In the aftermath of the Grenfell fire in 2017, the government asked Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct a review of Building Regulations. Her report was a damning indictment of the construction industry, its practices and – most of all – its culture of cheapest is best, with scant regard for doing things properly.
Such issues have been of long-time concern to the Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) as can be demonstrated by a report we published in 2003 on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (MHCLG’s predecessor). The report warned:
‘Public safety is being impinged by incorrect passive fire protection measures and we feel that a disaster caused by accelerated or unexpected fire spread could follow if no action is taken to improve initial standards and to define the responsibility of building occupiers.’
A prophetic quote but, needless to say, the report was never acted upon.
Dame Judith also highlighted the lack of requirements for competency in the construction industry. She noted that even where there are requirements, these are often inadequate and/or not audited by any third-party body. This has led to a situation where players (such as fire risk assessors and some of the installer workforce) are able to operate without having to demonstrate any skills, competency, knowledge or experience.
As a result of these shortcomings the Industry Response Group (Construction Products Association, Build UK and Construction Industry Council) set up a Competency Steering Group (CSG) to tackle competency failings identified in the Hackitt Review.
In its report entitled ‘Raising the Bar’, the CSG has published a radical and wide-ranging set of measures aimed at improving the competence of those who design, construct, inspect, maintain and operate higher-risk residential buildings (HRRBs). The ASFP welcomes these proposals and has provided input to them, having sat on four of the Working Groups for ‘installing contractors’, ‘fire risk assessors’, ‘architects and designers’ and ‘products’.
The competence frameworks developed by the CSG and its working groups tackle many of the identified shortcomings by setting out the appropriate knowledge, qualifications and skill sets required for individuals working on HRRBs, how they should be assessed and by whom. ‘Raising the Bar’ recommends:
- A new oversight body – the Building Safety Competence Committee – to create a central register of dutyholders eligible to work on HRRBs and drive improvements across the sector. ASFP aims to obtain membership of this body
- Government to mandate individuals working on HRRBs to be registered/certified by a recognised professional/or certified body. There are no concrete legal proposals for this yet and some of the industry is waiting for action. At the recent conference on the launch of ‘Raising the Bar’, the industry was urged not to wait, but to start to implement these recommendations straight away. The ASFP already has third-party certification as a mandatory requirement for its contractor members and we will be launching enhanced membership criteria including training and qualification requirements for members next year.
- All organisations, including professional bodies, carrying out the assessments and reassessments of an individual’s competence should themselves be subject to a rigorous system of oversight by a body such as UKAS or the Engineering Council. ASFP training and qualifications was developed in conjunction with the Institution of Fire Engineers and as such has oversight by the Engineering Council.
- The period of reassessment for individuals is to be no less than every five years.
- Common principles of continuing professional development (CPD) to be established for each sector, which the Building Safety Competence Committee should use to hold sectors to account.
- Fire safety CPD materials to explain basic fire science to be available to anyone working on HRRBs or managing occupied HRRBs. The ASFP offers an online video course which provides a basic introduction to passive fire protection for all those installing passive fire protection in buildings. This includes modules on fire science and provides a sense of what good fire protection in buildings looks like. This will help learners to better understand the role of the various fire-safety measures in the built environment, and in particular passive fire protection.
The ASFP warmly welcomes the proposals introduced by ‘Raising the Bar’ and is working within the Competency Steering Group Working Groups to implement the recommendations in advance of any legislation which might be forthcoming.
Even so there now appears little doubt that legislation will follow at some point in the near future. In the Queen’s speech on 14 October the government committed to ‘bring forward laws to implement new building safety standards’. Describing its proposals as ‘the biggest reforms to the building safety regime in nearly 40 years’, the government states that the new legislation aims to put in place new and modernised regulatory regimes for building safety and construction products, ensuring residents have a stronger voice in the system.
The proposals include the establishment of a new building safety regulator which will maintain a register of those qualified to perform the key roles and to provide signposting to registers held by professional and trade bodies, such as ASFP, of those qualified and competent to work on HRRBs.
The ASFP welcomes the government proposals for reforming the building safety regime and only hopes that the changes will be introduced rapidly for HRRBs and soon extended to cover a wider range of building stock. In supporting the proposals introduced by ‘Raising the Bar’ and working to implement the recommendations in advance of more wide-ranging legislation, the ASFP hopes to raise the prospect of improvements in building standards throughout the construction sector.
It would indeed be disappointing if changes were only legislated for a small proportion of our building stock when shortfalls were clearly identified across the board. After so many years of campaigning for improvements in building standards, the ASFP is clear that these reforms are vital, but we should be raising the bar for safety standards for the entire built environment.
For more information, go to www.asfp.org.uk