Graham Watts OBE
Construction Industry Council
Is our industry fit to make buildings that people are safe to live in? I have worked in construction for 40 years and for all but the last three of those, I would have scoffed at the question. But, since the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I share the concern of hundreds of thousands of residents in high-rise residential towers across the country who no longer feel safe in their beds.
The evidence that has been given to the Grenfell Tower Inquiry in recent weeks has revealed an industry that was complacent and seemingly unaware of crucial safety issues. It has also typified the industry’s broken business model, which has encouraged a careless race to the bottom in terms of winning work and one that has gone unchecked by a building regulatory regime that stops well short of control. The Grenfell Tower fire has brought all of this into the sharpest focus but there have been many other failures in fire and structural safety that have thankfully not had a tragic outcome.
While the industry must take responsibility for its own failings, recent governments are also culpable. An obsession with deregulation that stretches back 40 years had its apotheosis with the coalition government and its bonfire of the quangos (the nascent National Tenant Voice and The National Housing and Planning Advice Unit organisation were among 106 abolished bodies). The rampant pursuit of deregulation has progressively emasculated the building control profession. In my dealings with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government prior to Grenfell, the officials responsible for building regulations were metaphorically side-lined to a broom cupboard somewhere in the basement. Building safety was never discussed in meetings. Complacency ruled everywhere.
In reaction to Grenfell, the government has created and progressively enhanced a building safety programme over the past three years, populated by public servants who genuinely care about eradicating unsafe materials on buildings and, spurred on by the reforming zeal of Dame Judith Hackitt, we are at the cusp of a radical new regime to govern building safety as signposted in the draft Building Safety Bill, published in late July and currently subject to pre-legislative scrutiny.
It is clear that competence for working on higher-risk buildings has been lacking across the construction industry, the fire safety sector and among those who own and manage these buildings and this failing was properly identified by Dame Judith in her seminal report Building A Safer Future. It is a challenge that has been accepted by all these sectors with over 150 organisations forming an alliance, the Competence Steering Group, the extent of which has never previously been seen, with a collective aim to develop a new framework of competences for those engaged in designing, constructing and managing higher-risk buildings. This covers engineers (including fire engineers), installers, fire risk assessors, the fire and rescue service , building control surveyors, building designers (including architects), building safety managers, site supervisors, project managers, procurement officers and those engaged in the product manufacturing sector.
It has been my privilege to chair this group for the past three years and our final report, Setting the Bar, was published today (5 October). It sets out the competence requirements for all these roles and recommends the development of a suite of national standards to underpin this work, specifically for the key dutyholder roles of Principal Designer, Principal Contractor and Building Safety Manager. The latter function is entirely new and so the CSG has created a blueprint for this new profession in an aligned report (published simultaneously) entitled Safer People, Safer Homes: Building Safety Management.
In this instance, the CSG is in the enviable position of publishing a report with recommendations that have already been adopted because the BSI has started the process of creating the Built Environment Competence Standards; and the draft Building Safety Bill is proposing the establishment of a Competence Committee within the Building Safety Regulator.
Setting the Bar is just the end of the beginning to create a robust system that requires enhanced competences for working on, and in, higher-risk buildings. It is now down to the industry to develop the means of acquiring and evidencing those competences and every sector should be doing that now; not waiting two more years for the legislation to pass. It is also incumbent on the government and the new regulator, which we know will be housed within the HSE (and I welcome that decision), to create the arrangements that will require all those working on higher-risk buildings to be appropriately competent to do so.
At present, the draft bill proposes to leave that checking to the dutyholders. I worry that will encourage a blurring of the robustness required with “grandfather rights” and so-called “equivalent” credentials being offered to undermine the strength of the regime. The CSG would much prefer to see a more transparent and tangible registration process, the more statutory, the better, which anyone (residents included) can check.
Setting the Bar is just one small step towards rebuilding public trust in our industry. Improving the safety of those living in higher-risk buildings is just a start. It is in everyone’s interests to continue that journey to make every building safe and for everyone to feel safe inside them.
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 was orginally published in Building Magazine