulfed in flames, causing 71 deaths and more than 70 injuries – were shocking beyond belief.
The Grenfell Tower disaster will live long in the memory, and quite simply must lead to fundamental change of the building control system in England. A system that Dame Judith Hackitt, in her Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Interim Report, described as ‘not fit for purpose’.
A failure to enact fundamental change is quite simply not an option. This tragic incident should not have happened, and as an industry that is relied upon to provide cover for people’s homes, businesses and personal possessions, insurers have an integral interest in ensuring the delivery of fit for purpose building regulations that effectively protect lives and property from the risk of fire. That is why the ABI has worked closely and assiduously with the Hackitt Review team, our members and wider stakeholders to make the case for an effective regulatory system.
It is vital that the required reform is not rolled back from, that momentum is maintained and that responsibilities are not shirked, so that a proper control system is put in place which better protects people who live and work in our modern and diverse built environment from the risk of fire.
Looking back in history, the insurance industry and fire are intimately linked, going right back to the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the subsequent establishment of fire insurance companies. In the aftermath of the Great Fire, and with the benefit of hindsight, it became apparent that the lack of thinking about the design and layout of London was one of the key issues that had facilitated the rapid and catastrophic spread of the fire across the city.
The streets of the old city were lined with buildings constructed from wood and plaster, many with thatch or wood shingle roofs extending over the pavements of narrow lanes, and this meant that the fire was able to spread from building to building, from street to street and from ward to ward until a conflagration existed.
We must also remember that early attempts to learn the lessons of the Great Fire met with resistance. Freeholders and leaseholders were so reluctant to have wider streets that the city authorities were forced
to introduce strict regulatory regimes. This included requiring replacement buildings to be made of brick and/or stone and with roofs made from stone, slate or tile; buildings were not allowed to overhang the street beyond the limits of the plot of land; and fireplaces and chimneys were required to meet strict specifications.
In learning these lessons from history, we must be prepared for opposition to change within our modern day system, for there are many vested interests at play, and we must look to challenge these to ensure the much needed improvements are realised.
Review and update
Since 2009, the ABI has been calling for a comprehensive review of building regulations to ensure robust procedures are in place that enable a competitive property insurance market to continue. The current set of reviews and inquiries marks a seminal opportunity to recommend substantial change that will fundamentally improve fire safety in buildings in England, but also as a consequence will improve the risk profile of these buildings, increase competitiveness amongst insurers and potentially benefit customers through associated effects on premiums. This review is both important and urgent, given that the last comprehensive review of Approved Document B – the regulations in England covering fire safety matters – concluded in 2006.
Despite the need for reform, the market has not reacted in a kneejerk fashion to the events at Grenfell. We accept that the system is complex, and unpicking its key vulnerabilities will take time – indeed, Dame Judith makes this point in her interim report – but by the same token, necessary reform cannot be unduly delayed. Since the last major review of building regulations, the use of modern methods of construction has substantially altered how buildings are designed and constructed.
The awful events at Grenfell Tower appear to be a symptom of a systematic failure in the current building control and enforcement regimes and, as a consequence, a fundamental change
is required in the regulatory philosophy surrounding building regulations for fire safety.
So as an industry, what do we want to see happen, and on which issues must we endeavour to keep the minds focused of those who are responsible for enacting and codifying change?
At the root of the current ‘not fit for purpose’ system is the lack of clarity of roles and responsibilities across the whole building control system. The ABI has called for a detailed review of this for all those involved in ensuring the fire safety of a building. This should include explicit guidance which ensures responsibilities are clearly understood, as well as recommendations that ensure effective enforcement in all aspects of fire safety regulation including design, implementation, supervision, control and authorisation.
We believe this will mitigate the risk of things falling through the gaps in the current system and can give insurers greater confidence that risks will have been better managed in line with regulations. Another inherent element of the broken system is the amount of combustible material that is permitted by regulations within building design and construction.
Vital to this is a need for change to the building control’s testing regime for the performance of materials used on the outside of buildings. A modern day building control system should not tolerate the use of materials of ‘limited combustibility’ on the envelope of buildings. There may be some manufacturers that claim such materials are perfectly safe, but to insurers they represent additional risk. No building
control system will ever be 100% perfect, so non combustibility as standard must be our overall goal.
Recent ABI research conducted through the Fire Protection Association has highlighted concerns with the testing regime itself.
This may well have ruffled some feathers among those responsible for the adequacy of current tests, but we make no apologies for this, as the evidence in the research is clear. It demonstrates conclusively that current cladding tests simply do not replicate real world conditions, and that materials perform differently when exposed to more realistic conditions.
The result is that insurers, fire and rescue services and others simply cannot be confident that the materials used on the outside of buildings, particularly high rise or high risk buildings, will perform in line with what the current test suggests. We want a testing regime that is much more closely aligned to the realities of construction in the built environment, rather than one that is divorced from these realities. Again, this is an area of concern where the industry’s view may not be welcomed or may face opposition; however, as end users of this system, it is vital we make our voices heard.
As the industry that bears the cost of over £1bn per year in fire claims costs, we need to be relentless in pushing for this particular test to be improved, and for the overall testing regime within building control to build a greater sense of confidence in those who rely on it.
Case for sprinklers
We should also not shirk from our ambition to have mandated sprinkler protection in buildings where it makes sense. The broader implications of the ongoing reviews need to address the situation of the most vulnerable in our society, and how best to ensure their protection from fire. This must mean a change in legislation to mandate the installation of fire suppression systems in all new build schools and new build care homes.
The Grenfell Technical Group is due to report to the Grenfell Independent Expert Panel, also chaired by Sir Ken Knight, which is made up of a range of building and fire safety experts from a number of organisations, including the Building Research Establishment and the National Fire Chiefs Council.
This panel seeks to help the government ascertain if any immediate actions need to be taken on any fire and safety issues in high rise buildings. For example, it will consider whether changes or clarifications are required to existing regulations, and provide advice on possible changes, including making recommendations on the use of specific materials. In addition, it will look at whether the current process for assuring fire and building safety in high rise buildings, including through the building control process, is fit for purpose, and whether any immediate changes are required.
Making reforms reality
The change process itself will take time, but to make no meaningful change is simply not an option. We cannot as a country look back on the Grenfell tragedy in years to come and have failed to have brought about meaningful reform. The insurance industry has a key role to play in ensuring that this overhaul happens. A good start has been made, and the current case is strong – some would say undeniable – but the cogs still require a lot more turning to make sure the much needed reform becomes a reality.
Crucially, the reforms that are made must be designed to ensure they can move with the times. Regulations must never be allowed to fall so far behind modern building practices again.
Mark Shepherd is head of property, cyber and specialist lines at the Association of British Insurers. For more information, view page 5