Article for Progress magazine by: Paul Everall, Chair of the NHIC and Chief Executive of LABC
The theme of our Autumn edition of Progress Magazine is Protecting Consumers. There can be no more tragic example of the need for this than what happened at Grenfell Tower in West London in the early hours of Wednesday 14th of June 2017. All of us hold in our hearts the bereaved, the injured, those made homeless in the fire and those now being evacuated as a result of surveys of other tower blocks clad in similar or identical materials.
Ensuring that people are safe in their homes should fire break out is a vital responsibility for all: Government, architects, construction companies, material manufacturers and installers, and building control bodies. How can a fire, which the authorities have stated was caused by a faulty kitchen appliance in one flat, burst out of that apartment so quickly and then spread so quickly throughout the building?
Were there adequate alarm and detection systems? Were there sufficient means of escape? Why did the staircase become smoke logged so quickly? Was the cladding applied to the building when it was recently renovated unsafe, and did it comply with all relevant legislation?
Safety in case of fire is covered by Part B of the Building Regulations in England. As Chief Executive of LABC, the representative body for all local authorities with building control responsibilities in England and Wales, questions of particular concern to me are whether those Regulations are fit for purpose, whether they are open to misinterpretation by architects, builders and building control officers, and whether building control failed in this particular case.
At the time of writing a police investigation is still under way and we are promised a judge-led public inquiry. It will clearly take some time for the latter to report and we have an authoritative summary of what contributed to this disaster. The Government will however be under great pressure to take immediate steps to ensure that such a tragedy can never occur again, and indeed they have already acted to require local authorities and housing associations to survey residential tower blocks for which they are responsible.
Where the cladding material has been found to be unsafe, and as a result fire services are saying that they cannot guarantee the safety of the occupants should fire break out, then occupants are being evacuated. However, this of course leads to greater problems for hard-pressed councils in finding alternative temporary and permanent housing.
Much of the work of the NHIC is concerned with the renovation and improvement of single dwellings, but what was done to Grenfell Tower was of course designed to improve the homes of those who lived there. The cladding may also have improved the external appearance of the tower but it was added to make homes warmer and more energy efficient along with better heating systems.
This tragedy highlights the importance of ensuring that when improvements are made with one objective such as energy efficiency in mind, the changes do not result in lower standards of safety or a of healthy indoor environment.
The mission of the NHIC is to reduce fuel poverty and improve living standards, and we must ensure that everything we do or advocate does not have the sort of totally unacceptable consequences seen here.