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Grenfell: a human and regulatory disaster

Posted on 5 September 2017

Grenfell: a human and regulatory disaster

The Grenfell Tower tragedy occurred some three months ago.  There is a complex interaction between the various parties involved in this horrific tragedy, including the local authority, politicians and the companies associated with manufacturing the cladding and the day-to-day operation of the tower.  This complexity may make it difficult to determine who is accountable. 

The crossover between the different regulatory bodies is likely to form a critical element of the government's public inquiry into this disaster, in order to prevent a similar tragedy happening again.   As part of this, it is important to understand the difference between the regulatory regimes relating to planning and building.

Planning regulations seek to guide development, i.e. what land is used for, the appearance of buildings and the impact of development on the landscape. 

Building regulations set minimum standards for how buildings are designed and built, to make sure they are safe.

Fire safety and means of escape from buildings fall within the domain of building regulations, not the planning regime.

The January 2014 planning consent for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower (which included new external cladding) contained a condition requiring details of the cladding materials to be approved before the cladding works could begin. 

The reason stated for this condition was to accord with planning policy, by ensuring that the character and appearance of the area be preserved, and living conditions of those residing near the development suitably protected. 

While this condition was discharged as part of the planning process, it is not the planning authority's responsibility to ensure that the condition as discharged satisfies building regulations.  This falls within the remit of the building control body, which is responsible for ensuring that works have been approved and carried out in accordance with the relevant building regulations.

By its nature, development has to comply with both these regimes.  Despite the separation of responsibilities, it is likely that matters currently the exclusive domain of building regulations may now be considered more holistically by applicants, planning officers and local politicians as part of the development planning process, in order to raise awareness and accountability.

Equally, the government's emphasis on relaxing planning regulations to remove red tape seen as "barriers to growth" (including an increase in permitted development rights), may now be counter-balanced by a greater emphasis on higher standards of building regulations, to enable such growth to be delivered safely.

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