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Making Buildings Safer

Graham Watts OBE
Chief Executive
Construction Industry Council

I have heard some commentators say that the government’s 331-page draft Building Safety Bill is insufficiently detailed (because it awaits secondary legislation) while others have argued that there is too much detail proposed for the primary legislation, which will then be difficult to amend once enacted.   The balance between primary and secondary legislation needs to be carefully considered to ensure that there are no delays with these much-needed reforms.

The draft bill expands upon the scope proposed by Dame Judith Hackitt in Building A Safer Future by bringing the height of the multi-occupied buildings to be covered by the new Building Safety Regulator down from 30m to 18m (or six storeys, whichever height is reached first).  It seems clear that the intention is for this to be an achievable beginning.  Once embedded, we can expect the new regulatory regime to be extended to multi-occupied dwellings, perhaps down to 11m; and possibly to other buildings, lower in height, in which vulnerable people sleep.

As Dame Judith argued - and as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has shown - improved competence is essential to the achievement of buildings that are safe and in which residents feel safe.   It is has been my privilege  to chair the Competence Steering Group, an alliance of more than 150 organisations across all sectors concerned with fire and structural safety and the ownership and management of higher-risk residential buildings, which has recently published its final report, Setting the Bar, establishing an overarching competence framework underpinned by detailed competence specifications across twelve occupational sectors (such as Fire Engineers, Installers, Fire Risk Assessors) accompanied by a detailed implementation plan and around sixty recommendations to achieve change. 

This works faces back into the sectors where the changes must happen; and also as a benchmark for the new committee on competence, to be established by the Building Safety Regulator, which is to hold the industry to account.   It is essential that this does not just mean the “best getting better” and that the age-old culture of “race to the bottom” is not still enabled by a lack of teeth in the final legislation.   There must be no backdoor ways into persuading dutyholders of the competence of those that they engage.

The draft bill’s proposal to establish six dutyholders is a big step forward to counteract a “pass the buck” mentality but the devil will be in the detail and this will need to be carefully monitored in the primary and secondary legislation.  Although not intended as a dutyholder (since that role will be occupied by the “Accountable Person”), the new regulated role of Building Safety Manager creates an entirely new profession and the CSG has published a second report, alongside Setting the Bar, entitled Safer People, Safer Homes: Building Safety Management.  This is an essential blueprint to the context, role and responsibilities of the BSM.  There are several factors that will need to be addressed in order to transition to the new regime and the availability of sufficient competent people to fulfil the necessary role of the BSM on every building in scope to the new legislation will be key.

Three years after the Grenfell tragedy, people are right to continually question what is being done to make sure such a dreadful conflagration never reoccurs.  It has been a long and difficult journey and many decisions have been arrived at too late (not least in government support to remediate ACM and similar cladding on existing buildings) but the beginning of a new safer regime for buildings is now before us and it has to be grasped and pursued with vigour by everyone who can make a difference.

Contributor: Graham Watts is the Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council, a Member of the MHCLG Industry Response Group and Chair of its Competence Steering Group.  

This article was orginally published in FIRE Magazine