Adam Bannister

Editor, IFSEC Global

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Adam Bannister is editor of IFSEC Global. A former managing editor at Dynamis Online Media Group, he has been at the helm of the UK's leading fire and security publication since 2014.
December 18, 2017

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"Not fit for purpose"

Hackitt interim report: 5 observations that prompted call for a “universal shift in culture”

The building regulations are “not fit for purpose”, according to a review that found that Approved Document B – the document setting out the regulations – encourages cost-cutting.

Set up in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 71 people in June, Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report says that “the current overall system is not working effectively and needs to be overhauled.”

Chair of the review Dame Hackitt said a “universal shift in culture” was required to rebuild trust with residents of high-rise buildings.

The news will be welcomed by the Fire Sector Federation, which has called for a revamp of the regulations.

The interim report has highlighted several major shortcomings in regulation and other areas affecting fire safety that will shape the more detailed recommendations set out in the final report, scheduled for release some time in Spring 2018.

1. Privatisation of building control has created conflicts of interest

The interim report expressed concern about increasing privatisation of the building inspection regime. “There are notable concerns also that third-party inspections are open to abuse given the potential conflict of interests, with growing levels of mutual dependence between developers and contracted inspectors,” said the report, which also highlighted the loss of expertise in building control.

2. Regulations encourage cost-cutting

The renovation of Grenfell Tower was scaled back due to limits imposed by government on council borrowing for housing, documents that emerged in the wake of the fire suggested.

Hackitt said in the interim report: “It has become clear that the whole system of regulation, covering what is written down and the way in which it is enacted in practice, is not fit for purpose, leaving room for those who want to take shortcuts to do so.”

“I have been shocked by some of the practices I have heard about and I am convinced of the need for a new intelligent system of regulation and enforcement for high-rise and complex buildings.” Dame Judith Hackitt Interim Report

The former Chair of the Health and Safety Executive said nothing short of a brand-new regulatory regime was needed to remedy the problems. “I have been shocked by some of the practices I have heard about and I am convinced of the need for a new intelligent system of regulation and enforcement for high-rise and complex buildings which will encourage everyone to do the right thing and will hold to account those who try to cut corners,” she said in the report.

3. Regulations are undermined by confusing profusion of guidance

The effectiveness of building regulations is undermined by a lack of clarity and the regulations are undermined by a profusion of guidance, Hackitt believes.

“The regulations themselves are pretty simple but what sits below the building regulations is a whole series of guidance documents which stacked on top of one another would be about 2ft high,” she said.

The report said that “key definitions are unclear; for example, ‘high rise’, ‘persons carrying out the work’, ‘limited combustibility’ and ‘material alteration’, leaving too much open to interpretation.”

4. Both government and all industry stakeholders must play a part in preventing further tragedies

Dame Judith has also urged all parties – including the construction industry, building owners, regulators and government – to collaborate to remedy the many problems identified.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme she said that both the regulations and the people enforcing them must take a share of the responsibility for shortcomings in fire safety in the built environment. “When regulations are complex it makes it quite difficult for people to penetrate that complexity to truly understand what they are required to do,” she said.

“There are issues of competence to be addressed as part of this.”

5. Residents’ concerns must be heard, responded to and, where justified, acted on

In a prescient 2016 blog post the Grenfell Action Group warned that: “The Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the  KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

And two years before the fire Grenfell Tower residents had complained that the refurbishment had been done “using cheap materials” and that developers had “cut corners”. They also claimed that  the Conservative-led Kensington and Chelsea Council that owned the building had done nothing to address the concerns raised.

The Hackitt report has recommended that residents should have a clear, quick and effective route for communicating their concerns and that they should be responded to and addressed promptly.

Dame Judith Hackitt’s overview

“The mindset of doing things as cheaply as possible and passing on responsibility for problems and shortcomings of others must stop,” Hackitt wrote in the report’s foreword.

“The current system is highly complex and there is confusion about the roles and responsibilities at each stage” Dame Judith Hackitt

Elsewhere in the report she has “found that the regulatory system for safely designing, constructing and managing buildings is not fit for purpose. The current system is highly complex and there is confusion about the roles and responsibilities at each stage. In many areas there is a lack of competence and accreditation.

“While this does not mean all buildings are unsafe, it does mean we need to build a more effective system for the future. That is why I am today calling for the construction industry, building owners, regulators and government to come together to identify how to overcome these shortcomings together.”

What’s next?

Hackitt said the next phase of her review – with the final report published some time in Spring 2018 – would focus on “overhauling [the regulations] in quite a significant way”.

She added: “The regulations themselves are pretty simple but what sits below the building regulations is a whole series of guidance documents which stacked on top of one another would be about 2ft high … There is clearly an opportunity to make that much simpler and to guide people to the right answer.”

Unsurprisingly, the recommendations will cover sprinklers, which are not mandatory in high rise buildings, and cladding, examples of which  Alarm systems and escape routes will be among the other facets of fire safety under consideration.

She said: “I’ve talked to over 300 people. Overwhelmingly the view that has been expressed to me is that this system needs improving, and it needs greater clarity, and I’m hopeful that’s what I’m going to bring to the system.

“The quicker we can get some [improvements] in place, the sooner we can build that level of reassurance that residents of high-rise buildings absolutely deserve.”

The interim report sets out six broad areas for change:

  • ensuring that regulation and guidance is risk-based, proportionate and unambiguous
  • clarifying roles and responsibilities for ensuring that buildings are safe
  • improving levels of competence within the industry
  • improving the process, compliance and enforcement of regulations
  • creating a clear, quick and effective route for residents’ voices to be heard and listened to
  • improving testing, marketing and quality assurance of products used in construction

About the review

The Review was commissioned in July 2017 and the terms of reference were published in August 2017.

Dame Judith Hackitt received more than 250 responses to her call for evidence. She also held a series of a series of bi-lateral discussions and round-table discussions with industry representatives, professional bodies, tenants and landlords organisations and residents’ groups.

The review is examining:

  • The regulatory system around the design, construction and on-going management of buildings in relation to fire safety
  • Related compliance and enforcement issues
  • International regulation and experience in this area

The Review is complementary to, and will be shared with, the Public Inquiry.

A summit involving government and representatives from the building industry will take place in the New Year and a final report will be published in spring 2018.

Reaction from politicians

John Healey, the shadow housing secretary, said: “Ministers have already been told that building safety rules need to be rewritten.

“It is now four-and-a-half years since two coroners’ reports into previous high-rise fires recommended an overhaul of building regulations. Ministers ignored the recommendations then and their promise to issue new regulations was never honoured.

“Rather than waiting for the final report of this inquiry, ministers should start acting on existing recommendations immediately and incorporate recommendations from Dame Judith Hackitt when her inquiry is completed.”

Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, welcomed the interim report as “an important milestone”.

He added: “We will continue work with Dame Judith and other partners over the coming months as she finalises her recommendations.”

About Dame Judith Hackitt

Dame Judith was Chair of the Health and Safety Executive from October 2007 to March 2016. She previously served as a health and safety commissioner between 2002 and 2005.

She was made a Dame in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to health and safety and engineering, and in particular for being a role model for young women. She was awarded a CBE in 2006.

 

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