Building Safety – Have we learnt from Grenfell?
We recently passed the sixth anniversary of the Grenfell tower disaster.
In the early hours of June 14, 2017, a blaze ripped through the 24-storey west London tower block after a small kitchen fire broke out on the fourth floor. Flames spread across the outside of the building via flammable cladding and rapidly engulfed the high rise, in North Kensington.
Like many on that fateful day, I sat transfixed in front of the TV watching the disaster unfold. The London Fire Brigade responded to the emergency and battled the intense flames which took three days to fully extinguish. Despite their heroic efforts, 72 people lost their lives.
The subsequent inquiry, chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt, which started in September 2017, totalled 400 days of evidence gathering in the UK’s biggest residential fire since World War Two. The inquiry unearthed a catalogue of unmanaged risks identifying major weaknesses and systemic failure in the building safety regime.
Vowing to ensure this never happens again, the UK and Welsh Governments introduced legislation overhauling the building safety system. Their aim to ensure there is clarity on who is responsible for all aspects of building safety to hopefully avoid another Grenfell.
Building safety is ultimately the responsibility of building owners and developers. To do this they should only utilise safe materials and comply with building regulations set by the Welsh Government. Compliance is overseen by building surveyors, both within local authorities and in the private sector, known as approved inspectors. Fire and rescue services also are key to ensuring building plans consider fire safety before construction.
In the past 6 months, Audit Wales has been reviewing how the new system is being implemented and in August will be reporting on how well positioned public sector bodies are to take on their new and enhanced responsibilities. From our experience, legislation alone does not address problems or raise standards. To truly deliver change, it requires all those who have a role in ensuring building safety own the risks and are fully accountable for their work.
So, what have we found?
The tragedy has clearly been a catalyst for change in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay. The new legislation focuses on addressing major weaknesses in the building safety system that evolved over recent decades. Clarity on responsibilities, new competency requirements for surveyors and enhanced standards are all being introduced to drive performance and improvement. Some of these changes are taking place now, but others are yet to be finalised. Taken together, the strengthening of duties will hopefully drive higher standards and mitigate risks.
This is a welcome change.
We also found building safety and building control to be a sector that is well served by a dedicated and passionate workforce. Those we spoke to and interviewed, whether in a local authority or fire and rescue service, take great pride in their work and are trying to do the best they can in often challenging circumstances.
However, despite this, our audit raises real concerns that the key services with responsibility for driving these standards and delivering these aspirations are not well positioned to rise to the challenge. For instance, we found major risks in respect of:
- ongoing capacity and funding challenges which is weakening service resilience;
- a lack of clarity on how key aspects of the Act will be implemented;
- responsible bodies not investing in planning and preparing for change;
- inconsistent and poor management of finances which raises serious questions on the value for money and efficiency of services; and
- poor monitoring and evaluation systems which do not provide any assurance that services are working effectively.
Our report [opens in new window] provides a snapshot of the challenges facing Welsh Government, local authorities and Fire and Rescue Services in Wales. The report makes detailed recommendations to help address the risks we identified.
And for us, that is the key.
None of us want to see the new system for building safety and building control fail. We are all dependent on it working to safeguard our wellbeing. Its successful implementation would also be a fitting memorial for the victims of Grenfell and will hopefully ensure this never happens again.
About the author
Nick Selwyn was until recently an audit manager at Audit Wales with responsibility for the Auditor General’s national studies in Local government and local audit work at National Parks and Fire and Rescue Authorities. He is retiring in August, and this is his final review.