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Comment | Fire safety in public housing is not a luxury, it is a right

NCE stock health and safety

The technical failings that led to the devastating loss of life in Grenfell Tower are rightly the primary focus in making sure such a tragedy does not strike again.

The risk inherent in this, though, is how far politicians and other non-construction decision makers will use that as reason enough to shift focus away from the influence they hold over people’s wellbeing.

The standards binding the industry to deliver safe and appropriate dwellings set their basis on health and safety. But their complexity and applicability is far from universal – in part understandably because different buildings pose different risks to their inhabitants.

Surely it is more questionable why very similar buildings are held to different standards. This is far from refutable when we see how differently devolved nations treat official guidance.

Perhaps most notable right now is the change to regulations imposed by the Welsh Government since January 2016. It stipulates that all new and converted housing must install sprinkler systems as standard. In England, however, Building Regulations dating from 2007 say that the mandatory installation of sprinklers applies only to new residential buildings over 30m tall.

Why does one of our devolved nations place a higher importance on keeping people safe via a belt and braces approach when another does not?

Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation’s early objectives for the refurbishment were set out in a planning document from 2012. These were to create efficient and economically viable communal heating, extend the life of the building, optimise space, exploit “hidden homes” to create additional affordable housing, and improve the entrance and appearance of the multi-storey block. In hindsight it seems all too clear that the £10M refurbishment was all too superficial.

But is it not easy enough to see this up front too? Are superficial refurbishments of 1950s’, 1960s’ and 1970s’ residential concrete tower blocks ever required? Perhaps not in those cases when making them safe has not been conquered first.

The root problem here is a failure to recognise that first and foremost all people want to be safe in their homes. When offered an upgrade, residents will talk about lower heating bills, nicer entranceways and the like, because they are taking it for granted they are protected against death.

This is a luxury seemingly afforded to those buying up huge swathes of privately developed housing stock in new high rise dwellings, springing up, in for example, Vauxhall and Nine Elms in south London. These will all have sprinklers fitted as standard, and are mostly inhabited by those who are better off (particularly given the definition of affordable housing in such blocks is increasingly unattainable by those on average or lower incomes). Meanwhile, old, tired concrete tower blocks are more often home to the more vulnerable and financially-strained in society.

The impetus to make these tired blocks higher-grade homes when it comes to safety is in question. A report a few years ago by Conservative think tank Policy Exchange called for the demolition of high rise social housing blocks. In Create Streets it argued that such dwellings were bad for the health of its residents and suggested that most people do not want to live in them.

If so, then what can be done? In the decades since the mass sell-off of council housing, there has been a repeated failure by successive governments and devolved powers to build sufficient homes for all. And so the attention shifts back to making incremental changes to current housing stock, that may only be superficial and not safety critical.

In the wake of rail disasters in the UK, engineers, among others, helped to turn the rail industry into one that had a laser focus on safety. Now, engineers must help inform and lobby those at the top to do the same for housing. Because having somewhere safe to live should not be a luxury but a basic human right.

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