7 August 2017 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal
It has been almost two months since a horrifying fire engulfed the Grenfell Tower council block, on the Lancaster Estate in West London, claiming the lives of at least 80 people.
While the Department for Communities and Local Government and Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council both have sections of their websites dedicated to pages of advice for local people coping with the tragedy, what is happening on the ground seems less straightforward.
A number of Facebook groups set up to rally support for the communities reveal that many of those directly affected are still having to advocate for even their most basic needs, repeatedly stating that they have been let down by the local council and the government.
On more practical matters, new developments and announcements are taking place every day. One of those most relevant to the facilities management sector is the possibility that the government may call for a review of building regulations. Although this is likely, it had not been confirmed by the government as FM World went to press.
Bodies such as the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) and the Local Government Association (LGA), however, have welcomed the news of a review.
Paul McLaughlin, chief executive, of BESA, said the organisation has been flagging up weaknesses in the regulatory framework for many years.
He thinks a review could plan to look at how building components achieve compliance with the regulations, possible ambiguity in supporting guidance, and whether testing regimes are sufficiently rigorous and consistent.
"It is hugely depressing that, once again, it requires a catastrophic incident to force changes that many in our industry have been urging for years." said McLaughlin.
He pointed out that although the focus at Grenfell had fallen on the cladding, the failure of one building component was often symptomatic of wider weaknesses in the process.
"Inappropriate and unsafe specifications contribute to the 'performance gap' our industry has been flagging up to authorities for years." added McLaughlin.
"For example, we have often argued that poor energy performance is a 'canary in the cage' that should alert those responsible to other failings in the design and operation of the building. If we are missing energy efficiency design targets then what else is wrong - what else are we missing?
"Repeated delays to the revision of regulations and the history of incidents are symptomatic of a wider culture of neglect and undervaluation of the expertise of building engineers."
A culture of 'box ticking'
BESA also believes that many of the approved documents that provide the technical details needed to comply with the building regulations encourage a culture of 'box ticking' and corner-cutting by leaving too much room for interpretation.
Tim Rook, technical director at BESA added: "We have been campaigning on cleaning of ventilation systems for years now and they are a fire hazard and yet regulatory enforcement of such hazards is not there. It's all about deregulation as far as the government is concerned. But actually when it comes to these sorts of things the only thing that works is having a robust regulatory framework."
But Rook said "the clear assigning of responsibility" of fire safety was key.
He went on: "The parallel there under the CDM regulations [the Construction Design and Management Regulations are the main set of regulations for managing the health, safety and welfare of construction projects] clearly says: client, you're responsible, principal designer, you are responsible, etcetera, and so on through the chain, but for the operation of buildings it is much less clear.
"Responsibility can get lost between the building, owner, the maintenance company, the occupiers there's a lot of different people involved. Who is exactly responsible for what is often very unclear, so the first thing is to make it very clear and to make those people accountable through clear regulation."
If there is a lack of accountability it is less likely that companies will spend extra money on fire safety, he said.
Rook even suggests that if legislation like the Social Value Act was mandatory "it may have a positive effect" when it comes to considering the wholesale effect of building on its occupants.
Local government's role
Lord Porter, LGA chairman, has argued that "local government must play a central role" in a review from the outset.
He believes that any review needs to consider how easy it is to use, comply with, and understand the building regulations and the associated documents supporting them, particularly those relating to the installation of cladding and insulation on external walls of buildings and how the building control, fire safety and planning regimes interact.
"We have been clear all along that entire cladding panels and the insulation behind them need to be fire tested together as a system, rather than just the core of the panels on their own, and are also pleased these much-needed changes to the testing process will now happen. It is vital that we get this right and this whole-system testing needs to happen as soon as possible."
He also urged that it would be concerning if the Building Research Establishment, which was carrying out safety tests, did not feel able to release the results of previous cladding system tests, as these are deemed commercially confidential.
"If the public are going to have faith in this fire-safety testing process then everything needs to be out in the open. It is no time for contractors or manufacturers to withhold test results from both councils and the public," he added.
A review of fire safety regulations (Building Regulations Part B) was recommended following the Lakanal House fire in 2009, but has still not taken place. The DCLG is now expected to focus on all parts of the regulations and consider how weak enforcement is exploited to cut project costs. However, no timetable has yet been announced for the review and the government remains vague about next steps.
A DCLG spokesman told FM World: "The Grenfell Tower fire and the subsequent cladding testing have raised questions about the building regulatory system, and how and why non-compliant cladding has been used. These issues need to be understood so we can make our tower blocks safe for those who live in them."
As FM World went to press reports emerged that Grenfell Tower would be wrapped to aid the forensics operation. Demolition of the tower is slated for 2018.