Roundtable: Clearing the confusion

As the sector marks another anniversary of the Grenfell Tower Tragedy, there is still much to do on fire safety…

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…Mark Lawrence talks with industry experts on what steps can be taken to ensure history does not repeat. 

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“MHCLG appears to be very good at answering questions where there is no risk to them – but when it becomes a financial implication to it, they aren’t there.”

Daniel White stoked debate – the heat was on.

“I don’t think that MHCLG wants to clarify the situation. If they clarify things, social landlords will turn around and say, ‘okay, we want extra money then, because I have to do this in a different way.’

“There is a hesitation about putting anything in writing. There is going to be a lot of insinuations but nothing black and white, which is a fundamental problem.”

White, director of Fire Door Compliance Consultants, doesn’t see fire safety as open and shut.

That he should say so at a roundtable over the issue two years on from the Grenfell disaster and a year since the release of the Hackitt review is telling.

The right type of cladding… the right type of fire door… the right prevention components…

The same questions…

As Echelon Consultancy director Aaron John succinctly says, the sector is in “a state of confusion”.

James Shaw, director of property services at Lewisham Homes, expands to call the work social landlords are doing currently “self-determined”.

“We would like to think we are doing everything a good landlord should be,” he says.

“We are doing things others aren’t doing and not doing things others are doing. There is no set way of dealing with these issues. You don’t know if you are missing any tricks.”

Arthur Grady, director of Grady Joinery, says that while “we need a unique solution for fire doors in social housing”, there doesn’t appear to be a solution for what that is.

Andrew Little, partner at Bailey Garner, adds: “That confusion is what is making it very difficult and causing stagnation in many instances due to nervousness in making decisions.

“While there remains ambiguity and a lack of clarity, that will continue to be a frustration.”

This confusion may be compounded by poor communication, but Little warns against over-briefing, saying: “We know that sometimes too much information is dangerous on what is a very sensitive subject.

“It is about getting that balance right and communicating at the right stages. Otherwise you run the risk of scaremongering people.

“That is a real challenge – to achieve that balance.”

Simon Will, project director at Kier Housing Maintenance, agrees communication “needs to be better on how these works will actually improve how they live and how much safer it will make them”.

There was an acknowledgement that many organisations need to get rid of letters and start using social media and other forms of digital communications to get the message out.

But Lucy Witts, head of fire consultancy at Frankham Consultancy, points out that not all aspects of communication need improving:

“The one thing has improved since Grenfell is that if a resident says that something needs to be looked at, it usually gets acted on,” she says.

“It may have happened before, but it is happening much more now.”

But Shaw insists it is not effective communication that is needed, but rather education.

“What you want to do is educate those people about living in those types of buildings,” he says. “I am not sure we got that right. Even a few days after Grenfell we were seeing prams in the lobby.”

And this education extends into housing associations, too.

One of Shaw’s bugbears is the lack of quality going into building inspections. “You can get a housing officer to go out and see a property, and they will see what they see, rather than what they should see,” he says.

“Some organisations are not doing those inspections at all. The standard of the reports when they are doing, are not comprehensive at all.

“If you are a CEO and your block is on the news tomorrow night, how comfortable are you going to feel with what was inspected on and when?”

David Calvert, head of consultancy at Frankham Consultancy, adds: “Housing providers need to look at themselves and say if it is not about the quality and more about the price, what are you doing?

“We are not going to enter a race to the bottom – it has to be focus on quality and not on price.

Claire Kershaw, strategic development director at Kier Housing Maintenance, asked if the sector even had the expertise needed to provide specialists in fire safety. For Shaw and Calvert, it comes down to training.

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David Calvert and Claire Kershaw

But for Witts it’s more than that. “I think that accreditation has to be mandatory because there is still too much room for clients to make those cost saving decisions,” she says.

“It is always about money and not about accreditation. We are still providing them with all these loop holes.”

Calvert warns a lack of accreditation could lead to more ‘cowboys’ entering the market, saying: “You are going to have all sorts of people entering the market, trying to fleece it for as much as they can while there is money in it.

“Are we going to end up in another situation like we did two years ago?”

Talk soon turns back to whether the government should be doing more to ensure quality.

Simon, also part of the government’s Early Adopters group, said Westminster wants to get to a standard “everyone can sign up to”.

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Simon Will

Aaron John agreed, saying: “The government should be setting out a timeline of what it is going to be doing and recommending.

“Contractors will then know what they need to skill up on, procurement will know what they need to look at and what to procure against, and suppliers know what they need to buy.

“Until we know the standards, we are all just going to be doing the best we can do, and we may get it wrong. But at the time, we are doing the best we can.”

One of the big issues on which the panel also agree is getting access to flats and homes.

“We need to remember they are people’s homes and don’t want their lives uprooted,” says Witts.

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Lucy Witts

Calvert agrees, saying they take the approach of wanting to use voids, but adding that it is not always easy. “The answer keeps coming back that they have no voids,” he says. “They do have them, but the turn around to get the rent back in is more important than getting it pulled apart and looked at.

“That one inspection in a property could find a hole that is in every property in the block, for example.

“It is this smarter working that we need to do – build up that building biography.”

The panel agrees that fire safety should be another requirement for voids, much like electrical and gas safety checks.

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But until government issues guidance, little will change.

Education, training, communication, essential works, procurement… It all needs serious work for the sector to make the kind of progress it needs to on fire safety.

But the reasons for a lack of progress all point to the same core issue: confusion. Unless things become clearer, the sector risks sleepwalking into another disaster.

 

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