New London Architecture

Professions face ‘juggernaut’ towards fire safety culture change

Wednesday 06 January 2021

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

The built environment professions must work together to tackle the new Building Safety Bill ‘juggernaut’ to build trust and respect through better competence, appropriate insurance and smarter procurement.

So said former RIBA president and RIBA Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety Jane Duncan at a technical competency briefing on the subject run by NLA before Christmas following publication of the draft in July and the Hackitt review response to the Grenfell Fire – over three years ago.

Duncan was presenting after Andrew Alexander, assistant director, building safety strategy at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government had outlined the major work programme and changes he said were intended to ‘save people’s lives and make people feel safe in their homes’. 

The funding is in place to set up a new regulator, he said, and there were ‘very supportive noises’ coming from the centre of government about adequately resourcing the areas where there were regulatory shortfalls in the past.

The catalyst had been the 72 people who died at the 24-storey Grenfell, said Duncan, but there were concerns over the pace of action since. 

‘The truth is we need to look at this, which was in June 2017, and this is nearly the end of 2020. Yes, we’ve got some fantastic things being produced here but it’s at very early stages for a lot of this. I am concerned at the time it’s all taking and what’s happening in the meantime’.

Fire has no respect for people or the complexity of regulations, building heights or sustainability, so was it enough that the new regulation only deals with high rise flats, Duncan asked. Indeed, Duncan added, can material suppliers be trusted, given some of the coverage of the Grenfell inquiry. 

‘We need to understand how awful the construction industry must look to the rest of the world’, she said. 

The RIBA wants a ban on combustible materials on cladding, alternative means of escape and sprinklers and automatic fire suppression systems as they have in Wales, and is supportive of the proposal to create a new Building Safety Regulator, and Health & Safety Executive as its regulatory body. But it stresses that there should be clear duties for all those involved, and everyone should have equal responsibility, added Duncan, with the Bill applying to a wider range of buildings. ‘This is a once in a generation opportunity’, she said, added that permitted development schemes are a particular area of concern. Quality is often lost due to value engineering, but fire safety must be maintained: ‘It’s called value engineering; it's not called cost-cutting’, Duncan said. ‘We should be making sure that we're engineering better value buildings, not cheap rubbish that leaves a bad legacy’.

The session also heard from Peter Caplehorn, chief executive of the Construction Products Association on the implications for the construction industry, and a sector that works across 24,000 companies. Some 78% of construction products used in the UK are made in the UK, he said, and of the remainder, two-thirds come from Europe. The last 50 years have resulted in a lack of quality checking and increasing lack of regulatory understanding, as well as a drive towards least cost, quickest time, and a push to deregulation, said Caplehorn. 

‘If we intend to have a culture change across the industry, it is actually about regulations and reach of responsibility that affects everybody in the whole industry’. 

Regulations are not there to be achieved, they are there to be exceeded, he added. ‘This is about rethinking how we undertake work in the whole built environment’.
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David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


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