Why do building regulations need reform?
The short answer is Grenfell Tower. Shortly after the disaster it emerged council building inspectors approved the use of cut-price combustible cladding and insulation on the 24-storey block after 16 inspections. That there were 71 deaths might have been enough to spark a full scale review, but Dame Judith Hackitt was only appointed when it emerged that inspectors had approved hundreds more towers wrapped in flammable materials across the country.
Public confidence in the system shattered. The process under which materials are tested is shrouded in commercial confidentiality, it emerged, while the fact that assessors are paid by material manufacturers sparked fears of potential conflicts of interest.
How did the system get like this?
In dozens of failed cladding cases the building inspectors worked for local councils and were paid out of the public purse. But many others were assessed by private inspectors, whose number had grown since 1985, when Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised the profession in an attempt to speed up the planning process. The changes created competition for staff and, crucially, a “competition of interpretation” – in other words, an incentive to help builders cut corners. Developers could now choose their own inspector, either public or private, and some companies began to offer both design and inspection services.
“You could have the designer working on the fire safety for a client sitting on one side of the office and the building inspector whose job it was to approve it on the other,” said one industry source. They would both have been paid by the same employer. All this created what Hackitt called “a race to the bottom”.
Over the last decade the deregulation has continued. Proposals to give building inspectors more enforcement powers were ignored by governments keen to retain a “light touch” approach.
How is Hackitt proposing to change the system?
She wants a new, powerful and independent national body that will approve the safety of buildings at design stage, check them at regular intervals and punish designers, developers and builders if things go wrong. The body would have the power to levy unlimited fines and potentially prison sentences in the most egregious cases. Hackitt has looked to the aviation, nuclear and oil and gas industries, where safety comes first and every decision has to be taken with that in mind.
“I don’t understand the time warp this industry has been in while everyone else has been getting their act together,” she told the Guardian. However she admitted she had no idea how long it would take to bring in a new system.
So why didn’t she ban combustible cladding in the meantime?
She didn’t think that was her job, Hackitt says. Plus, she believes regulations need to be less, not more, prescriptive and it doesn’t help to ban specific items. But she then undermined that by saying she hoped the government would ban it. Cue confusion. That was swiftly followed by the housing secretary, James Brokenshire, saying he would consult on a ban. It was a messy few hours in Westminster and is unlikely to renew shaky public confidence in the system.
Even people who used combustible cladding were concerned. The architecture firm led by Ben Derbyshire, the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, specified combustible cladding panels on five tower blocks in Camden, which have now been stripped. He said: “We are extremely concerned [the review] failed to act on the urgent need to immediately protect life safety through a more detailed programme of simplified and improved regulations, standards and guidance”.
What happens now?
Residents and owners of more than 300 affected tower blocks are none the wiser about what materials should be used to replace failed cladding. The government consultation on combustible materials runs until late July. There are plenty of companies who might resist a ban on combustible cladding, which is part of a multimillion-pound industry and accounts for the majority of installations of rain screen cladding systems like the one used at Grenfell. Some of these are members of the Construction Products Association, which was part of the Hackitt review.
The Building Research Establishment, which is paid to assess whether or not combustible cladding is safe, also contributed. But cross-party support for a ban is growing, and with the Grenfell survivors paying emotional tributes to the dead at the opening of the public inquiry next week, the pressure for change looks irresistible. But the government has, for reasons that are not yet clear, decided that now is not the time.