So, one year on from the Grenfell Tower tragedy and after over 10 years of campaigning from the fire sector, the Government has at last announced that it intends to carry out a wider technical review of Approved Document B to the Building Regulations, starting in the Autumn of 2018.
While the FSF welcomes this long-overdue announcement, it is quite astounding to see the level of political pressure that has been required to achieve it. With a Public Inquiry under way and the final report from the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety out for consultation; it still took a call from MPs via the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) Select Committee to force the hand of the Government.
In its report, released on 18 July 2018, the MHCLG Committee expressed its disappointment that the Independent Review did not address the specific, short-term changes that need to be made to the Building Regulations. It declared:
“The Government must immediately take forward its review of the current guidance as a matter of urgency, with the intention of publishing an updated version of Approved Document B before the end of the year.”
Just a day later, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government James Brokenshire released clarified building regulations fire-safety guidance for consultation and announced the full-scale review.
Issues to address
The Fire Sector Federation welcomes the review as it has long campaigned for the guidance to reflect modern building practice and material, as well as for clearer and more rigorous standards and greater transparency on testing, which will ensure the fitness for purpose of designs, materials, products and building processes. We look forward to the outcomes of the current cladding and assessments in lieu of testing consultations later this year, as well as the full review.
While the Fire Sector Federation agrees with Dame Judith that the entire regulatory framework is in need of review and that the owner of the risk must take responsibility for it, we remain concerned that, despite declaring systemic failure and a need for culture change, she has given us a vision for the future in which prescription does not figure to any extent.
These views were shared by the MHCLG Select Committee which stated:
“There is no binary choice between having an outcomes-based system with greater accountability, robust regulatory oversight and strengthened sanctions on the one hand, and prescription on the other hand.”
The Committee called for a “robust system of oversight and meaningful sanctions, but underpinned by a strong, prescriptive approach to ensure minimum standards and guarantee the safety of residents.”
The FSF believes that a certain level of prescription may be necessary to remove the ambiguity of the current guidance.
Risk and responsibility
Having long called for a national or cross-departmental body to take responsibility for fire safety, we welcome the concept of the Joint Competent Authority (JCA) proposed by Dame Judith. But how it will be structured and funded remains unclear.
The FSF agrees with the findings of the MHCLG Select Committee which stated that “care must be taken to avoid the duplication of responsibilities and a lack of clarity over lines of accountability, while ensuring that JCAs will be sufficiently independent to ensure they are able to take enforcement action against their own local authorities.”
The FSF believes it would be sensible to add the JCA as a specific consultation issue by Government, given the somewhat vital nature of its role in the future.
And, while the Federation welcomes the approach to introduce a duty holder, who would be legally accountable for fire safety throughout the life of a building, we believe that defining competency standards for all involved in designing, building and managing high-risk buildings is vital. And, like the MHCLG Committee, the Federation believes that the new regulatory framework should be applied to the full range of buildings, not just high-risk residential buildings (HRRBs).
The FSF is concerned about how risk will be defined. The trigger for considering a building to be “complex and high-risk” could be related to a number of attributes, such as the number of people in a building, its size and occupancy, and the level of fire engineering. Discussions on where boundaries will be set will be key to ensuring the correct system of regulation. Furthermore, when setting the boundary, it will also be necessary to imagine what we expect to happen over the life of the building.
While the review of the regulatory framework accompanied by a full review of Approved Document B are steps in the right direction, there remains a long way to go, with a great deal of work to be undertaken. Dame Judith recommended that the Government develop “a joined-up implementation plan to provide a coherent approach to delivering the recommendations in this report.” Once such a plan exists, the FSF looks forward to working with Government in its implementation and to redefining the UK’s fire-safety regime to ensure the safety of both existing and future buildings.
For more information, go to www.firesectorfederation.co.uk