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We would starve to death if campaigners wrote safety laws, Grenfell inquiry told

Senior civil servant Brian Martin told the inquiry “we’d all starve to death” because of the costs of meeting the regulations on “UK plc”.

22 March 2022

We would all “starve to death” if writing regulations was left to someone who had safety as an “absolute priority”, a senior civil servant has told the Grenfell inquiry.

Brian Martin, who had been in charge of building regulations for fire safety for 17 years by the time of the blaze, which killed 72 people on June 14 2017, told the inquiry the country would go bankrupt from the costs of meeting the regulations.

In the wake of the 2008 recession, then-prime minister David Cameron’s coalition Government created an open call for suggestions on how to cut building regulations, the inquiry was told.

In a witness statement to the inquiry, Bob Ledsome, who works for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said former buildings regulations minister Andrew Stunell announced the review, which had a “particular focus on deregulation and streamlining of the technical and procedural aspects of the regulations”, in December 2010.

Grenfell Tower inquiry
The inquiry heard that in the wake of the 2008 recession, David Cameron’s coalition government created an open call for suggestions on how to cut building regulations (PA)

Mr Ledsome said the announcement led to a 2011-2013 review of building regulations, which was aimed at identifying “quick wins” for deregulation.

Mr Martin agreed the goal was to find “quick wins”.

“Yes, the Government came in following the financial crisis that started in 2008 and their focus was on trying to stimulate the economy by reducing the impact of regulation,” he said.

Mr Martin said the review covered all areas of building regulations and approved documents, including Approved Document B (ADB), which dealt with fire safety regulations.

“The objective was to reduce the economic burden of regulation on industry as a way of stimulating the economy following the financial crisis,” he said.

The inquiry was shown an October 2010 e-mail exchange about electrical safety regulations, known as Part P of the building regulations. In it, Mr Martin said there were two sides to regulation.

“On the one side, there is the desire to reduce regulatory burden,” he wrote, adding: “On the other side, we have NICEIC (National Inspection Council for Electrical Installation Contracting) and other electrical safety calling for Part P to be made more onerous.”

Mr Martin added in the e-mail that giving electrical safety campaigners control over electrical safety regulations “would be a bit like letting Ronnie King write ADB!”

Ronnie King is a former fire chief and fire safety campaigner who has sat on the All-Party Parliamentary Fire Safety and Rescue Group since September 2010. He is also the vice chairman of the National Fire Sprinkler Network.

Mr Martin continued: “It would save the Department the costs of drafting the AD (approved document) but that isn’t necessarily in the best interests of UK plc!”

He clarified to the inquiry that UK plc referred to “the success or otherwise of the national economy”.

The inquiry was told the review’s responses in relation to fire safety “focused on sprinklers”, with submissions advocating that they be required in all buildings.

Richard Millett QC, lead counsel for the inquiry, asked Mr Martin to clarify what he meant by his statement in the e-mail.

“Is this right? That the interests, as you put it, of the national economy would not be served by Ronnie King as draughtsman because he would have public safety, perhaps, in particular, sprinklers, as a priority, rather than the interests of UK plc?” he asked.

Mr Martin said safety policies have to balance the costs and benefits of different options.

“If you ignore one of those two balances, you don’t have a balanced policy – you have something which one might argue is too expensive,” he said.

He was asked if his point was that it was undesirable to let someone who had the absolute priority of fire safety write the fire regulations.

“If it was absolute and they never considered cost, yes,” he said.

Asked why that would be wrong, Mr Martin replied: “The country would be bankrupt. We’d all starve to death, ultimately, I suppose, if you took it to its extreme.

“I am not sure if that would happen in practice but that is the policy conundrum that governments are faced with – that you need to balance the cost of regulation with its benefits.”

Mr Millett asked Mr Martin if the Government’s choice was between “death by fire or death by starvation”?

He said: “I don’t think anyone talked about it in those terms but that’s the principle, and finding the right balance is what governments have to do.”

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