The Post-Grenfell Society – Will it Invoke Change?

Thank you to all who could make it for our second meeting on November 22nd. The meeting was insightful, well attended and included a couple of excellent bottles of wine.

The theme of this meeting was “The Post-Grenfell Society – Is It Different?” and featured keynote speaker Geoffrey Podger. Podger has held four British and international Chief Executive posts in the public health and regulatory sectors, namely as Chief Executive of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, the European Food Safety Agency, the UK’s Food Standards Agency and most recently as Acting Chief Executive of WorkSafe New Zealand, experience that is critical in discussing the key aspects of regulatory response to the Grenfell Tower Fire.

Insight on Grenfell and Fire Safety Policy Reform

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Podger elegantly set the scene for us, outlining the events leading up to the fire, how it related to previous incidents, and what the Grenfell Tower fire means for future policy initiatives. His compassion and sorrow was evident when discussing failures in the regulatory space, and his suggestions on how to prevent the ‘next Grenfell’ from occurring were thoughtful and straightforward.

In his comments, Podger described the disaster as an example of ‘Swiss Cheese’ accidents – when all the holes align and lead to a large-scale failure. This was because, as well as a failure to respond to reported fears from residents, fire safety regulation had failed in part due to earlier deregulation resulting in unclear goals and poor enforcement. Added to this, the source of the fire was a common household appliance, now known to be faulty, accelerated by highly flammable cladding that was not designed to be used on this style of building; highlighting that this tragedy was caused by the unfortunate alignment of a number of failures in different areas from entities with different levels of responsibility.

Once the issues were identified, Podger offered a range of recommendations as to how government and policy makers can move forward in this space. First and foremost, he urged the creation of a new arm’s length co-ordinating body for fire safety, similar to the Health and Safety Executive, to ensure independent and adequately resourced oversight.

Podger argued that in this case a more effective and enforceable regulatory system could have prevented the horrendous disaster. Originally built in 1970, the Grenfell Tower was considered to be compliant to fire regulation, was visited 16 times by building inspectors during the multi-million pound refurbishment from 2015 to 2016, and passed. Podger also specifically mentioned the deregulation movement of the early 2000’s, and the 2014 decision by then Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, to not require sprinkler systems in homes. The testing regime run by the privatised Building Research Establishment, however, does not produce real-life fire scenarios, suggesting that testing and inspections were not adequate in protecting lives.

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Brexit: Already Affecting Policy Reform

Following the enlightening keynote, Dr Henry Rothstein, Reader at King’s College London, provided some remarks. Rothstein questioned whether, in the current politically unstable climate, the Grenfell Tower fire would stay in the collective consciousness for long enough to lead to substantial regulatory changes or mindset shifts in safety culture. He wondered whether in fact, as horrible as it may seem, the ‘next Grenfell’ would be more conducive to change in the longer term, considering that media and policy are focused so intently on Brexit, with few other politically-themed issues currently making headlines.

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Questions were finally opened to the floor, where an eager and passionate debate ensued. Topics of discussion included: Whether policy implementation will shift from the current reactive state, to a more proactive one; If the demographic of the residents and symbol of Grenfell will contribute to garner regulatory inaction, compared to a more symbolic and ‘wealthy’ building such as the Shard; and agreement from risk assessors involved in fire safety that many issues are yet to be resolved regarding the effectiveness of regulation in the UK.

The takeaway message of the evening was that Grenfell Tower fire is an example where regulatory failure can result in catastrophic disaster. In all, the roots of fire safety regulatory systems need to be re-evaluated, ideally through an arm’s length politically independent body similar to what happens in occupational health and safety and food safety. These issues need to be addressed before the ‘next Grenfell’ reminds the Government that Brexit is not the only political debate at the moment, and all people in the UK, despite income or social status, require standards in place to ensure safety and a good quality of life.

Up Next

We look forward to continuing this debate: if you are interested in furthering your knowledge on this topic, then please contact us. Our next event will be in the spring of 2018, so keep posted for updates. In the meantime, we wish everyone Happy Holidays and look forward to seeing you at our next event!

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