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A betrayal of the Grenfell bereaved and survivors?

Louise Christian, the Solicitor who represented the families of the bereaved of the Lakanal House Fire at their inquest has kindly analysed and written this critique of the Dame Judith Hackitt Review specifically for us at Tower Blocks UK.

The Review of Building Control by Dame Judith Hackitt – a betrayal of the Grenfell bereaved and survivors?

Campaigners for justice over Grenfell quite rightly demand that the government ensures that such a tragedy never happens again. There is to be a Public Inquiry starting on 21st May but amid concerns that this would take a long time, the government commissioned Dame Judith Hackitt the previous Head of the Health and Safety Executive to review the Building Regulations and the system for enforcing them. This Review was published last week and was met by instant protest that it did not recommend a ban on outside cladding of “limited combustibility” In response to the protests the Housing Secretary James Brokenshire announced that the government would consult on such a ban.

I am familiar with some of the labyrinthine and impenetrable problems of building control in relation to tower block fires, as I acted for all the bereaved families in the 2013 Inquest into the Lakanal House fire. Three adults and three children died in that fire in July 2009 and the inquest should have led to remedial measures which would have prevented the Grenfell fire. Lakanal House did not have cladding but it did have outside panels of “limited combustibility” Despite the description “limited” these panels burned through in one minute once the fire took hold. The expert advising our team, Sam Webb, was adamant that their use should have been prohibited.

At the inquest there was a long debate among barristers about whether “Approved Document B” of the Building Regulations had replaced the older version of the Building Regulations or simply expanded on them. We argued the latter as this would have led to the panels being prohibited but the Coroner found against us. However she included among her recommendations a recommendation that the government review the Building Regulations. This recommendation was simply ignored by the government. Her letter was sent to the then Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, who failed to follow up on her concerns. He has just been made a member of the House of Lords.

It was to be hoped that in view of this history that Dame Judith Hackitt, appointed to do the very review that the government failed to do in the aftermath of Lakanal House, would take her task very seriously. However at the launch of her report she said that she was not an expert on the facts of what happened at Grenfell and that her report was independent of those facts, a statement immediately criticised by campaigners. As Head of the Health and Safety Executive under David Cameron’s government she also presided over a period of increasing de-regulation of health and safety and a major decrease in inspections. Perhaps therefore she was not the right person to carry out this important Review.

Not everything in the Review is unworthy of consideration but it is concentrated on the process for approval under the Building Regulations rather than the Regulations themselves and in terms of process it also starts from a viewpoint (which may well be idealogically driven) that the construction industry and local authorities themselves should self regulate rather than opening things up to greater outside scrutiny, In view of the total failure of regulation to date those who live in tower blocks may disagree.

Where she is right is to say that the problem of fire risk in tower blocks is not just because of outside cladding or panels. The fire in Lakanal House spread rapidly not just because of the outside panels but because renovation works had compromised “compartmentalization” This is the creation of internal fire safety . protections which prevent fire spreading from one flat to another eg fire doors, fire protection around spaces conveying pipes and wiring and ceilings and floors.

These renovation works had been passed by building control at Southwark Council for Lakanal House despite being in breach of Building Regulations and the Council were eventually fined a large sum of money in a health and safety prosecution. Fining a public authority financed by local ratepayers and the government is however a puny deterrent.

Apart from Dame Judith’s concentration on self regulation other criticisms of her report have called attention to her failure to ban so called “desk top studies” whereby materials are not tested by real simulation but on computer models some of which passed by them have subsequently failed the full tests. Instead she says these desk top studies can continue but can only be carried out by the Building Research Establishment or another nationally certified body. There is also criticism that her proposals for a new process for Building Regulations approval is limited to buildings of ten storeys or more whereas previously tower blocks have been defined as buildings of more than six storeys. Those who died at Lakanal House were on the eleventh floor.

While Dame Judith is right to point out that outside cladding is not the only or even the main future risk to fire safety in tower blocks, her overall approach has not gained the confidence of the Grenfell survivors. It is to be hoped that the Public Inquiry which is about to start will examine again the fundamental questions thrown up by her Review – particularly the concentration on self regulation and the refusal to clarify the content of the Building Regulations themselves. It is also hoped that the Public Inquiry will delve deep into other matters not even addressed by Dame Judith such as complaints mechanisms for and accountability to tenants and occupiers, retrofitting of sprinklers, escape routes and the operation of the stay put policy.

Louise Christian

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