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Banning combustible cladding won’t solve fire risks alone

Mark Varley

Last month, housing secretary James Brokenshire announced a ban on combustible cladding on all new residential buildings above 18 metres.

It is a move that chimes with public opinion and responds to calls from sector experts including the likes of RIBA.

The debate continues about if and how the ban should be extended. But Dame Hackitt was clear in her report on building safety that focusing too closely on specific materials illustrates the ‘siloed thinking’ that is part of the problem. It exposes how the basic intent of fire safety has been lost in our sector. Yet at times the cladding debate has overshadowed her important set of recommendations for the future of building safety.

Design, build and record-keeping

Under the Hackitt report, there will be broad changes to the way we commission, design, and plan new developments. Serious consideration needs to be given to how we implement better documentation, effective traceability of systems and products – the ‘golden thread’ – and ensure a robust and transparent safety case for buildings.

The way that we manage and change buildings is critical too. Contractors need to be meticulous about record-keeping and should work in partnership with the building duty-holder for fire safety.

Ultimately, there are an indeterminate number of people who will interact with a building over its lifespan, from developers and their contractors to residents and workpeople. This is why Dame Hackitt wants to see a change in mindset and behaviour from everyone involved.

Behavioural change

It won’t come as a surprise that most fires in shared residential buildings start in individual properties. So a key question is how to encourage residents to work with property management or to adapt their behaviour.

“Six months on from the publication of Dame Hackitt’s report, we’re still in the dark about how exactly this new role should be exercised”

Good operators will already clamp down on unsafe practices in communal areas and give guidance to residents on how their own contractors should work. But more than ever, property managers must provide a point of connection between those who develop buildings and those who occupy them.

They will need to explain residents’ responsibilities and how to meet them, but also their rights and the building’s safety strategy. FirstPort’s work with residents will rightly form part of the overall safety case that duty-holders will need to present to the new Joint Competent Authority as set out by Dame Hackitt.

Going beyond the front door

But a comprehensive approach to building safety means taking a whole-building approach – duty-holders will also need to mandate minimum standards in residents’ homes. We will be required to access individual properties to assess fire risk, so trust and transparency with residents is crucial.

Yet six months on from the publication of Dame Hackitt’s report, we’re still in the dark about how exactly this new role should be exercised. It’s likely to require significant changes to legislation.

This is a clearly sensitive subject and one that has the potential to be more controversial than a ban to specific building materials. An industry colleague recently remarked that “a leasehold castle is a castle nonetheless”.

But if we are to adopt Dame Hackitt’s recommendations meaningfully, we’ll need to find a balance between the rights and responsibilities of residents and duty-holders alike.

Mark Varley is head of health and safety at residential property manager FirstPort

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