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Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench 3:33 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, I too express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, for introducing this debate. As a practising chartered surveyor, I spend much of my time investigating and trying to head off building defects. I must declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and patron of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers. However, I speak not from a special knowledge of tower blocks but more generally. I warmly congratulate our three maiden speakers on their splendid contributions to our debate and look forward to hearing from them in future debates.

That in this country, with its systems for product testing and approval and its long history of construction regulation and fire safety, we should be considering a report into so many avoidable deaths and shattered lives, and the gutted shell of a once purposeful block of homes, should make us all pause to reflect. I share the appreciation of Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s inclusion of a place in his report for each and every one of the victims by name. His Grenfell phase 1 report is truly vast in scope and forensic in its detail. I congratulate his team on it.

My purpose is to look at the failings across the sectors of building construction, improvement and maintenance, and use and management. Like the noble Lord, Lord Porter, I would have preferred to see phase 2 now rather than later because we have a substantial legacy of, and commitment to, high-rise residential blocks in this country. Over time, the perceived risks and the regulatory environment governing them has evolved. Not all critical change to a building is obvious; some really quite subtle changes can alter risks in ways not apparent even to local authority building control or environmental health officers, let alone to the fire and rescue service. Regulations governing post-construction alterations are not always retroactive in effect, as I understand it. At any given time, many buildings will almost certainly not meet the latest standards. On fire doors, at any rate, the report serves to change that, but there is clearly yet more to uncover about wider systemic construction failings.

It seems that there is no more than an informal voluntary system among management bodies for recording or storing the critical features of design and performance data for buildings, for the handing over of core information to successive owners and for logging alterations and repairs. In some cases, these are carried out without reference to expert examination, or perhaps even to the insurers and other interested parties—including, yes, residents. Localised or specialist installation works can fail to take into account the larger implications for a block as a whole. But to be fair to the fire and rescue service across the country, it can fulfil its duties only to the extent that the information is current and available in a useable form, so that it can use it. The report makes valuable recommendations here also and let us note that poor co-ordination is not the exclusive preserve of public bodies.

There has in the past been no equivalent to product recall for buildings, whether from a design fault, critical component failure or poor manufacture and assembly. Many construction warranties seem to protect the developer under the caveat emptor principle and give comfort to mortgagees rather than provide a guarantee of construction adequacy to the consumer. Stricter liabilities will, I am certain, be something for the future.

I note that a recent fire in Greater London in a modern four-storey block of flats erected by a respected housebuilding group appears to have revealed serious workmanship, construction management and warranty sign-off shortcomings. It looks as if, even now, we are not erecting new residential accommodation to the standards legally required. I am not sure that the current regulatory balance of expendable buildings provided occupants can get out safely gives the right signal or avoids perverse outcomes. Not only should occupants be able to evacuate safely but the accommodation unit must contain fire, and perhaps modest explosion, safely and not result in wholesale building failure.

The report’s implicit assertion that blocks of flats should withstand modest kitchen fires is therefore timely. From faulty tumble dryers subject to recall but where the ownership, whereabouts and circumstances of use may be largely unknown, to poorly manufactured smartphone and laptop batteries, in dwellings accidents can happen.

Some will point to the dwindling resources available to local authority building control as a factor. The truth is that their resource has been eroded by manpower losses to the private sector. Approved inspector firms have taken a lot of the available capacity. I have on too many occasions seen defective workmanship and short-cutting in site supervision and construction management. We need more inspectors of higher quality and better regulation and not their alienation.

There is not always an adequate understanding of a building’s fire protection philosophy, any more than there is sometimes of the thermal envelope or the style and category of occupation. That is not unique to social housing or to tower blocks; it happens everywhere. There is fragmentation of responsibility, lack of integration and limited scope of roles, the silo mentality that we hear about, budgetary delimitations, a lack of holistic approach and checks by rote rather than asking those awkward “what if” questions. As we know, modern contracting arrangements in building construction are also fragmented, with known shortcomings in labour, management and contractual arrangements.

I sense that we have lost sight of some of the objectives of delivery of safe, durable and competent housing, and lost an ability to maintain an all-encompassing grasp of the construction process. Technology could assist us, but it is no good if the raw data is not stored properly. Management clearly needs to know, and to inform and educate residents. The bottom line, referred to by other noble Lords, is that the process of the law will follow. The Australian court decision in the Lacrosse fire case has put all on notice of collective responsibility and the pursuit of justice when professionals get it wrong. Phase 2 will undoubtedly complete the picture of just how much more work there is to do, and I look forward to it.