The UK’s building materials watchdog should be re-nationalised to prevent another Grenfell fire tragedy, Sadiq Khan has said.
The Building Research Establishment (BRE) was privatised in 1997 at the tail end of the last Tory government and has been criticised during the inquiry into the deadly blaze at the west London tower block.
The organisation was set up as a national laboratory to test the safety of construction materials like the flammable cladding which was used on the tower – but now operates as a commercial concern.
The Grenfell Inquiry heard in February that “serious concerns” were raised about BRE’s approach in the run-up to the blaze, including by government body the UK Accreditation Service.
Under the UK’s system of self-regulation, building materials can be tested by a number of different private companies, including BRE, which compete with one another for material manufacturers on a commercial basis.
But Tom Copley, London’s deputy mayor for housing, said it was wrong for the system to be driven by profit.
“Immediate steps need to be taken to rectify the failings of the current testing and certification regime which for too long has been driven by profit motives rather than public safety,” he said.
“That is why the Mayor and I are today urging the government to make it a priority to nationalise the British Research Establishment and other testing and accreditation bodies to drive up industry standards and restore public confidence.
“We owe it to the 72 people who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire and their loved ones to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again.”
According to an expert report submitted to the Grenfell Inquiry, “following the privatisation of BRE, the UK no longer nurtures a wide-ranging fundamental fire safety research programme, nor can the government call on any significant depth of in-house fire safety expertise”.
This, report author Luke Bisby, a professor of fire and structures at Edinburgh University said, makes it “harder for government to discriminate between competing advice from industry and other organisational lobbies, and thus more vulnerable to regulatory capture”.
The expert report goes on to quote Peter Field, then a director at the BRE, who was questioned during a House of Commons committee inquiry after an earlier cladding fire at Garnock Court in 1999.
He said at the time: “We are a private sector organisation; we are not part of the government … in days gone by … this work was done and would have been done in the public interest without the need for formal contract. One regrets there are now commercial pressures that require clients to place formal contracts before we can undertake work.”
The Fire Brigades Union is among other organisations to have called for the testing organisations to be taken back into public hands.
In May Matt Wrack, the union’s general secretary, said private ownership of the testing regime had been “a complete disaster” and said “safety has been compromised” as BRE and other organisations have “bowed down to the building material companies which pay its wages”.
BRE says it “welcomes the public scrutiny in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry of the events that led to the tragic fire on the night of 13th June 2017, which rightly aims to ensure that those events can never be repeated”.
“As a core participant in the Inquiry, which examines the materials and circumstances around the refurbishment of the Tower, we continue to assist however we can,” the organisation says, noting that “current and former employees of BRE have already provided evidence to the Inquiry”.
A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “The tragedy of Grenfell must never be allowed to happen again and we are committed to making sure homes across the country are safe.
“This is why we have made fundamental changes to strengthen building regulations to make homes safer – including establishing a new independent Building Safety Regulator, which will provide advice to Government and industry.
“As well as an Independent Review of the Construction Products Testing Regime which is due to report shortly.”