With the Grenfell Tower Inquiry now well underway, insurers are hopeful that the legacy of the disaster could be comparable with The Great Fire of London...
…when following the 1666 fire, the Rebuilding Act was passed requiring new property to be built of brick or stone, rather than timber. It is hoped Grenfell will also bring a similar transformation to fire safety, unlike previous fatal tower block fires.
But whilst the Inquiry is likely to be a long process, the Hackett Review into Building Regulations and Fire Safety, commissioned by the Government in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, has already reported that the current testing system is not fit for purpose. Criticism of the existing fire testing regime within the Building Regulations has come from many quarters, including the Association of British Insurers (ABI) who have been scathing when providing their evidence. Their comments include ‘The tragic events at Grenfell appear to be a symptom of a systematic failure of current building control and enforcement regimes’. They have called for testing to replicate ‘real-world’ rather than ‘perfect build’ conditions, questioned whether the term ‘limited combustibility’ (relating to materials) is fit for purpose and criticised the repeal of Local Building Acts (which generally stipulated that the outside of buildings needed to be fireproof). Possibly the most telling comment was ‘The apparent incongruous nature of energy performance/sustainability and fire safety’ which in non-political speak means that environmental issues take priority over fire safety.
The ABI also referred to ‘the utter inadequacy’ of official standard tests after tests they commissioned highlighted flaws in the current regime. They found that specific materials are tested rather than the mix found in real life, giving the example of introducing 20% plastic into a test on wood and burning 100°C hotter. Other concerns are that cladding is tested as sealed units (it generally has gaps when fitted), in perfect manufacturers’ condition (it is often pierced by ducts) and with restricted oxygen, rather than normal atmospheric conditions.
Despite calling for major reform, the Review has already been criticised for not recommending an outright ban on combustible or untested cladding. Initially there will be a consultation period with the construction, property and fire safety sectors before the final recommendations are published.
In recent years there have been many headlines about safety testing, particularly relating to the motor industry. Most of the public were not naïve enough to believe the implausible claims about fuel consumption, but few would have thought the industry would go so far as to falsify official emission testing to get around environmental legislation. However,the authorities allowed that to happen and now we find that fire testing done by official Government bodies is not fit for purpose either.
Grenfell was a dreadful disaster, but this is more than just people sleeping safely at night, there is the wider issue of trust in Government testing regimes, especially as over the next few years we may be asked to put our lives in the hands of driverless technology.