It will be for a public inquiry to establish what caused the devastating inferno that last week engulfed the high-rise Grenfell Tower in west London, and what must be done to prevent a repeat. It is not yet known what caused the fire, but so far much of the debate about what might have gone so badly wrong to enable the blaze to spread at such speed has focused on the cladding installed around the 24-storey 1970s building as part of a recent refurbishment project. As such, the spotlight has fallen on the role of building regulation guidelines, the "stay put" fire safety advice given to residents, and a series of expert warnings to ministers that fire regulations were not keeping those living in tower blocks safe.
While responsibility for fire safety does not lie with the planning regime, observers agree that the tragedy may have implications for the planning system and planning professionals, both in the short and longer term. More broadly, the disaster has led to calls for reflection on the role of planners in placemaking and raised questions over the policy drive to build at higher densities. "The Grenfell Tower fire is an appalling tragedy and the loss of so many people in such a preventable accident requires the deepest reflection from everyone who works in the built environment," said Hugh Ellis, head of policy at campaign group the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA). "It is going to sharpen our minds on exactly the sort of places we are creating," said Derek Stebbing, a consultant at Intelligent Plans and Examinations and member of the government’s local Plans Expert Group.
According to the Planning Officers Society (POS), building control officers have responsibility for fire safety and means of escape in all tall buildings, as these matters are dealt with under the Building Regulations (Approved Document Part B). POS said that the position of successive governments has been that, where a matter (such as fire safety) is dealt with through another statutory regime (such as building regulations), the planning system should not duplicate or supplement those controls.
Planning documents for the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, which was granted permission in 2014, underline the separate responsibilities of the planning and building control regimes. A planning report on the application for the refurbishment of the tower, "including new external cladding", recommended approval, subject to the discharge of a number of conditions, including a pre-commencement condition requiring "detailed drawings or samples" of materials to be used on the external faces of the building to be provided before work could begin. However, planners’ consideration of the materials focused on their appearance and not their resistance to fire, the documents suggest.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea says that the plans were "fully vetted" by building control, and a completion certificate issued last year. Construction firm Rydon, which completed the refurbishment for the Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, says that the work "met all required building regulations - as well as fire regulation and health & safety standards".
Despite fire safety not falling within the remit of the planning system, the Grenfell fire has already affected planning committee proceedings, according to officers. POS said in a statement that its members have already "seen planning committee councillors up and down the country asking for assurances that a tall building is safe when it is reported to their planning committee". The statement went on to add that developers are already "volunteering to provide additional information regarding fire safety to assure planning committee members, even though it is not within the committee’s remit".
Duncan Bowie, senior lecturer in spatial planning and housing at the University of Westminster, who was previously a principal strategic planner for the mayor of London, said that the fire had raised the question of why we should build tower blocks at all. Bowie said that many councils in the 1970s and 1980s set about demolishing towers and rehousing residents in low and middle-rise housing. But in recent times, he said, successive London mayors and many boroughs have encouraged the development of new high-rise residential blocks. The key driver for mayoral planning policy on high-rise buildings has been their impact on views of or from historic locations, not whether they contribute to meeting London’s priority housing needs, he said.
"The government must update regulations immediately to make it illegal to wrap towers in flammable cladding," Bowie said. "London’s leaders must also review the existing practice of granting planning consent for high-rise buildings which are not compliant with planning policy, in terms of density, bedroom size mix or affordable housing provision," he added.
Stebbing said that high-rise buildings would continue to be a "perfectly valid" way of meeting housing need in urban areas, but added: "We must learn the lessons of what has happened. Some [of those lessons] will affect the way that we plan such developments in the future." The place shaping role of planners means they are uniquely positioned to ensure safe, strong and vibrant communities are created, according to Stebbing. A plethora of expert advice may come in as part of an application, and planners should sometimes "seek to challenge" the advice they are receiving from other professionals in order to "make sure that the community that we create can live happily, safely and securely", he said.
The aftermath of the fire has thrown local issues into sharp focus, including social inequality in the capital’s richest borough, and residents’ anger over regeneration proposals in the area. Earlier this month, the area elected a new Labour MP, Emma Dent-Coad, who has campaigned against gentrification for the last 11 years as a ward councillor. The Grenfell Action Group, whose safety warnings in the run-up to the catastrophe have been well documented, has also voiced concerns over gentrification. "The cladding on Grenfell Tower was intended to pimp it up so that it wouldn’t spoil the image of creeping gentrification that the council are intent on creating, here and throughout the rest of North Kensington," it said in a blog earlier this week.
Ellis said that planning must respond to the sense of anger from communities that believe that their voice is not heard. "Planning must put social justice and equality at its heart, ensuring we strive for diverse and socially mixed communities," he said. "We also need to relearn how to give communities real power over their own future by targeting planning resources to those people in greatest social need. Planning has to be reinvented to understand people’s basic needs and to give them real power and real hope for a better future."