Explainer: How did inspectors rate flats with fire safety problems as safe?

A firefighter runs upstairs in a burning building.

High-rise blocks of flats were signed off as safe, despite failing to adhere to building regulations. Experts said privatisation of building control had created 'a race to the bottom'. - Credit: gorodenkoff/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A "race to the bottom" means buildings with fire safety defects have been signed off as safe, according to experts.

Building inspections to check whether buildings meet stricter, post-Grenfell rules are finding many did not even meet the older pre-Grenfell standards, let alone the new ones.

Inspectors are finding blocks of flats with no cavity barriers to contain fires and no fire breaks.

Some of them have since been covered with flammable cladding, making them even less safe.

Under the Defective Premises Act 1972, buyers only have six years after the works to seek redress. That means that even though problems are only now emerging, the developer may not legally be held liable for paying for defects. Instead, it is falling to those who bought the flats, the leaseholders, believing they were safe, to foot massive repair bills.

'A race to the bottom'

Dame Judith Hackitt, former head of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), was asked to investigate whether institutional failings enabled the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

She deemed the regulatory system for high-rise buildings “not fit for purpose”.

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The privatisation of building control inspections, which began in 1985 under Margaret Thatcher, had resulted in “a race to the bottom”, she said.

Whereas local councils had previously checked compliance, private firms were now able to competitively tender for the work.

In her report, Dame Judith wrote: “The primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible, rather than to deliver quality homes which are safe for people to live in.”

She said “fear of losing long-term business” deterred firms from highlighting failures end led them to “attract business by offering minimal interventions”.

Dame Judith Hackitt.

Dame Judith Hackitt said privatisation of building control inspections had incentivised inspectors to please developers and deterred them from holding developers to account. - Credit: PA

'The love of money'

In other words, said Trevor Clements, “The poacher can choose his gamekeeper.”

Mr Clements is head of business development for Hertfordshire Building Control, a firm owned by eight Herts councils.

“That brings in commercial pressures,” he continued. “It’s human nature - but it’s not a good thing.”

“When you have a build, you will have a schedule of inspections – and very few of those are statutory,” said his boss, Simon Heywood.

“A lot of less scrupulous developers will actively try to discourage site visits from surveyors.”

Firms eager to secure continuing business will offer low prices and little interference, said chartered surveyor and fire safety expert Arnold Tarling.

“It has been a race to the bottom on fees - and you get what you pay for,” he said.

“The love of money is the root of every kind of evil. If people are looking at the bottom line the whole time, and how much they can rake in, they bend.”

Mr Tarling said he had experienced developers asking him to “bend”.

Dame Judith wrote in her report said the government must end the ability of builders to choose their inspectors.

Loopholes

Another problem, wrote Dame Judith, was developers using “the ambiguity of regulations and guidance to game the system.”

According to the Building Regulations 2010, if there is a change of use – like offices being converted to flats – the building must be "compartmentalised" to stop the spread.

This means cavity barriers and fire stops – non-flammable materials to contain fires – must be put in walls and between floors, and around windows and doors, if they aren’t already there.

Fire crew tackle a large blaze at Great Common Farm, Ilketshall St Andrew near Bungay.Picture: Nic

Post-Grenfell inspections have discovered blocks of flats with no cavity barriers or fire breaks, meaning fires could quickly spread through the buildings. - Credit: Nick Butcher

But if there is no change of use, there is no requirement to fix existing violations.

“There’s no imposition on anybody to make a building any better than it is at the moment,” said Mr Clements, “as long as you’re not making it any worse".

In his opinion, covering it in a flammable cladding would constitute making it worse.

Despite regulations demanding cavity barriers and fire breaks in changes of use, said Mr Tarling, “That's not a stage that the approved inspectors are required to look at. They’re not required to check. It’s on drawings.

“The next problem is that whilst planning drawings are public records, building regulations drawings are not.

“To add to that, in the old days the local authority had all the drawings, but now these things are all over the place. Private companies have them. What happens when the private companies go bust? All the information disappears.”

Mr Heywood said a new Building Safety Bill would soon require “truly independent” building control, with surveyor selections overseen by the HSE.

He said this would “significantly enhance public protection”.

But in the meantime, he added, “I think it’s really important that the public knows what’s going on here. It’s a risk to them. It’s not good enough.”

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