The government should establish a new regulatory framework for high-risk residential buildings, allowing existing regulators to work together better, an independent review of building regulations has recommended - but stopped short of calling for a ban on combustible materials and the use of desktop studies.
The government review, led by Dame Judith Hackitt, reports a “systemic” cultural problem at the heart of the current system of regulation and recommends a more cohesive framework as a replacement.
Dame Judith said: “The current system is far too complex, it lacks clarity as to who is responsible for what, and there is an inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement. Simply adding more prescription or making amendments to the current system, such as restricting or prohibiting certain practices, will not address the root causes.”
The review recommends the new framework, termed the “joint competent authority”, would comprise ’Local Authority Building Standards’ (see explainer and key recommendations for councils below), the Health & Safety Executive and fire and rescue authorities working together to oversee better management of safety risks in buildings. This body should also have “additional powers” to ensure work on buildings is carried out to the required standard.
Instead of an outright ban on combustible materials, Dame Judith called for a “clearer, more transparent and more effective specification and testing regime of construction products”.
“More rigour and oversight at the front end of the process can lead to significant increases in productivity,” the review finds.
Responding to the review Lord Porter (Con), chair of the Local Government Association, welcomed recommendations for long-term reform but said it was “disappointing” Dame Judith had not called for a ban on combustible materials and the use of desktop studies. The LGA had previously said it would call for a new review if it did not call for a ban on desktop studies which enables materials to be approved based on historically similar tests.
“The government should nevertheless act without delay to introduce a temporary ban on the use of combustible materials on complex and high-rise buildings and until we have a regulatory and testing system which is fit for the 21st century,” said Lord Porter. “As the use and misuse of desktop studies has been at the heart of the problem, the LGA also remains clear that the use of desktop studies that attempt to approve safety compliance must also be banned.
“This would provide the clarity for building owners who need to know what they can use to replace dangerous cladding and insulation and immediately help keep buildings safer.
“People need to be able to sleep safely at night in their homes. The tragedy at Grenfell Tower must never be allowed to happen again and councils are ready to play a leading role in making sure a new system of building regulation works.”
Clive Betts (Lab), chair of the Commons housing, communities and local government committee, said: “While the independent review has come to many sensible conclusions, I strongly regret Dame Judith’s decision not to recommend an immediate ban on the use of combustible materials in the cladding of high-rise residential buildings. The approach she proposes places too much faith in the professional competence of a construction industry in which too many people have been inclined to take shortcuts and cut costs at the expense of the safety of residents.”
Dame Judith will be questioned by the committee today at 3.30pm.
During a press conference this morning, Dame Judith said: “If people feel I haven’t not gone far enough and for this system to work in the future requires additional measures, further clarity or banning of materials, I do not have a problem with that. Simply banning cladding will not fix this problem, banning cladding on its own will not fix it.”
When asked if she would support a ban on combustible materials, Dame Judith said: “If [housing and communities secretary] James Brokenshire said that, yes I would be supportive.”
Dame Judith said she had “tried to fix the system” and not just focus on cladding which she hoped would provider people with “much greater reassurance” about the system as a whole in the future.
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.
According to Dame Judith’s report it will “bring long-term, technical expertise in the assessment of building safety and wider building standards to the” joint competent authority (JCA). “The expectation would be that they would, on behalf of JCA, continue to predominate during the design, construction and refurbishment stages,” the report said. “However they could also support the proposed safety case review process during occupation and, for example, help to identify where changes to existing buildings could reasonably be made to reduce safety risks so far as is reasonably practicable. In those geographical areas where there is a significant concentration of HRRBs [higher risk residential buildings], Local Authority Building Standards will need to ensure that they have sufficient competent resource to perform this role.”
The JCA and Local Authority Building Standards should also get additional powers to issue formal improvement and prohibition notices if there is concern about work being undertaken, 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, 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.