Fixing the UK’s broken fire safety system

04 April 2018

The UK government must up its game on cladding and insulation policy. We need laws, not guidelines.

High-rise

This article appeared first on ‘New Statesman’ 3 April 2018.

The Grenfell Tower fire showed that building regulations in England have failed badly. Standards that have progressively loosened over the years allowed combustible materials like those used on Grenfell to go up on high-rise and high-risk buildings across this country. Those who want to understand how this happened should read the investigative work of Inside Housing in The Paper Trail: the Failure of Building Regulations.

We know what failure looks like, but what we need now is a solution.  To do that, we should learn from countries that have created stronger fire safety systems, often in response to their own tragedies.

France and Germany have both suffered deadly fires and changed their standards to respond.  A building like Grenfell Tower, more than 60 metres tall, would be required by law in Germany to have only non-combustible cladding and insulation. In France, it would be the same.

In fact, France’s Scientific and Technical Centre for Building (CSTB) issued a preliminary report to the French Government in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, making nine recommendations on how to improve its already robust fire safety system. That was on 29 June 2017, before the UK Government had even commissioned its own Building Regulations Review.

Other European countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia and Croatia have recently adopted non-combustible fire safety standards for their buildings as well. It defies belief that standards should be lower in London, where we lost 72  people in a single building fire, than in Prague, Bratislava or Belgrade.

We can look beyond Europe for similar lessons. A building fire in Malaysia in February was fuelled in part by combustible façade materials. Within 24 hours, the fire department confirmed they would no longer approve combustible cladding. The Australian state of Victoria banned Grenfell-style cladding in December, and recently banned combustible cladding altogether. The minister responsible there explained the government’s rationale: “There is nothing more important than public safety”.

These countries – unlike England – have simply told building owners and contractors what to do at a basic level to ensure greater public safety. They have not left fire safety up to industry interpretations and vague guidance; they have, quite literally, laid down the law. As the Royal Institute of British Architects argued, “we are not aware of any successful building control system internationally that does not have a significant prescriptive element”.

Even within our own geography, we have that solution within our grasp. The Independent Reference Group, set up to advise on the safety of high-rise blocks owned by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, made a strong set of recommendations when it reported in January. For high-rise blocks, they supported the use of non-combustible facades, the installation of sprinklers, and further steps to guarantee the performance of fire doors, alarms and ventilation systems.

If we implemented those steps across the UK, not just in Northern Ireland, we would have one of the most robust fire safety systems in Europe.

In her interim report into building regulations, Dame Judith Hackitt, indicated that she prefers an “outcomes-based system” over legal prescription. This is the system that we have had for years. It is a system that tells people to make buildings safe, but doesn’t tell them what “safe” looks like or how to accomplish it. It is not surprising this has been ineffective.

Experts from across industry – among them RIBA, the Local Government Association, and the Association of British Insurers – are already demanding a prescriptive solution. Many councils are taking matters into their own hands, using only non-combustible materials on buildings they own.  Architects and construction firms are following suit.

This cannot, however, replace real leadership from the government. There is no way to hold people accountable for failing to observe “best practice”.  We can hold people accountable for complying with regulations, but only if we make those regulations simple, unambiguous and legally binding.

We know what works. We can look to France, Germany, Australia and many others to see it. The solution is for the government to require non-combustible cladding and insulation only on high-rise and high-risk buildings. Not ambiguous guidance, hints, or subjective interpretations – but law. The public deserves government leadership to safeguard people’s lives and the buildings where they live, learn, work, and heal.  They deserve nothing less.

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