BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

UK public inquiries

The Hackitt review says that some incidents prompt changes in standards, but disasters still recur and issues persist

Author: Vivien King and Jeffrey Tribich

15 September 2019

In all, 72 people died in the fire at Grenfell Tower. This horrific event led to the ongoing public inquiry sought by many at the time. But what action will follow Sir Martin Moore-Bick's report?

Previous property disasters that have led to public inquiries and subsequent recommendations include: the collapse of Ronan Point tower block in east London in 1968 the fire at Summerland leisure centre on the Isle of Man in 1973 the Bradford City FC stadium fire in 1985 the King's Cross St Pancras underground station fire in 1987 Hillsborough football ground crush in Sheffield in 1989.

In her interim report on fire safety and the Building Regulations after Grenfell Tower, Dame Judith Hackitt said that such incidents prompt changes in standards; nevertheless, disasters recur and some issues stubbornly persist. Reasons for this could include, first, a deficient inquiry. This was certainly a criticism of the Ronan Point report, an analysis later vindicated by the forensic demolition of the building itself.

Second, legislation may be changed but not followed. For instance, the Summerland inquiry found locked escapes led to greater loss of life, yet one still hears of locked fire escapes in public buildings, in breach of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

Third, inquiry recommendations may be implemented inadequately or not at all. Half a century after the progressive collapse of Ronan Point, buildings constructed using the same prefabricated concrete panel system still stand, with news reports stating that strengthening works may not have been carried out.

Even where recommendations are put into practice, this can happen slowly: the fire at King's Cross St Pancras in 1987, in which 31 people died, started on a wooden escalator; but it was not until 2013 that the last wooden escalator was removed from the London Underground system.

There have been 68 public inquiries since 1990, costing a total of more than £500m according to the Institute for Government (IfG). This is a huge sum. How public inquiries can lead to change, an IfG report published in December 2017 looks at the three main questions posed by an inquiry.

  • What happened?
  • Who is responsible?
  • What can we learn from this?

The report says much attention is given to the first two questions, 'but it is the third question – of preventing recurrence and identifying lessons that can ... improve institutions, regulations and behaviours – which is arguably of the most significant public interest'.

Yet, with some notable exceptions, 'there is no routine procedure for holding the government to account for promises made in the aftermath of inquiries, the implementation of recommendations is patchy, in some cases repeat incidents have occurred, and there is no system for allowing inquiries to build on the learning of their predecessors.' Action is therefore now required.

"Even where recommendations are put into place, this can happen slowly"

Meanwhile, what of Grenfell Tower? The Hackitt review made comprehensive suggestions to change the existing regulatory system, and the Moore-Bick inquiry has wide-ranging terms of reference, including reviewing the regulatory system. Maybe this combination of independent review and public inquiry – together with the many industry initiatives – will ensure we do have substantive and positive change this time around.

Gary Strong, RICS global building standards director, says: 'We have been working closely with Dame Judith, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and the Home Office, and with the publication of Building a Safer Future: Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Final Report, we are confident that changes will come into force. We remain committed to persuading politicians of the need for change in the public interest.'

Vivien King is a consultant and Jeffrey Tribich is lead health and safety consultant at  Malcolm Hollis vivien.king@malcolmhollis.com jeffrey.tribich@malcolmhollis.com

Related competencies include: Fire safety, Health and safety

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