Months after Grenfell, where's the ban on combustible materials? | Karen Buck

The enormity of the tragedy demands extensive reform of building standards. But this would be a start

As we approach the anniversary of the Grenfell disaster, we can quite rightly expect to see extensive coverage of what most people believed to have been impossible – a London residential tower block ablaze, and 71 men, women and children condemned to a terrifying death. The review of building regulations undertaken and just published by Dame Judith Hackitt as part of the response to that tragedy, was conducted in the shadow of a 24-storey tomb. Survivors, relatives and friends, the surrounding community who must still face the charred ruins every day, all have the right to expect a clear and unambiguous commitment to action to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. Everyone now living in a high-rise or complex building has a right to know that their future safety will be protected, and how.

I suspect most residents in high-rise buildings would be astonished to know how weak the regulatory framework that they rely on for their day-to-day protection is, as the review makes abundantly clear. This is even more the case, given the lessons that should already have been learned from the fatal fire in Lakanal House, Southwark, in south-east London, in 2009. We may still be some way away from knowing precisely what caused the Grenfell fire to spread so quickly and with such devastating consequences – we must await the findings of the official inquiry for that – but we already knew from Lakanal that the system of building regulation was not fit for purpose. Yet no action was taken post-Lakanal, and fears of further delays in order to undertake yet more consultation and implement what will inevitably be a complex and prolonged legislative process are entirely justified.

If some people are worried about the extensive representation of the building industry on the Hackitt review working groups, that is understandable as well. Its expert contribution is important, but the industry is part of the problem too, and there must not be any suspicion that its interests outweigh those of the residents of the buildings it constructs.

The Hackitt review, like the interim review before it, published last December, provides a powerful critique of the regulatory framework and the practices that were widespread throughout the building industry. Don’t take my word for it. Read the report and I challenge you not to be struck by the frequently damning nature of its findings.

In her introduction, Hackitt identifies the key issues of “ignorance. Indifference. Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities” and “Inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement”, saying that: “These issues have helped create … a cultural issue which  can be described as a ‘race to the bottom’.” Much that is set out in the details of the report makes complete sense – not least the fact that we need “systemic change” not just a “shopping list” of individual actions.

Yet some of the Hackitt proposals significantly underestimate the complexity of the task ahead, in the real world of buildings with many different types of lease and tenancy. Grenfell Tower was not unusual in comprising not just council flats, but others bought under right to buy, some then privately rented out, along with housing association flats used as temporary accommodation, and so on.

Any measures to improve the physical infrastructure in relation to fire safety, or to alter the legal responsibilities of residents, are fraught with complications, and no one is well served by a over-simplified view of the challenges. Although ultimately the report is a strong critique of the problems, the real concern about it, and the government’s response to it, is less to do with what it contains than what it leaves out.

The report’s failure to come down firmly on the side of banning the use of combustible materials is bitterly disappointing. Confusingly, and despite not having made such an unambiguous recommendation in the report, Hackitt immediately indicated that, should the government proceed to such a ban, she would support it. Recognising the impossibility of this unfolding situation, the local government secretary James Brokenshire subsequently confirmed that there will indeed now be a consultation on a complete ban.

This is welcome – but more welcome still would have been to just go ahead and ban these materials. All this is even more worrying given that it has been precisely such a lack of clarity around responsibility and accountability that has bedevilled building regulations for many years.

Of course a ban on the use of combustible materials is insufficient. Of course we also need a change of culture, revised and tougher guidance on the entire system of building and fire safety, progress on the retrofitting of sprinklers and much else. The point is, none of these things are mutually exclusive. The government can ban the use of combustible materials on buildings and still have more than enough to do across a wide-ranging safety agenda.

This week, and just a month before the Grenfell anniversary, the government made a late but welcome commitment to fund the removal of dangerous cladding from social housing blocks. Now ministers must take another decisive step. Ban the use of combustible materials and let that important step be just the start of a fundamental and lasting change to building safety.

• Karen Buck is Labour MP for Westminster North


Karen Buck

The GuardianTramp

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