What it’s like to be appointed Director of Building Safety during the Grenfell inquiry
The 2017 Grenfell tragedy has shone a much-needed spotlight on building safety. Suzanne Horsley, our Director of building safety, speaks on her appointment
I have been following the inquiry with a mixture of shock, anger and, let’s face it, shame. How could we, the housing sector, have let this happen? How could important details be so easily overlooked? The inquiry is far from over but already there are clear lessons for all of us, especially in the housing sector.
My appointment in May as Southern Housing Group’s first dedicated director for building safety is, of course, a great privilege. I have worked as part of the team at Southern Housing group for four years and in housing for over 17 years. It’s great to work for a business that really does put the safety and well-being of its people, residents and staff, first.
Of course, the role is quite stressful. Fortunately, I have been immersed in the issues associated with fire safety, inspections, compliance and remediation programmes for a while. The pressure is knowing that getting the job done and getting it right is so important. I know how many people have become totally despondent over the complexity, the delays and, of course, the costs.
Inevitably, Covid-19 is an issue. It’s important is not to let this overshadow the enormous challenge of ensuring that people’s homes are up to scratch. Over the past three months, I’ve had to get up to speed on contractual issues, emerging legislation and the labyrinths of leasehold and other tenures.
What makes this role tricky is the number of stakeholders, each with their own interests. For starters there are contractors, architects, building owners, principal designers, developers, Resident Associations, and political representatives that all need to be kept in the loop. It’s essential that residents know what’s going on too.
But, when there are many voices in the room, managing expectations can be challenging. ‘Just cos you shout loudest don’t mean that you’re right’ is a line from a song I’ve found myself listening more to recently. Although I’m sure the songwriter didn’t have building safety in mind at the time, it’s a reminder that those who are making the most noise aren’t always the ones who most need your attention.
I think one of my observations at this stage is that perhaps in past times, to help meet all of those expectations, compromises were made. What is recognised now is building safety issues do not stand up well to compromises.
The cladding remediation process has highlighted this perfectly. Leaseholders up and down the country are understandably frustrated at the progress being made. It is simply not clear to them why building owners cannot arrange for someone to come on site the next day and have the work completed in a week. My sense is that we all know why things have not improved more quickly and much of the explanation makes uncomfortable reading.
I was glad to see several MPs speak out in parliament recently. The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it and I was reassured to hear that the government has met with the insurance industry about speeding up some aspects, for example around the EWS1 forms, which I know has affected some of our own residents.
My focus is on action. It’s the only way to re-establish trust, which I do think the sector has lost in some respects. It’s about refusing to repeat past mistakes and demonstrating that we can be quick to act. I feel like I have both the best job and the scariest job – and, thanks to the wonderful team here, who give it their all, day in, day out, I am loving it. I’m really proud to be devoting my time to the safety of over 72,000 Southern Housing Group residents. The responsibility can seem a little daunting, but the job satisfaction is awesome.