The current system is not fit for purpose. The Grenfell tragedy, climate emergency and covid-19 are three compelling reasons why we must do better, says Julia Park

Julia Park

The government’s failure to tighten building regulations in the wake of earlier fires, revealed at the Grenfell inquiry last week, was shocking but not surprising. The policy of deregulation that began in 2010 under the coalition government was partly idealistic (the return of neo-liberalism) and partly the desire to “remove barriers” to boost housebuilding in the wake of the 2007-08 global financial crash.

Construction had almost ground to a standstill and recovery was worryingly slow. Dubbed “cutting red tape”, a deregulatory agenda was pursued aggressively.

Among other things it led directly to the demise of the Code for Sustainable Homes and the overnight abolition of the housing quality indicators (the former Homes and Communities Agency’s funding standards).

Over the next five years I had two secondments to the building regulations department of what was then the DCLG to assist with the housing standards review – all part of the cost-cutting. I came in one day to find that  “one-in, two-out” (a mantra that required any additional cost imposed on developers through new regulation to be matched by savings worth at least twice as much somewhere else) had been changed to “one-in, three-out”. It was a calculated and aggressive constraint on doing the right thing at a time when most design professionals were already concerned about the quality of new homes.

Those of you who have wrestled with Approved Document B will know that flats are not in Volume 1: Dwellinghouses but in Volume 2: Buildings other than Dwellinghouses – a term not used by the housing sector. You will also know how complicated it is, and that, having battled your way to what looks like the end, you are confronted by a list of almost 100 other documents to take account of.

All but two are British Standards. Their status is ambiguous, and they are long and expensive – some cost over £300. Add to that the guidance produced by the LABC, the National Fire Chiefs Council and others and it is little wonder that, on all but the smallest schemes, most architects now routinely rely on the advice of a fire consultant.

The fire at Grenfell Tower happened despite the thousands of pages of guidance which the construction industry is expected to deal with. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that the amount of guidance contributed to some of the failures.

Local planning policy guidance often runs to over a thousand pages too. And the remits of planning and building control increasingly overlap. Environmental sustainability is a case in point. And yet there are still basic gaps.

Orientation (ensuring that principal façades face south where possible) and keeping the building envelope simple (avoiding overhangs, undercrofts and inset balconies etc) are two of the most effective ways to save energy.

Who decided that the maximum distance between a flat entrance and the door to the communal bin store needed to be regulated, but daylight, air quality and external noise could be left to planners?

We need to have these principles in mind from the first sketch we make, and yet, neither planning policy nor building regs mentions either. The consultants we need to work with on these complex issues are often not appointed until planning permission has been secured – and neither are the building control officers. We know why this is, but it is a problem in single-stage design and build, and not easy with MMC.

If there was a logic, it is hard to see it now. Who decided that the maximum distance between a flat entrance and the door to the communal bin store needed to be regulated, but daylight, air quality and external noise could be left to planners who may or may not have the expertise to formulate a robust policy, or the skills to assess the proposals? Why is internal space tested by planners, but accessibility assessed by building control?

The role of building regulations was, and largely still is, about keeping people physically safe in and around buildings. So why deal with soundproofing? As far as I know, no one has ever suffered physical ill-health because of noisy neighbours, though resorting to physical violence is not unheard of.

Perhaps it is regulated because the source of the harm is beyond your control? But so are daylight and space – a tiny home built without daylight remains perfectly legal unless, of course, it has been created through permitted development rights. And, surely, it is time to recognise the importance of mental health?

Whichever way you look at it the current system is not fit for purpose. Grenfell, the climate emergency and covid-19 are three compelling reasons to re-think the rule book.

A small group of experienced, enlightened, and ideally, politically-neutral professionals need to go into a darkened room for a year and emerge with a proposition. Nothing should be off the table.

Planning should remain a democratic process and all rules should be outcome-focused and easy to understand

My hunch is that planning should remain a democratic process and all rules should be outcome-focused and easy to understand. In no particular order, here are a few suggestions:

  • Separate the rules for different building types to ensure that users are only reading relevant material. Begin with housing because that is the most common building type.
  • Focus on sustainability (operational and embodied carbon) and wellbeing (physical and mental).
  • Consider procurement and ensure that the reviewing processes are relevant to all forms of construction.
  • Treat planning and building control as two parts of a single process. Decide what needs to be regulated and what should be policy and accept that some topics need elements of both.
  • Consider how many checks are needed. Typically, it might be three: stage 1 would be a version of outline planning/permission in principle, stage 2 planning+ and stage 3 the technical issues.
  • Sort out the themes or attributes that need to be scrutinised at each stage (some might need consideration at every stage) and define some key objectives before diving into the detailed requirements.
  • Require planners and building control officers (not approved inspectors) to work together in development control teams and obtain joint sign-off at every stage and on completion.
  • Use plain English and much better diagrams and ensure that regulation and guidance are continuously reviewed and updated at least every five years.

Meanwhile, the Grenfell Inquiry continues. The time that it is taking to uncover what went wrong is proof of a broken system.

It feels inevitable that the building control department within what is now the DLUHC (not sure that acronym will ever stick) will face some difficult questions in the coming months. Their only crime may be executing the cutting of the red tape on the instruction of ministers who have probably never even erected a garden shed.