Hackitt Was Right To Focus On Culture Not Cladding

Posted in The Industry on May 31, 2018


The media storm that greeted Dame Judith Hackitt's report on the role of the building regulations in the Grenfell Tower fire missed a very important point.

The mainstream broadcasters and publishers were mystified by the fact that her independent review team, who reported this month, had not called for a specific ban on combustible cladding. However, that was not the primary focus of their work - they were looking at where the process is failing as a whole and not at individual technical issues.

They concluded that the current building regime was "broken" and that fundamental reform of the system was needed to improve safety and rebuild trust among those living in high-rise buildings.

The Hackitt Review highlighted a culture of "indifference" to the regulations that produced a "race to the bottom" on price, which was undermining safety and building performance along the way. The construction industry will now be expected to take responsibility for delivering safe buildings "rather than looking to others to tell them what is or is not acceptable", according to Dame Judith.

CIBSE technical director Hywel Davies said it was unfortunate "that so much of the media interest focuses on the very specific issue of combustible cladding" when it was a wider system that the Hackitt committee was looking to improve. "Since the Grenfell Tower fire, some 300 buildings have been found to be clad in materials that do not meet current regulatory requirements. In other words, they are already banned and yet were still installed," he explained. "Ensuring the safety of the buildings in which we live and work requires exactly the root and branch reform set out in this thoughtful and well-informed document."

Confusing

The building regulations covering fire safety will be tightened up and clarified because the Hackitt committee concluded that they were too confusing and that this allowed loose interpretations of what was correct practice. However, more generally, we need to brace ourselves for sweeping reforms to the way our industry's work is regulated.

Clients, designers and contractors will all have new responsibilities. The use of private building control will also end with the establishment of a new single building standards body called the Joint Competent Authority. This will be formed by combining Local Authority Building Standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive.

This acknowledges that it was not the building regulations themselves, but how they were applied and enforced that made it possible for a tragedy like Grenfell to happen.

Using unsafe cladding that does not comply with the building regulations would not happen if the system worked. It is not the building regulations themselves, but the culture of ignoring them in order to save money, which led to the Grenfell tragedy.

The emphasis of the Hackitt review's report is on viewing buildings as a complete system, rather than a collection of components, and it highlighted the importance of improving competence across the board.

There must now be a strong focus on competence and there will be a new body created to oversee competence requirements. This recognises that you can only drive up standards - and keep people safe - if you have a highly competent workforce delivering the projects.

This industry already has competent person schemes and training courses capable of producing the right levels of competence, but the government can boost these by ensuring the regulations are enforced. This will then force everyone involved in construction to buy into proper training and qualifications.

The difficulty is, of course, that our industry is struggling with an ever-increasing skills gap. The existing shortage of engineers has not been helped by a 25% drop in new apprentice starts this year - partly as a result of confusion around the new Apprenticeship Levy.

Therefore, in parallel with the changes recommended by the Hackitt Review, the government must swiftly address problems with apprenticeship funding and make sure the £3bn raised annually through the Levy reaches the right places. For example, the building service industry has a crucial role to play in delivering higher standards and safer buildings - and our skills are central to the fire safety of buildings - yet many employers in the sector struggle to find training providers able to deliver appropriate training courses. The Levy should be able to change this, but the funds need to be targeted at areas of most need.

While it is always important to address technical failings wherever they occur - and in the Grenfell Tower it was how the cladding was applied during refurbishment that left residents at risk - the legacy of this tragic event will be a wider focus on improving the culture and competence of the construction industry and its supporting specialist sectors.

Simply applying the planned new regulatory regime will not be enough. The industry - and particularly its specialist professions - must also receive the support it needs from government to deliver the levels of competence required to apply the new standards rigorously and consistently.


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