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Despite the global pandemic, building regulations and fire safety reforms push forward

Despite the global pandemic, building regulations and fire safety reforms push forward

William Egan | Westminster Briefing

6 min read

Westminster Briefing catches up with Sir Ken Knight, the chair of the Independent Advisory Expert Panel on building safety, to hear more about the future of building regulations

As the scale of the coronavirus pandemic became clear, and housing ministers’ focus switched urgently to support for mortgage-holders, renters and homelessness, the second phase of the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy was placed on hold “indefinitely”.

However earlier this month the Secretary of State for Housing confirmed plans to press ahead with “the biggest changes to building safety in a generation”.

The changes represent the next step in taking forward the recommendations outlined in Dame Judith Hackitt’s landmark report into building safety following the June 2017 fire. Most pertinent are plans to develop a more rigorous accountability process that will see the appointment of ‘duty holders’ who have clear safety responsibilities throughout the design, the establishment of a building safety regulator as part of the Health and Safety Executive to ensure a more effective regulatory framework, and measures to give residents a stronger voice in building safety.  

Following the Grenfell fire, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government established an Independent Expert Advisory Panel to provide fire safety advice to Ministers on high rise residential buildings and provide input to the newly formed Building Safety Programme. Westminster Briefing caught up with Sir Ken Knight, the chair of the panel, to hear more about the future of building regulations.

The Hackitt review made a series of recommendations that the Government has pledged to take forward in full and the recent consultation response is a welcome next step, what do you think of the current course of action?

It might be helpful if I first reference the other bodies that emerged with distinct responsibilities following the Grenfell tragedy to recognise the enormity of the activity and the context of your question. They were: The Police investigation led by the Metropolitan Police, an inquest led by Dr Fiona Wilcox, a Public Inquiry headed by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, and, in relation to your question, a Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt.

As you indicate the Hackitt report made proposals for many root and branch changes and importantly recognised key failings such as culture, competence and regulation oversight. Following Dame Judith’s review the engagement with the fire and construction industry, together with landlords and residents has been key in assisting the Government to formally publish its acceptance of all of the Hackitt recommendations principles. The changes represent a fundamental change to every part of design, construction, regulation and occupation of high-rise buildings in the future and I welcome the proposals.

You mention a failure of regulation oversight. Earlier this year, a new building safety regulator was announced to deter non-compliance with the new regime. What do you think the impact will be of having firm regulation in place — such as through the regulator — rather than policy “guidance”?

I don’t accept there was, or is, no Regulations in place for either Building Regulations or Fire Safety. However, what the Government’s high-rise remediation programme has demonstrated is a number of buildings that did not meet the current Building Regulations — which the Judge heading Public Inquiry found in the first report on Grenfell Tower. However, the announcement of a new single Building Safety Regulator is a cornerstone of the Hackitt Review and is welcome as it can specifically focus on the highest risk buildings and will replace the roles of the existing Regulators. I don’t believe it will be an alternative to guidance as it will for the new Regulator to issue guidance where it feels necessary to do so.

On the regulator, announcements were made recently that the new regulatory system will be a “complimentary system” to others. Is there currently a comparable regulatory system that readers could look into to get a better understanding of the newly proposed one?

My understanding is that there are existing non- Ministerial regulatory bodies (including the HSE and the Food Standards Agency), that are independent of Government yet have in place common governance and accountability responsibilities in carrying out their regulatory roles.

In the case of the new Building Safety Regulator the relationship with the respective enforcement authorities will be an important area for discussion and development as will be the longer term determination of buildings ‘in scope’ based on a risk.

You also mention a fundamental failure with culture, the overriding recommendation of the Hackitt review. Speaking at a conference for the construction products manufacturing industry in February, Dame Judith Hackitt stated her “observation would be that there’s not enough of it [change], there’s a lack of leadership, there’s a lack of real drive and collective commitment to make this happen”.

Outside of the Early Adopters Group, who pilot Hackitt review recommendations, would you agree with this and what are the areas of the sector that are lacking said change?

From my perspective, I share Dame Judith’s frustration. I have observed that whilst there is cross sector engagement and some parts of the sectors providing notable leadership, there appears to be a large section waiting to be told what actions to take. In essence lacking both confidence and competence on the actions to take ensure residents are safe in their homes and apparently waiting for Government prescription and Regulation to do so. My hope is that sharing best practice and lessons learned from early adopters will empower others to take the right actions now and not wait for Regulation change.

On these early adopters, are there easy platforms and channels that those lacking competence can connect with and become more aware of early adopter’s best practice work?

The early adopters, who are all practitioners in their area, have themselves learned a great deal and are able and willing to share their experience and notable practice. They provide an excellent opportunity to fast track the learning necessary and avoid re-inventing the wheel. All of the earlier adopters have made themselves available to share their invaluable experience at conferences and seminars and I hope others will recognise the benefits of engaging with early adopters at such events — offering a real opportunity to avoid duplicating the effort.

Lastly, you mention that some in the sector are waiting to be ‘told what actions to take’, what would your advice be to those who wish to get more involved with the programme of reform?

Learning the lessons from the tragedy at Grenfell and avoiding it happening again can’t purely be a matter for Government. Instead, every organisation and professional body has a key part to play to fix the failures. To do so everyone has a responsibility to understand the (now well identified) changes required and engage with their respective organisations to implement them. Meanwhile at an organisational level it is essential that professional bodies actively engage with the Government Department to assist in delivering practical solutions to the regulatory changes.

Sir Ken Knight is chairing Westminster Briefing’s Building Regulations and Fire Safety Conference on the 22nd October in Central London.

 

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