Last reviewed 11 February 2022

How will the construction industry make the necessary changes required to rectify deep flaws in the current system? Roland Finch looks at the progress being made and what the future holds for the future of building safety.

Introduction

Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower in West London in 2017, the UK Government commissioned an independent review of building regulations and fire safety, led by former HSE chair Dame Judith Hackitt. Its report, Building a Safer Future, published in 2018, identified a number of failings in the construction industry. One of the outcomes of the report was the establishment of the Industry Safety Steering Group (ISSG) with the intention of reviewing progress on the proposals contained in the report, and periodically feeding back on its findings. The group’s third report was published in January 2022.

In the introduction to the third report, Dame Judith identified a number of examples of what she called “further evidence confirming the deep flaws in the current system”.

She went on to restate the things which the ISSG see as key issues responsible for continued system failure, highlighted under the following headings.

  • Ignorance — The right people don’t seem to be the ones who get to read the relevant regulations and guidance, and even when they do read them, they don’t always appear to understand and interpret them correctly.

  • Indifference — Despite all recommendations to the contrary, the industry still seems to be determined to carry out work with the lowest cost and the quickest time, with very little emphasis on quality. Complaints by others are often ignored, and little attention is paid to things like health and safety in order to maximise profits rather than providing excellence.

  • Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities — The fragmented nature of the way that the industry works means there is often a lack of clarity on who undertakes particular roles or has responsibility for certain aspects of the project. Often this is interpreted in an ambiguous way, with expediency the overriding factor.

  • Inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement tools — Often the system is overly complex, meaning that the rules are not followed properly, and the regulatory system has difficulty coping.

The Report observed that there is a cultural problem within our industry, which combined with poor regulation and a lack of proper accountability, led them to describe it as a “race to the bottom”. They conclude that “there is insufficient focus on delivering the best quality building possible, in order to ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe”.

The Report concluded 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. The system failure identified in the interim report has allowed a culture of indifference to perpetuate”.

Recommendations

The Report made a number of recommendations, including a new regulatory framework to oversee the construction process. Although principally aimed at High Risk Residential Buildings (HRRBs), the longer-term objective is to see it rolled out for all building types. Key among them were the following headings (taken from the Report):

  • A new regulatory framework

  • A new Joint Competent Authority (JCA) comprising Local Authority Building Standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive

  • A mandatory incident reporting mechanism for dutyholders

  • A set of rigorous and demanding dutyholder roles and responsibilities

  • A series of robust gateway points to strengthen regulatory oversight

  • A stronger change control process that will require robust record-keeping

  • A single, more streamlined, regulatory route to oversee building standards

  • A clear and identifiable dutyholder with responsibility for building safety of the whole building

  • A requirement on the dutyholder to present a safety case to the JCA at regular intervals

  • Clearer rights and obligations for residents

  • A regulator for the whole of the building (the JCA) in relation to fire and structural safety in occupation

  • Providing reassurance and recourse for residents of all tenures by providing:

    • greater transparency of information on building safety

    • better involvement in decision-making, through the support of residents associations and tenant panels

    • a no-risk route for residents to escalate concerns on fire safety where necessary, through an independent statutory body

  • The construction sector and fire safety sector demonstrating more effective leadership for ensuring building safety

  • Moving towards a system where ownership of technical guidance rests with industry as the intelligent lead

  • A package of regulations and guidance that is simpler to navigate but that genuinely reflects the level of complexity of the building work

  • A more effective testing regime with clearer labelling and product traceability.

  • Creating a golden thread of information about each HRRB

  • Obligating the creation of a digital record for new HRRBs from initial design intent through to construction and including any changes that occur throughout occupation.

And in addition:

  • Tackling poor procurement practices (set out in Chapter 9) including through the roles and responsibilities set out above, to drive the right behaviours to make sure that high-safety, low-risk options are prioritised and full life cycle cost is considered when a building is procured

  • Ensuring continuous improvement and bestpractice learning through membership of an international body.

Progress

Since 2018, the ISSG has produced a series of interim reports on progress to date. As noted earlier, the third interim report was published in January 2022.

This highlights, as did the second interim report, that there have been some examples of positive action within the industry. One example is the development of the Building a Safer Future Charter. This charter is developed and managed by the Considerate Constructors Scheme, and sets out a number of Health and Safety aims and objectives. It allows “Registered Signatories” to demonstrate their support and commitment to putting safety first by signing up to those aims and objectives. Others with an interest in the built environment can become “Charter Supporters”.

A Code for Construction Product Information has been developed by the Construction Products Association (CPA). This is intended to ensure consistent and accurate product information, which it is hoped will lead to easier demonstration of compliance.

However, the ISSG also records its disappointment with the perceived lack of leadership within the industry.

The ISSG notes that there are examples and positive trends in many areas of the industry towards collaboration. They suggest that there is still a lack of proper co-ordination between all parts of the sector, and explore the possibility that the eponymous Construction Leadership Council might undertake a more visible role in this process.

One of the focuses of the original report was in the field of competence and capability. During 2020, the competence Steering Group developed recommendations for an improved system, resulting in the publication of a report, Setting the Bar).

However, the ISSG report goes on to say that progress has been slow in the development of plans by Professional Institutions to show how competence will be assessed, as well as the take-up of third party registration and accreditations schemes, with a shortage of detail as to how these will work in practice.

The report acknowledges that there has also been quite a bit of work on the golden thread of information, especially in the development of digital tools to facilitate its implementation. At the same time, the ISSG express concern that many organisations appear to be waiting for somebody else to make the first move, with a general feeling that, as the report puts it, “meaningful change cannot be achieved ahead of legislation”. The worry is that people are expecting the Government to tell everyone what to do rather than the industry itself being proactive in many areas.

There are further issues when it comes to responsibility and transparency. Some of this seems to be influenced by the current insurance market. It is hoped that many of the problems will be clarified following further resolution of the Building Safety Bill, as it makes its way through the Parliamentary process.

Summary

Time is passing. The year 2022 represents five years since Grenfell, and there is real concern that the Construction Industry is still dragging its feet with regard to change. Despite all the other distractions, our industry is still firmly in the public eye and there is an expectation that we will put our own house in order. However, the track record is historically not good, so it is important to keep the pressure on from all sides. And from the industry’s point of view, change needs to come from within — because it may find the alternatives much less acceptable.