FIREX 2019

After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress

Editor, IFSEC Global

Author Bio ▼

Adam Bannister was Editor of IFSEC Global from 2014 through to November 2019. Adam is also a former Managing Editor at Dynamis Online Media Group.
June 19, 2019

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FIREX 2019 kicked off with a forceful attack on the government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in 2017.

Opening the FPA Infozone on day one of FIREX 2019, Jonathan O’Neill OBE, MD of the Fire Protection Association (FPA), told a packed theatre that policy had been “made on hoof”.

O’Neill – a fixture on our influencers list and a judge for the 2019 rankings – discussed the ‘implications for fire safety and future regulations’ post-Grenfell and said the Conservative government had been found wanting.

Two years on from the worst residential fire in living memory O’Neill was particularly scathing about the role played by James Brokenshire. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government had, he explained, “ducked the issue of regulatory change”.

Had the tragedy happened elsewhere in the world, he suggested, there would probably have been an immediate review of building regulations.

Some might be incredulous at that assertion, believing that a review had actually been promptly announced. However, Dame Judith Hackitt, who  chaired the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, was tasked to examine the system as a whole rather than the composition of the regulations – called Approved Document B – themselves. Therefore some criticism levelled at the former head of the HSE was unfair since her remit had imposed constraints, suggested O’Neill.

It’s widely felt that Brexit is consuming Whitehall and drowning out other policy areas – even a first-order priority like Grenfell

It’s widely felt that Brexit is consuming Whitehall and drowning out other policy areas – even a first-order priority like Grenfell, as O’Neill conceded.

But Brexit cannot be blamed for the fact there hasn’t been a review of building regulations for over 12 years – during which time building design, methods and materials of construction have changed considerably.

So concerned was the FPA about the lack of an update to building regulations that it wrote its own guidance in 2015.

Why the inaction over regulations and various deficiencies in fire safety culture? Complacency, exacerbated by a decade of austerity, suggested O’Neill.

Fire deaths had fallen sharply in the five years leading up to Grenfell. This trend, which O’Neill hailed as “nothing less than spectacular,” was, among other things, driven by changes in furniture regulations, community safety campaigns led by fire services, wider adoption of smoke detectors and investment in advertising campaigns.

However, swingeing public sector cuts had reduced resources available to educate the public and responsible persons and led to cuts in numbers  of firefighters and fire station closures.

Grenfell Inquiry

But some progress has been made – albeit not by politicians. If some government ministers had fallen short, they had at least appointed some impressive people to the task of revamping fire safety.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick, who is chairing the Grenfell Inquiry, is an impressive character, according to O’Neill, and determined to identify the myriad shortcomings that caused and exacerbated the tragedy at Grenfell. Expect hard-hitting conclusions to the inquiry, he said.

O’Neill recommended a “fresh eye” review into the appropriateness of building regulations as they stand. He said any updated document and related guidance should consider both the building’s external envelope and its resilience to fire ingress. The regulations should also consider property protection and resilience as well as life safety.

Fire protection and safety remains a less mature discipline than engineering, he said. As it stands regulations are not fit for purpose and too complex.

“Few would disagree that enforcement and building control are broken,” said O’Neill. The dual system of building control had driven talented people out of the profession.

And test standards too often do not reflect real life variables, he added, and needed revisiting.

Arson should be afforded more attention and methods of construction need examination, given that the range of combustible materials being used in construction has widened considerably.

O’Neill said the ban on combustible cladding should be extended to all high-risk buildings, not just on buildings over 18 metres high.

He also wanted to see a ban on single staircase evacuation, since in the event of a fire you need a staircase for evacuation and a second staircase up which fire and rescue services can ascend the building.

It’s “crystal clear” you can never predict how fire will behave, said O’Neill. In light of this, HMOs and tower blocks urgently needed the latest fire systems designed for multi-tenant residential buildings – and responsible persons cannot afford to wait for regulations to catch up. There were many such technologies at FIREX, noted O’Neill (including from C-TEC).


But better regulations are not enough if those tasked with adhering to them are not appropriately qualified and conscientious.

Thankfully there is a “readymade” solution to the competence problem, said O’Neill: third party certification. It’s by far the simplest way to assure competence, he said – “a no-brainer.”

He cited fire alarm detector systems as an example of how this approach could remedy a longstanding problem. The number of false alarms had held steady at an unsustainable 150,000 a year over five years. If BRAC saw solid evidence that third-party certification can bring that number down, it will act. Third party certification is “pushing against an open door”, he said.

BRAC – the Building Regulations Advisory Committee – advises the secretary of state in England on making building regulations and setting standards for the design and construction of buildings.

O’Neill said the case for installing sprinklers in all tall buildings was now unanswerable. The argument was even more compelling following smoke toxicity research undertaken by Lancashire University.

O’Neill expressed incredulity that tower blocks resembling Grenfell Tower in every way save for cladding were still being erected within sight of the Grenfell building, which stands as a rebuke to the hubris of a government that considered fire safety a problem solved.

When will the government wake up and implement the sorely needed changes, wondered O’Neill?


The Future of Fire Safety: download the eBook

Is the fire protection industry adapting to the post-Grenfell reality fast enough? At FIREX International 2019, Europe's only dedicated fire safety event, some of the world's leading fire safety experts covered this theme. This eBook covers the key insights from those discussions on the developments shaping the profession, with topics including:

  • Grenfell Inquiry must yield “bedrock change” – and soon
  • After Grenfell: Jonathan O’Neill OBE on how austerity and policy “on the hoof” are hampering progress
  • Hackitt’s Golden Thread: Fire, facilities and building safety
  • Fire safety community has to “get on board” with technological changes

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