National Fire Chiefs Council Chair Roy Wilsher reports on programmes and projects of work flowing from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 report.
It is hard to believe three years’ have passed since the Grenfell Tower fire, which affected the landscape of building safety and how fire and rescue services respond to high-rise building fires, especially those with unsafe cladding systems.
My first thoughts remain with the families and all those affected by the unthinkable tragedy. I know with the Inquiry being on hold due to Covid-19, this will undoubtedly be impacting people waiting the answers they rightly need.
The fire highlighted areas that needed urgent attention, first and foremost why building regulations were not followed correctly. But the recommendations made by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry phase 1 report are actively being worked on to inform NFCC programmes and projects.
However, ACM PE remediation has not happened quickly enough; with 20 years of building safety failure I have repeatedly made it clear to government that we need fundamental reform of building safety including some industry culture and competence.
The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee met last month and raised a number of points relating to the speed of remediation of dangerous cladding. It is a point I made to the committee when I gave evidence last year – and continue to make through NFCC’s work.
This was further endorsed by Sir Martin Moore Bick in the GTI Phase 1 report, where he stated unsafe cladding must be removed as soon as possible.
This situation has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, as people spend more times in their homes, fuelling anxiety about their safety. Mounting costs are building up for many leaseholders who – in many cases – are being forced to pay for ‘Waking Watches’; part of temporary interim measures that were supposed to last months, not years.
The fact that a number of building owners have not taken responsibility for cladding and have placed the burden on residents is both irresponsible and immoral.
Building Safety Fund
However, steps are being taken to rectify the situation. In March, NFCC welcomed the budget announcement of a £1 billion Building Safety Fund to assist with the removal of unsafe cladding from buildings more than 18 metres in height. However, I have raised concerns over the height threshold and the definition of high-risk buildings: high-rise does not necessarily mean high-risk, it depends on a number of factors, including build quality.
The additional £20 million for NFCC and fire and rescue services to support fire protection is welcome and will assist the future protection programme of work, but this needs to find its way into base budgets for the future.
We are currently working on – via our new Covid-19 and Protection committees – what this protection work will look like in transition, as lockdown restrictions change and evolve.
We now need to see a firm timetable detailing when unsafe cladding will be removed. We heard from ministers that there was an ‘ambition’ it would be removed by this summer; now it is hoped contractors will be back on site with ACM cladding removed by mid-2021, but there is currently no deadline for completion.
Fire Safety Bill
The new Fire Safety Bill aims to improve fire safety in buildings across England and Wales and will empower FRSs to take enforcement action on external wall systems and hold non-compliant building owners to account. This is area power we have been calling for since 2017. But this needs to be supported by powers and processes to accurately identify any cladding system.
As part of our response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s review into building regulations and fire safety, plus the renewed interest in protection, we formed NFCC’s Building Safety team, which had the express remit to assist with dedicated advice and inputting into future government policy development.
While funding has largely come from a government grant, the expert skills of the team and the support of the wider FRS has been demonstrated through excellent policy work and thorough responses to related consultations to ensure better building safety in the future.
First and foremost, we want people to feel safe in their homes through better legislation, regulation and clear lines of responsibility to ensure we do not see another tragedy of the scale of Grenfell unfold. It is a day which will never be forgotten as we remember all those who lost their lives.