How will fire safety move on following the Grenfell Tower tragedy?

The Fire Safety Bill was announced to make homes safer following the Grenfell Tower tragedy on the 14th June 2017, which saw a fire break out at the 24-storey block of flats in North Kensington. 72 people died, 70 were injured and 223 others escaped from the building. The fire broke out in a fourth-floor flat before spreading across the entire building within a few minutes and the building burned for 60 hours before being extinguished. 

External insulation and cladding were blamed for the spread of the fire, comparing it to being wrapped in kindling and the developers were accused of making shortcuts with fire safety during a recent renovation. The Grenfell inquiry found that the building’s exterior did not comply with regulations and was the main cause of the spread of the fire. It was also reported that the fire service was too late in advising residents to evacuate. 

After the tragedy, thousands of blocks of flats in the UK were found to be covered in similar cladding. Other issues were also found meaning leaseholders were facing large bills to pay for protective measures such as fire breaks, new balconies, safer doors and sprinkler systems. Dame Judith Hackitt was tasked by the government to conduct an independent review of building regulations and fire safety. Her report ‘Building a Safer Future” included a recommendation for a more robust approach to managing higher risk residential buildings.

First introduced by the Government in March 2020, the Fire Safety Bill seeks to prevent another tragedy like Grenfell, clarifying who is responsible for managing and reducing fire risk in multi-occupied, residential buildings, including external wall cladding and common areas. The Bill has been designed to ‘ensure that people feel safe in their homes and a tragedy like the Grenfell Tower fire will never happen again’ in England.

Recently Parliament voted against protecting homeowners and leaseholders from post -Grenfell fire safety costs that could run to £10bn. The House of Commons voted five times against the plan, led by the government and the Housing Minister Christopher Pincher.

In February 2021, Boris Johnson told Parliament: ‘No leaseholder should have to pay for the unaffordable costs of fixing safety defects that they didn’t cause and are no fault of their own.” Yet now leaseholders are trapped in homes they can’t sell, with their lives on hold because lenders will not offer mortgages until the cladding is removed. 

Campaigners say leaseholders should be protected from all remediation costs that have arisen through no fault of their own. Grenfell United, the bereaved families and survivors group said: “We’re deeply disappointed that ministers have broken their promises to leaseholders who have done absolutely nothing wrong. The government’s position on this is indefensible. 

“It’s a grave injustice that many innocent leaseholders will be financially ruined over fire safety issues that were not of their own making, while the government is letting those responsible continue to get off scot free. 

“We, and other fire safety campaign groups, will continue to put pressure on ministers to do the right thing and end this nightmare for hundreds of thousands of people across the country.”

End Our Cladding Scandal said the bill passed “much to the horror of hundreds of thousands of innocent people across the country whose lives are being ruined by the building safety crisis. As much as the government is gambling with our finances, it is also gambling with our lives. Nearly four years after Grenfell and thousands of buildings across the UK are still covered with combustible materials and structurally unable to withstand fire.”

The Fire Safety Bill will, however, provide a foundation for follow-up legislation to take forward recommendations from the Grenfell Tower Enquiry’s initial report, which states that building owners should be responsible for taking further action on fire safety. This includes keeping evacuation plans up to date, carrying out regular inspections of the property, disseminating fire safety instructions to residents and ensuring the building complies with safety standards.

The industry is also calling for third party accreditation (or certification) – the best way to gain assurance when sourcing fire safety contractors or products. Accreditation provides peace of mind that suppliers have been independently verified, are regularly audited or certified and are capable of undertaking works required on buildings. There are currently no legal minimum qualification requirements for many trades and services within the fire industry, therefore using third party approved contractors assures works are completed to the best standards and practice.

In November last year, the Fire Protection Association FPA) launched the ‘Know Your Building’ campaign – calling for third party certification to be a regulatory requirement for all fire safety services and products. The campaign supports the conclusions and recommendations of the Hackett Review, which highlighted a lack of understanding of fire risks, mitigations and management arrangements by building owners and the construction industry. 

According to the Fire Protection Association: ‘Despite Grenfell, many building owners remain unaware of the importance of maintaining the buildings’ fire protection systems and having them regularly inspected to ensure that they remain fit for purpose.”

Commenting on the Fire Safety Bill, James Gilligan, Head of Technical at Bull Products said: 

“At Bull Products we have a forward-thinking approach to fire safety in the construction industry and continue to invest in staff training and development in this area. 

‘We are currently undertaking third party approvals for SP203 for Fire Systems, SP205 for Fire Risk Assessments and continued assessments for SP101 for portable fire extinguishers. This not only demonstrates our support for our customers and staff, but also our ambition to be leaders in our field. 

“The Fire Safety Bill has been set out to achieve professional standards within our industry and Bull Products is committed to achieving this goal.”