In the five years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, governments in the UK and across the Asia Pacific have taken action to change how the built environment is regulated, in part due to independent reform reviews in the UK and Australia by Dame Judith Hackitt, Peter Shergold and Bronwyn Weir.
Reflecting on the UK Grenfell Tower inquiry and reform reviews more broadly, a central message has emerged: holistic policy reform and a cultural shift is needed to promote building safety and maintain public confidence that compliant and safe buildings can be delivered and perform to the required standards over time.
Across the UK and the Asia Pacific, the use of combustible building products was swiftly further regulated or prohibited following Grenfell. In more recent years, suites of overarching policy reforms have been introduced in the UK and Australia designed to enhance safety, change behaviours and improve competency.
Spotlight on the UK
In the aftermath of Grenfell, the whole-scale independent review of the UK fire and building safety regime led by Hackitt published its findings on fire safety reform of buildings in the UK. The findings were accepted in full by the UK Government, leading to the development and implementation of the Building Safety Act 2022 (BSA) and Fire Safety Act 2021 (FSA), among other related reform initiatives.
The BSA has the objective of securing the safety of people and improving the standard of buildings. Although it became an Act of the UK Parliament at the end of April 2022, the majority of the BSA provisions will gradually be brought into force over the next 18 months. The legislation is complex, covers a wide area and is designed to be supplemented with secondary legislation introduced over this time.
The BSA introduces a new regime for building regulation and safety overseen by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). A new Building Safety Regulator will operate within the HSE to assess developments. The provisions of the BSA apply to the built environment industry and building owners, including participants in the design and construction process. In this regard, the BSA focuses on providing clear roles and accountabilities for the individuals and organisations involved in the procurement, design, construction and ongoing maintenance of buildings.
Under the BSA and related legislation three mandatory hard-stops applicable to ‘higher-risk buildings’ have been introduced, referred to as ‘gateways’, which relate to the planning, pre-construction and post/final completion stages. ‘Higher-risk buildings’ are defined as those that are over 18m tall or have at least seven storeys. Other changes introduced by the BSA include the imposition of building safety duties to certain individuals and extending limitation periods to pursue claims under the Defective Premises Act.
The FSA, which sits alongside the BSA, clarifies the scope of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 by providing greater certainty that external walls, balconies, windows and flat entrance doors within multi-occupied residential buildings of all heights fall within the scope of existing fire safety legislation. It follows that ‘Responsible Persons’ (and fire risk assessors acting on their behalf) under the legislation must consider these building parts when conducting fire-risk assessments, if they have not been covered already.
Spotlight on Australia
In Australia, potential safety issues arising from the use of combustible building products on the external walls of muti-storey buildings became apparent in late 2014, when a fire fuelled by aluminium composite panels rapidly escalated across the external facade of the Lacrosse Tower in Docklands, Victoria. The fire at Grenfell, however, was a further catalyst for prompt action to further regulate the use of combustible building products, clarify fire safety regulations and improve regulatory processes.
The power to regulate the built environment in Australia largely sits with the state and territory governments. Each jurisdiction is responsible for licensing building practitioners and regulating building and construction activities, which is in part achieved through the adoption and promotion of a performance-based nationally consistent National Construction Code (NCC).
The fire performance regime in the NCC has undergone significant staged reforms since 2016, including the repeal of provisions that historically permitted the use of combustible building products as finishes, linings or attachments to external walls provided certain conditions were met, clarifications regarding when timber framing is permitted in low-rise buildings, requirements for obtaining fire engineering assessments for certain forms of approvals and new processes for developing and documenting compliance with the NCC.
While amendments to the NCC continue to be adopted as law by all Australian jurisdictions, other policy and regulatory responses have taken shape in various forms and degrees across the jurisdictions:
- The majority of the jurisdictions have introduced legislation to further regulate the use of building products and prohibit the use of highly combustible external wall cladding products. Various measures have also been implemented across the jurisdictions with a view to ensuring the safe occupation of existing buildings and maintaining public confidence in the building and construction industry including programmes to identify and audit buildings with combustible exterior wall cladding, rectification programmes and increased building compliance and enforcement action.
- In New South Wales, a suite of legislation has been introduced with the aim of increasing protections to building owners and improving quality and compliance of construction work. Owners of buildings with defects now benefit from a statutory duty of care held by a person who carries out ‘construction work’ that applies to new buildings and some existing buildings. The New South Wales Building Commissioner has also been given the power to stop occupation certificates from being issued, order developers to rectify defective buildings and issue stop work orders, among other legislative changes.
- The 24 key recommendations of Shergold and Weir arising out of independent reform reviews across the jurisdictions, which are focused on addressing systemic issues in the Australian construction industry and enhancing regulatory frameworks, have received general support. While efforts of the jurisdictions remain publicly focused on progressing policy reforms in this space, the widespread implementation of the recommendations across the jurisdictions has been fragmented and delayed.
Spotlight on Asia
Attention directed towards reforming fire safety legislation post-Grenfell has varied across jurisdictions in Asia.
Singapore implemented comprehensive reforms following a fire at an eight-storey building in May 2017, one month prior to the Grenfell tragedy, which resulted in a fatality. Investigations revealed that aluminium composite panels were used on the external walls of the building, contributing to the spread of the fire. The incident triggered an extensive audit of non-compliant cladding on buildings across Singapore.
The first step in a line of reforms involved the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), Singapore’s regulatory body that administers its Fire Safety Act, issuing a circular advisory on the use of cladding on external walls of buildings. Legislative amendments to Singapore’s Fire Safety Act followed in 2020, strengthening the SCDF’s regulatory and enforcement powers and clarifying regulatory processes and requirements for the industry.
Other key developments in Singapore include the formation of a Cladding Regulatory Regime Review Advisory Panel to support the review of existing fire safety regulations and the release four key recommendations by the SCDF to improve the current usage and approval of composite panels. An updated edition of Singapore’s Code of Practice for Fire Precautions in Buildings took effect in 2019 and was largely shaped by the industry’s practices and experiences through feedback gathered at consultation sessions, seminars and meetings with other industry professionals.
Development of fire safety legislation in China and Hong Kong has been more limited. Hong Kong has established a legislative regime which rests on the British Standards, which provides guidance on fire safety management, to establish the compliance of building products. In China, fire safety and the use of combustible building products is already regulated by the Fire Protection Law and there have been no significant developments post-Grenfell.
Five years on from the Grenfell tragedy, significant effort continues to be directed across the UK and the Asia Pacific to make changes for the better. As part of this ongoing process, fire engineering, fire services and emergency management have undoubtedly emerged as disciplines that remain critical throughout the project lifecycle to ensure the safety of buildings and occupants.
It remains to be seen whether the ongoing wide-ranging legislative action will achieve the key objective of holistically reforming the existing frameworks and driving significant cultural change across the building and construction industry. Continued dialogue and education will no doubt continue to play a pivotal role in successfully achieving that outcome.
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