It is almost a year since one of the worst tragedies in British history. Yet the period following the Grenfell Tower fire has been characterised by the government’s inaction on permanently rehousing residents, progressing the Grenfell inquiry and reforming fire regulations.
After Grenfell, the government launched the Independent Hackitt Review to assess current fire regulations. Hackitt’s Interim Review, released last December, identified initial areas of concern: the regulatory framework is “not fit for purpose”, the industry is taking shortcuts at the expense of safety and more oversight is needed.
Labour welcomed the interim report’s assessment. But to guarantee that Grenfell residents achieve justice and that such an avoidable tragedy does not happen again, we need a complete overhaul of fire safety regulations.
The Hackitt Review was expected this week and was built up as an opportunity for change. Yet the Review is neither an independent nor a wide-reaching inquiry. This vastly restricts its ability to produce robust recommendations. An inquiry which restricts itself to a “shift in cultures”, is unlikely to offer any bold recommendations for “true and lasting change.”
Many will be alarmed to find that the Grenfell inquiry’s expert panel includes companies who signed-off the use of combustible cladding. The most questionable member is the Building Research Establishment, who administer the unfit testing method which enabled combustible cladding to be used on Grenfell Tower. It is notable that groups who campaign for fire regulatory reform, such as the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fire Safety and the Fire Sector Federation, have been denied places on the inquiry.
Businesses should not be able to mark their own homework. A review influenced by the very industry it is supposed to be regulating is fundamentally flawed, and incapable of offering radical improvements to our safety.
Current regulations are clearly inadequate. An Australian Committees investigation recently described cladding similar to that on Grenfell Tower as having a “petrol” like exterior. Such dangerous materials should be nowhere near our homes.
Weak testing methods have enabled unsafe materials to become commonplace. Widely-criticised ‘desktop studies’ allow developers to use combustible materials based on assumptions, rather than tested evidence, that the material meets regulations.
Survivor’s group Grenfell United recently joined the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Royal Institute of British Architects in calling for a ban on desktop studies and combustible cladding on high-rise buildings. The LGA has even threatened to call for a new inquiry if this is not recommended. The LGA are likely to be disappointed by the Hackitt Review, which all but ruled out banning combustible materials. The new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, buried the issue of desktop studies in yet another consultation.
The common-sense approach would be to ban desktop studies outright and restrict combustible cladding. Across Europe, robust fire regulations prevent the use of combustible materials on buildings above 18-metres. Last December, Victoria State in Australia banned combustible materials on high-rise buildings. If others are learning from fire disasters, so must we.
The Tories have failed to construct an inquiry which challenges the industry-set status quo. Nothing is changing. Remediation work to remove unsafe cladding is almost non-existent. There are around 300 buildings across the UK which remain unsafe, and private leaseholders are expected to foot-the-bill. The current system of outsourcing regulation and inspection to the industry is failing the public. This is why Labour in Government would return this duty to the Fire Service.
This government has allowed a landmark opportunity for extensive fire safety reform to pass it by. But we must not give up the fight for reform. Robust European standards offer a template we can learn from, and Labour will put transparency and impartiality at the heart of safety regulations.
The Hackitt Review cannot signal the end of this fight. We must continue campaigning to keep the public safe.
Karen Lee is the shadow fire minister and Labour MP for Lincoln