Since the devastating events that took place at Grenfell Tower block in North Kensington, West London in June 2017, where 72 people were tragically killed by a fire that engulfed the block, fire safety has been thrust up the agenda.
Nearly five years on, what has changed to prevent such an event from taking place again?
The Building Safety Bill which has now been passed through parliament and received Royal Assent, will be rolled out in stages over summer 2022 to 2024. It will have a huge impact on developers and contractors involved in the design and construction of “higher risk” buildings, as well as landlords, residents and building supervisors. A higher risk building in this circumstance, is a building of at least 18 metres in height or has at least 7 storeys; and contains at least 2 residential units. The Bill will be policed by the “Regulator,” which will be the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Ahead of this, last month the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan released guidance for development and building across London, adding that existing building regulations are not ‘fit for purpose’ and progress made has been too slow. Khan launched the London Plan Guidance which will ensure fire safety is embedded in the earliest stage of the design process.
Planning applications for non-major developments will need to provide fire safety information in a Planning Fire Safety Strategy.
This is where Concert comes in as Principal Designer, coordinating health and safety matters at the pre-construction phase of a project.
The way we work has changed; fire safety needs to be considered at a far earlier stage than it was before Grenfell. And it’s now much more difficult to find a fire engineer, due to the dramatic increase in demand. There’s also a shortage of labour, with not enough people having the skill set to make these kinds of checks in the country in the first place. The latest figure from the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) shows the number of qualified fire engineers is just 212, down by more than a quarter on the figure 291 given just under a year before.
The health and safety executive will take on new responsibilities, fulfilling the role of the ‘regulator,’ with the core functions to implement and enforce the new regulatory regime for “higher-risk buildings”, oversee the safety and performance of all buildings; and assist and encourage competence in the building industry and among registered building inspectors.
Competency is one of the key provisions. Under the Bill, existing duty holders will be required to meet prescribed competence requirements under the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, for all buildings. A centralised register will record competence levels. The client must also sign a declaration confirming they have reviewed and are satisfied with the competence of the Principal Designer and Principal Contractor on a project, as part of the procurement process. When it comes to higher risk buildings, it is expected that there will be additional competence requirements.
The new regime will come with its costs for both the industry and regulators. These comprise costs arising from the implementation, operation and maintenance associated with the new Building Safety Bill. These include annually recurring costs of the new regulatory regimes, concerning newly constructed buildings, recurring annual admin costs on all buildings and costs related to the construction products regime. We will also see transitional costs, which are essential to guarantee the management of existing buildings are following the new Bill, as well as familiarisation and training costs.
However, these costs are necessary to preventing much greater costs in the long run, like that of Grenfell. The Bill is projected to reduce the risk of major fire and structural incidents in in-scope buildings, in turn leading to reduced fatalities and casualties, property damage and other associated costs. It should also mean a reduction in systemic safety issues occurring in buildings from now on, decreasing the need for future widescale remediation and associated costs. A more transparent operating environment will also be an advantage to design and construction workers due to a reliable accountability framework achieved as a result of new duty holder conditions for design and construction, meaning buildings are safer and maintenance costs will be reduced in the long-term.
The greatest impact, however, has to be on time. A new wave of legal actions will slow down negotiations between developers and landlords, and contractors will also now need to take into account delays or issues identified by the Regulator during the project’s early stages. And under the new Bill, a project will not be able to move forward without relevant consent from the Regulator, even when a scheme is compliant. There may be a backlog of projects, as Health and Safety consultants manage the new responsibilities they’ve been given. And costs may rise if the resources are not there to manage this process. Contracts will also have to allow for damages apportionment if defective work is highlighted during these early stages.
However, slow progress and increased costs in the Principal Design stage of a project will have to be the sacrifice clients are willing to pay for buildings that are going to withstand the long haul. The new regime will reduce risks, ensuring we are building with the future in mind, not just looking for a quick solution that may need attending to again in the near future.
It does make you wonder though, why it takes a tragedy to bring about change. The last great overhaul of fire safety took place after the Great Fire of London in 1666, just over 350 years ago.. As usual it comes down to money and the Government not seeing fire safety as enough of a priority, until at least a disaster like Grenfell happens. The all-party parliamentary fire safety and rescue group, which brings together politicians and fire and construction experts, has been doing its best to lobby ministers for changes and improvements to fire safety regulations, pre- 2017. But in the years before Grenfell, Conservative ministers seemed not to be listening to the demands. In fact, it was reported that the government was told it needed to clarify official guidance to ban Grenfell-style cladding in 2014 but failed to act. It seems that ministers ignored the requests and instead prioritised the need to save money and deregulate, and actually relegated safety issues down their list of concerns. Well, this may have worked in the short term, but clearly this was not a long term fix..
Coming back to the present day, knowing what we know now, we can only hope that the repercussions of Grenfell have been felt enough to really prevent something so dreadful happening ever again. The new Fire Safety Bill will embed and ensure proportionate steps are taken to deal with buildings risk through prevention, control, mitigation and ongoing management. This will result in major fire and structural hazards being lessened in an approach that sees safety as paramount.