Three years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy there are still widespread calls for firmer regulation and improved guidance to ensure our built environment is safe for all. Although there has been progress in some areas such as combustible materials and sprinkler systems, a wide range of sectors are still waiting on vital information and change from government. The Building Safety Bill is due to be published imminently – legislation which will be responsible for implementing crucial changes to the UK’s building safety regulatory system.
On 23 June, the RIBA brought together representatives from across sectors to discuss priorities for the Building Safety Bill, the future of England’s building safety regime and what government and industry must do next. The event was hosted by the RIBA in partnership with the Association of British Insurers (ABI), National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC), Local Government Association (LGA), Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). RIBA Executive Director for Professional Services Adrian Dobson chaired the online panel session that welcomed Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee (HCLG) Clive Betts MP; Senior Policy Adviser and Fire Safety Policy Lead at the LGA Charles Loft; Global Director of Building Standards at RICS Gary Strong; Past President and Chair of the RIBA’s Expert Advisory Group on Fire Safety Jane Duncan OBE; General Insurance Manager at the ABI Laura Hughes; Vice Chair of the NFCC Nick Coombe and; member of the Industry Safety Steering Group and Past President of the CIOB Paul Nash.
In the opening remarks from Clive Betts MP, the HCLG Chair emphasised that “lifetime responsibilities” must be established in the bill and that clear responsibilities for duty holders should be determined in the construction, maintenance and management phases of a building’s lifecycle. The notion of clear responsibilities throughout a building’s lifecycle was widely supported across the panel though Charles Loft highlighted the LGA’s concerns with delivering on this when it comes to the occupation phase, which he suggested may be more challenging to implement. Jane Duncan also echoed support for clearer responsibilities of duty holders and specified the RIBA’s concerns with the ambiguity of duties proposed for the Principal Designer role in design and build contracts, which she urged the government to revise and clarify in the upcoming bill.
There was also a clear consensus across the panel that the current scope of the bill must be extended to apply to buildings other than high-rise residential blocks over 18 metres. Nick Coombe highlighted the NFCC’s priority for the bill to ensure public and fire fighter safety is improved through “a real system shake up that will last the test of time” and that it must not just be a “plaster fix on tower blocks” as he suggested has been the case with legislative changes in the past following fires in shops, railways and hotels. RICS Director of Building Standards Gary Strong also warned that by not widening the scope of buildings that the bill applies to, it could result in a “two-track system” where higher risk buildings would be covered by the improved system and ordinary buildings would not, which he claimed would be “wasted opportunity”. Laura Hughes highlighted the ABI’s call for the new regime to apply to all high-risk buildings and that the scope of the bill should be reflective of the risk proposed and not the height of buildings. The ABI were clear that the bill should consider the vulnerability of those within high risk buildings and must be expanded to include care homes, student accommodation and hospitals, of any height.
Laura also addressed the issue of Professional Indemnity insurance, which is a market that has seen significant hardening post-Grenfell and through the current regime. She emphasised the need for competency requirements of key roles set out in the upcoming bill to be able to demonstrate competence to a specific standard, which she suggested will “help to improve insurers confidence” and help to open up the market.
Finally, Paul Nash highlighted the transitional challenges that the construction sector may face as a result of the legislative changes and emphasised that “legislation combined with an active campaign to educate and inform people” is necessary to bring about the real change that is required. The CIOB believe the new Building Safety Regulator, that will be run by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has a key role to play in educating the industry in advance of legislation and urged the HSE to start as early as possible.
Our panellists and the sectors they represent clearly support the need for urgent changes to the UK’s building safety regulatory system. The upcoming Building Safety Bill presents the opportunity to implement the changes required to make our buildings safer however, the bill is due to be published over three years after the Grenfell Tower fire and will take time to progress through Parliament. That said, this is a step in the right direction and the RIBA will be keeping a close eye on the bill as it progresses.