The issue of fire safety in housing was brought to the public’s attention following the Grenfell Tower tragedy last year, in which 71 people lost their lives.
Following the disaster, it emerged that a number of factors were to blame for the scale and rapid spread of the fire, including combustible cladding, insufficient safety checks and a lack of communication with the residents who had raised concerns in the past.
It is estimated that around 800 blocks across the country have flammable cladding; of them, around 300 are council-owned and will eventually be made safe, although, 9 months after Grenfell, only three had been completely re-clad.
Where does the fault lie?
There has been a lot of anger and widespread feeling that those to blame must be held to account. However, it is impossible to point a finger at a single part of the system; instead, the system must be considered as a whole in order to understand the full scale of the problem.
The Interim Report from the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, published in December 2017 and chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, said that the current system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise buildings is “not fit for purpose”. It highlighted several deficiencies in underlying regulations and outlined changes to be implemented going forward.
The overarching problem seems to stem from a culture of cost-cutting surrounding testing, whereby, in the worst instances, fire testing systems are so inadequate that manufacturers are able to design the testing rigs that test their own materials, and do not have to disclose how many tests their materials fail before they eventually achieve a satisfactory result. Developers, builders and buyers are reportedly never told, because the test results are treated as commercially confidential.
More worrying still is the controversial use of desktop assessments by manufacturers and construction companies as a way of bypassing comprehensive, more expensive testing methods. Warranty and insurance providers make money by signing off flammable cladding that has never been tested, and because flammable materials are cheaper to make, the industry has a perverse incentive to keep costs down by using combustible cladding.
What can be done to improve the system?
There are a number of measures to be made in order to improve the national picture of fire safety in housing, and to ensure that tragedies like the Grenfell Tower disaster do not happen again.
There is pressure on the Government to revise fire safety regulations and publish clear guidance on best practice. Although progress may seem slow, it has established a new committee to discuss the viability of desktop assessments, and is taking steps in the right direction towards improving a culture rife with conflicts of interest and incentives to cut corners.
As part of creating a transparent and cohesive system, establishing clear avenues of communication between residents, housing associations and local authorities must also be a priority to ensure that residents’ concerns are properly addressed and answered.
Attend our Ensuring Effective Fire Safety in Housing course on the 26th June, led by Head of Fire Risk Management at BB7, Jamie Davis, in order to understand the outcomes of the Interim Report, discuss the latest legislative and regulatory developments, and learn how your organisation can play its part in creating a safer, more transparent culture.
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