Dame Judith Hackitt has told LGC she was “not aware” the government would announce a consultation on potentially banning the use of combustible materials on high rise tower blocks a matter of hours after her report, which did not call for a ban, was published.
The chair of the independent review on building regulations and fire safety was widely criticised on Thursday by the Local Government Association and Commons housing, communities and local government committee for failing to recommend a ban on combustible materials, which the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) called a “major missed opportunity”.
Dame Judith told LGC: “I knew he was going to make a statement about the report. I had no early sight of the content and no, I didn’t know he was going to make the statement he did about cladding.”
When asked if she would support a ban on combustible materials at a press event this morning, Dame Judith said: “If James Brokenshire said that, yes I would be supportive.”
Dame Judith also told LGC her report had not included a call for a ban on desktop studies as it would have been “wrong” for her to “second guess” an existing government consultation. The previous housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid launched a consultation on their use on 11 April, closing on 25 May.
The review’s interim report, published in December, said the government should “significantly restrict the use of desktop studies to approve changes to cladding and other systems to ensure that they are only used where appropriate and with sufficient, relevant test evidence.”
Dame Judith said: “My review was never about specifics. It was about looking at the overall system and, as I said at the outset, I am not going to edit the details of these regulations, I am going to create a new framework that will enable others to look again at that and edit the details of the regulations.”
The independent review’s final report calls for a “systemic” reform of the regulatory system for high-risk housing, labelling the current system too “prescriptive” and “confusing”.
Dame Judith said at the press briefing: “Part of the problem is that there is too much restriction in the current system, which encourages a lack of ownership in the current system… We have to get to a place where industry takes more responsibility.”
The report’s main recommendation is for the creation of a “joint competent authority” (JCA), which would comprise ’Local Authority Building Standards’ (see explainer and key recommendations for councils below), the Health and Safety Executive and and fire and rescue authorities. Under this new regulatory framework, all applications for high-risk residential buildings would be submitted to the JCA for review before and after construction.
The report sets out in its first chapter that this would assume the JCA operating on a “full costs recovery basis”, meaning that all safety tests becoming “fully chargeable”.
Dame Judith told LGC that those charges would be applied for all applications, meaning that local authorities would also be required to pay in a manner similar to that currently applied by the HSE and other building control bodies. These new charges would be used to self-fund the new regulator, Dame Judith said.
“There’s no reason why the new JCA can’t resource itself adequately given that that is going to be cost recovered from the industry,” she said.
Local Authority Building Standards explained
Local Authority Building Standards is the proposed name for the rebranded Local Authority Building Control – the professional body covering building control teams working in local authorities.
The joint competent authority and Local Authority Building Standards should get additional powers to issue formal improvement and prohibition notices if there is concern about work being undertaken on tower blocks, and “have the clear power to require changes to work that fail to meet” building regulations. The time limit for bringing prosecutions should also be “increased to five or six years for ‘major’ deficiencies in building requirements identified at a later date”, the report adds.
While all local authority building control departments should be required to become members of Local Authority Building Standards, the report stresses that each local authority will remain individually responsible for the delivery of building control services in its area.
Other key recommendations for councils
Environmental health officers should raise any fire and structural safety concerns about higher risk residential buildings to the JCA.
For other multi-occupancy residential buildings, local authorities and fire and rescue authorities should work more closely to ensure that the fire safety of the whole building is assessed and regulated effectively.
The report said the “competence of local authority housing officers may need to be assessed” in relation to their fire safety duties following any future legislative changes.