APPG for London’s Planning and Built Environment considers the implications of the Grenfell Tower disaster on London’s housing stock

Felix Shaw

It’s now just over a month since the worst peacetime fire in the UK since the 19thCentury. It became apparent in the immediate aftermath of Grenfell that catastrophic failings had occurred and serious reform would be necessary to ensure it does not happen again. With this in mind, the APPG for London’s Planning Environment, chaired by Rupa Huq MP and supported by the London Society, Local Dialogue and New London Architecture convened a panel of experts from the built environment community to discuss the emerging response to the disaster.

The panel included:

  • Sue Foster – Strategic Director of Neighbourhoods and Growth, Lambeth Council
  • Pat Hayes – Managing Director, Be First, LB Barking & Dagenham, and former Executive Director of Regeneration and Housing, Ealing Council
  • Adrian Dobson – Executive Director of Members, RIBA
  • Sam Webb – Chartered Architect and advisor to the legal team for Lakanal House families
  • Sarah Davies – Head of Project Management, Pocket Living

The discussion at the event covered a number of issues but focused on two key questions – How are local authorities responding to the disaster and do they have the necessary resources? And what regulations do we need to ensure all future tall buildings and building refurbishments are kept safe from catastrophic fires?

Sue Foster gave a stark overview of the challenges Lambeth and other local authorities have faced, in particular in carrying out the necessary enhanced Fire Risk Assessment (FRA) checks now required. Ordinarily FRAs do not examine private residences within a building, however in light of Grenfell, Lambeth and many other authorities have been carrying out much more intrusive, but necessary FRA-4 checks. Ms Foster mentioned that these checks are costlier and called for the Government to drop its 1% reduction in council rents and put the Homelessness Reduction Act on hold to allow councils to meet the challenge of responding to Grenfell.

Pat Hayes, who has worked in planning and regeneration for a number of London councils, talked about the difficulty local authorities face in assessing the quality and safety of buildings that have been privately refurbished, with developers unwilling to reveal trade secrets to local authorities they often view as competitors. He added that Grenfell must not be used as excuse for councils to back away from estate regeneration projects – a brand new building built to latest specifications will always be safer than a refurbished block from the 1960s.

Sam Webb, a former RIBA Council member with experience advising families affected by previous residential building fires criticised what he called the outdated advice for residents to stay in their homes once a fire starts – highlighting that since the London Building Act was abolished in 1986, residential buildings have been altered so drastically that old expectations of fire safety can no longer be relied on.

However, Sarah Davies, who has 9 years’ experience in the private rented sector, specialising in refurbishment and development questioned this view, noting that buildings would have to be radically altered to allow for evacuation in the event of a fire. There are also questions about how everyone in the building could be notified without intrusive fire alarms and how an evacuation would impede fast access by the emergency services.

This lively debate showed that although a consensus on how planners and developers should respond to Grenfell is still far from clear, real learning and greater cooperation between everyone in the industry is being felt and sweeping changes which will ultimately make the places we live safer seems to be inevitable.