14 October 2019

At the UK Construction Week (UKCW) 2019 event this week, day one focussed heavily on the fire safety and what actions are being taken in the construction industry to prevent further tragedy.

Attending the show, BAFE observed an industry that is responding to the fire safety issue, but more action is required and fast. This comes just days after Dame Judith Hackitt told the industry to not wait for regulations to ‘raise the bar’.

On the UKCW main stage, Building Safe Homes: When will there be fundamental reform?, discussed these issues with a highly qualified panel. Chair of the panel Peter Caplehorn, Chief Executive – Construction Products Association, questioned “how do we correct the obvious problems that were so clearly identified in the Hackitt Review, how can we progress through a culture change that is needed?”

Peter Baker, Director – Building Safety Programme Response – Health and Safety Executive (HSE), pointed out the obvious yet very appropriate declaration that rarity breeds complacency:

“There are two lessons from 1974 [Flixborough chemical plant disaster]… One is: the primary responsibility for managing risk rests with the people who create it. It’s not the regulators job to run the plant and manage the risk, it’s the duty holder – it’s the people who create the risk. The second is: the rarity of major accidents tend to breed complacency. Because they don’t happen very often, people forget, people lose focus… One of the biggest lessons we can learn from major disasters is that they do happen, they may not happen very often, but when they do, they can have massive consequences not only for people, but also for businesses and also communities.”

Jonathan O’Neill OBE, Managing Director – Fire Protection Association, emphasised that change is required right now to establish safer homes:

“It seems quite extraordinary to me, that the best part of two and half years – after the worst loss of life from fire since the Second World War, we still haven’t had a building regulations change in the UK. Essentially, apart from a change in the banning combustible materials on very tall buildings, I can build a building pretty much the same way now as I could before Grenfell. When are we going to get change? When we get building regulations change… if we are going to put at-risk housing groups in combustible construction, we are going to have big big trouble. We have not learnt the lessons, we are far from learning the lessons… If [the Crewe care home fire] happened at night, we would be talking the exactly the same situation that we are about Grenfell just over two years after it happened. We’ve got to see regulatory change… [Dame Judith Hackitt has said last week] to the construction industry ‘you do not need to have legislation to effect cultural change’. Let’s face it, we do… we need change and we need it now.”

When will reform happen however? Paul Everall, Chief Executive – LABC, recounted his experience with introducing new regulations:

“As [Jonathan O’Neill] said, legislation will be required. Hopefully we will shall see a draft bill this winter, but of course legislation takes time. In my civil service career, I was responsible for taking a number of major bills through Parliament and it can take up to a year for a bill to pass all its stages in the Commons and the Lords. And that means it is unlikely to come into force before the Spring of 2021, which will be almost four years since Grenfell occurred. We cannot afford to wait until the legislation is complete, even though it will be required to ensure everybody follows it. Dame Judith says, ‘industry should not wait – it must put its house in order, it must change its culture’.”

Nick Coombe MBE, Building Safety Programme Lead - National Fire Chiefs Council, discussed their input to establish change but also reminded the construction industry audience that his firefighters have to go into these high risk situations when it goes wrong:

“We kind of have a design system that puts in that, if everyone gets out and 10 seconds later the building collapses, building regulations have been met. That is ridiculous, because firefighters might be in there.” He also notes that “The Fire Safety Order is not a tool to fix something that should have been done in the building stage… We have to design buildings to ensure the lifetime of the people that are going to be [living] there – that it’s fit for them.”

“People in the construction industry need to know they are going to get caught, and if they get caught that the punishment is severe, and they won’t do it again… [change is not going to happen] unless there is strong legislation and strong enforcement… the industry is failing, so our legislation, our new regulator, needs to have oversight of the whole industry, not just tower blocks.”

Chandru Dissanayeke, Director of Building Safety Reforms – Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, proclaimed that after Grenfell he continues to hear excuses from the industry. He said, “it’s our shared problem, and we need to make sure it is not our legacy.”

He reiterated in the question and answer session “Let’s be clear, even from this stage I’m hearing excuses – it’s your fault, it’s your fault, that needs to happen before this can happen – and as long as that happens, this industry has a long way to go. I just want to be really clear, there can be no more excuses. We all have to be in this, we all cannot offload our risk and say it is no longer ours or someone else’s problem. This is our legacy, it’s not future buildings which is our legacy, they’ll be fine. It’s the existing stock, that is our legacy and we need to correct.”

In the question and answer session that followed the seminar, Nick Coombe and Jonathan O’Neill responded to discussions about doing the right thing vs cost:

Nick Coombe – “At the moment if you try and do the right thing, it costs more and therefore people will go to the cheapest denomination. They won’t get the [appropriate competent] people because they don’t have to. That’s a real issue at the moment, people [in the industry] are trying to change, but then they are not getting the work because the end user will look at the quotes and they don’t know the difference. From a Fire and Rescue Service point of view, we are trying to promote people with Third Party Accreditation [Third Party Certification], promote the people that we want them to use so they know what they’re getting. I think a lot of people don’t know what they’re getting.”

Jonathan O’Neill – “We have commissioned, through the Fire Sector Federation, a view of a barrister which we have given to Government about making the use of Third Party Certificated installers and manufactures a statutory defence in law. [This provides] great incentive to those who are actually commissioning buildings to ensure they are using Third Party Certification as no cost whatsoever.”

Stephen Adams, Chief Executive – BAFE, comments that this was a really valuable discussion (with too small an audience) which needs much wider circulation. There is a general fear from the fire industry that the issues raised will be ‘swept under the carpet’ by the wider construction industry safety concerns. As the speakers said it is the improvement and maintenance of the current building stock that will be our legacy to residents and end users with UKAS Accredited Third Party Certificated competence being the way forward for fire safety service providers. This will greatly support Hackitt’s recommendations of continuing the “golden thread” of information and quality evidence of conforming to appropriate safety requirements.