I remember waking up early on the 14 June 2017 to go through my normal prepare-for-work routine that includes preparing coffee as I watch the BBC news. The first image I saw that day was an entire high rise building totally engulfed in flames the extent of which I had thought, until that moment, was not even possible. That was the Grenfell Tower fire in London in which 71 people died, many lost their homes and many more lives have been affected. This tragic fire led the UK Government to commission a report titled Building a Safer Future Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety (Hackitt Report). Lead by Dame Judith Hackitt and following the publication of an Interim Report in December 2017, the final Hackitt Report was published in May 2018 with a particular emphasis on higher risk residential buildings i.e. 10 storeys or more in height (view the report).

The opening statement of the executive summary bluntly states ‘The interim report identified that the current system of building regulations and fire safety is not fit for purpose and that a culture change is required to support the delivery of buildings that are safe, both now and in the future.’ This statement is made in the context of a country (the UK) that has decades of building regulation experience and expertise, regulation that is often considered as something to look up to for guidance and not in the ‘not fit for purpose’ category.

Now, let us stop for a moment to digest this opening statement and consider its applicability to Malta. Within any building industry there needs to be two broad regulatory systems in place, a town planning system that helps decide what a country needs gets built in the right place and a building regulation system that sets out minimum performance standards for the design and construction of buildings. In Malta, we have a broadly functioning town planning system in place but no building regulations. We also have a handful of buildings that can be considered as high-rise with many others wiggling their way through the town planning system. Within this context, some questions that come to mind include:

  • Is it right for our town planning system to be promoting high rise buildings in the absence of corresponding building regulations?

  • In the absence of building regulations what common standards will these high rise buildings be designed and built to?

  • Who will enforce these standards?

  • Are the Maltese fire authorities equipped to deal with fire incidents in high rise buildings?

  • Are the necessary skills available ‘on the ground’ to safely maintain such buildings?

If the Grenfell tragedy can happen in such a mature building regulation system such as the one in the UK, the minimum the Maltese building industry can do is learn from the lessons of the Hackitt Report and proceed with caution … while remembering that fire safety is just one of a multitude of things that need to be carefully considered and integrated in these complex buildings.