A little over six months after the Grenfell Tower fire, an event that shocked and shamed a nation and in which 71 people died in horrendous circumstances, too little has been done. Despite all the political rhetoric, many of those affected remain without adequate accommodation, and still angry at the authorities for the failures before, during and after the fire.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report into national building regulation represents partial redress to those concerns. Though not tasked with investigating the Grenfell fire as such – that is for the parallel and public inquiry led by Sir Martin-Moore Bick – there is much in this work that has a direct bearing on understanding what happened at Grenfell and what can be done to minimise the risk that such a horrific fire would not recur.
Much, in truth, of what Dame Judith’s inquiry has found, and the further comments she makes in her “personal view”, was apparent in days immediately following the fire. Still, it is right that this report stresses where some of the key failings lay, and how remedying those can be a strong defence against future tragedies.
No one has the interests of the residents of tower blocks, and indeed other public and private residential housing, as close to their heart as the residents themselves. Although the public inquiry is yet to finish its work, there are many residents at Grenfell Tower, and other places, who had raised concerns about safety, but their voices and concerns seem not to have been acted on to prevent the tragic loss of life at Grenfell.
Again, we know already that the complex system of the management of public or social housing may well be a powerful contributory factor in slowing decision-making and allowing the various bodies concerned to shift responsibility between themselves. This is a classic bureaucratic stalemate, of course, but one that has been exacerbated in the social housing sector by the process of privatisation – contracting out and subcontracting the ownership, running, repair and refurbishment to so many different public and private bodies. Again, this is something that will need urgent attention when the inquiry is complete.
More urgent is the replacement of the dangerous cladding that sits on so many tower blocks. As Dame Judith rightly points out, there is no need for the owners or managers of these buildings to wait to be told what to do by her or anyone else; the safe materials are already known, and the opportunity is open for them to replace any current cladding that is a fire risk, and therefore a risk to life. It’s true that hard-pressed local authorities will need financial assistance; the Treasury should make available funding immediately, and the Department for Communities and Local Government should insist on work starting now.
Given the public concern and the widespread coverage of Grenfell and its aftermath, including some high-profile evacuations of blocks in London, it is strange indeed that so little seems to have been done. The risks maybe relatively small – and such events are rare – but the consequences of failure are, as Grenfell proved, incalculably awful.
Last, and most difficult to make work, Dame Judith pleaded for a change in the culture of the sector. With even the best streamlined and comprehensible regulations, the most conscientious landlords and the most concerned tenants, the culture of accountability that has been long so absent from the sector needs to be inculcated. Partly that is matter of changing minds and attitudes. It is also a matter of making individuals and organisations personally and corporately responsible for the buildings, and on a continuing basis.
Every public official, and manager in a private company for that matter, should have a duty to secure best value for money in their commercial dealings; but this cannot be at the expense of fire safety. There should be a compulsory clause in every contract awarded for the construction and management of residential buildings, with criminal sanctions attached to failure to comply. That would cut through any complication of ambiguity in building rules, as tends to grow up naturally over the years, and would help bring the system back to being “fit for purpose”.
This issue of sanctions will be especially sensitive in the coming months, as the families and victims of the Grenfell fire search for closure and justice, and the absence of the provision of sanctions in the past will become very painfully apparent. Dame Judith’s report will not be the last word on these matters by any means, but it points to the correct direction of travel.