A review on building standards and fire safety commissioned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy has called for the creation of a new authority to oversee the safety of medium- and high-rise blocks of flats as part of package of measures to address a “race to the bottom” on standards.
Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim findings, published in December, said the nation’s existing system was “not fit for purpose” because regulations and guidance were unclear; compliance, enforcement and sanctions were weak; and workers delivering complex projects did not have higher competency requirements than those deployed on simpler schemes.
Hackitt’s just-published final report insisted there was “no need for a new regulator” to deliver her proposed new regime, but called for the creation of a “joint competent authority” that would oversee the construction of blocks of flats that are 10 or more storeys tall, and which she calls “high risk residential buildings (HRRBs)”.
“There is a need for existing regulators to come together and bring their collective expertise and knowledge to bear in a very different way to deliver a stronger and better regime that will benefit everyone,” she said.
The joint competent authority (JCA) would bring together local authority building standards staff, fire and rescue authorities, and the Health and Safety Executive to monitor building standards in so-called HRRBs, ensuring that regulatory oversight is “independent from clients, designers and contractors”, which is not always the case at present. Hackitt is a former chair of the HSE.
Local authority building standards work falls under the remit of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, fire and rescue services come under the Home Office, and the HSE is sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions. But Hackitt’s review said there were “a number of models” that could be drawn from where regulators and departments worked together to oversee major hazards or risks.
“The HSE already works in partnership with a range of other regulators, sometimes in JCA-type arrangements,” she said. “For example the HSE works alongside the Environment Agency in England to oversee control of major accident hazards sites such as chemical processing plants with a central ‘competent authority’ organising regulator interventions.”
She said the JCA should have a “wider and more flexible range of powers” at its disposal to “focus incentives on the creation of reliably safe buildings from the outset”, and levy more serious penalties on those who choose “those who choose to game the system and place residents at risk”.
Her review findings suggested that a combination of “ignorance”, “indifference” and the lack of a system that promoted good practice had helped to “create a cultural issue across the sector, which can be described as a race to the bottom”.
Hackitt said her proposed JCA for flats blocks should be set up to look at such structures across their “entire life cycle” and be operated on a full-cost-recovery model.
Elsewhere, her report on changes required because of the building standards issues exposed by the Grenfell tragedy, in which 72 people died, calls for reviews of building regulations to be carried out “at least every five years”.
The recommendation is likely to be an embarrassment for Conservative ministers who served in the coalition government and subsequent administrations because no building regulations review has been conducted since the last Labour government was in office.
Hackitt’s review also calls for “a more effective balance” between government ownership of building standards and industry ownership of technical guidance. However it says future packages of regulations and guidance must be “simpler to navigate” but genuinely reflect the complexity of building work.
The lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities is another repeated criticism of existing building regulations. Hackitt said ambiguities were “exacerbated by a level of fragmentation within the industry that precluded “robust ownership of accountability”.
However, the review has been widely criticised by some for not calling outright ban on the flammable cladding on the side of the tower, which is thought to have contributed to the blaze having spread so quickly. Flammable insulation and cladding, which has been revealed in post-Grenfell tests, is being removed from hundreds of high-rise buildings in England and Wales, and prime minister Theresa May announced £400m in government funding to pay for the work.
Housing secretary James Brokenshire responded to the review with a statement to MPs in parliament. He described it as a “watershed for everyone who has a stake in people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe and feel safe”.
Brokenshire said the government supported Hackitt’s recommendations and the principles she proposed for a new system of regulation, and that the system should be overseen by a “more effective” regulatory framework. He also announced that the government would consult on banning flammable cladding.
“We agree with the call for greater clarity and accountability over who is responsible for building safety during the construction, refurbishment and ongoing management of high-rise homes,” he said.
“In too many cases, people who should be responsible for fire safety have failed in their duties. In future, the government will ensure that those responsible for a building must demonstrate that they have taken decisive action to reduce building-safety risks, and will be held to account.”
Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire was among the highly critical voices who believe the review does not go far enough. He welcomed the creation of the JCA, but said his organisation was “extremely concerned” that the review had “failed to act on the urgent need to immediately protect life safety through a more detailed programme of simplified and improved regulations, standards and guidance”
Derbyshire said problematic areas included the lack of a recommendation to ban combustible materials in the external wall construction of high rise buildings and no recommendation for the provision of alternative means of escape, such as secondary staircases.