The government has released its proposals for the new building safety regulatory system and a call for evidence on the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order in England. These documents suggest fundamental changes to the way in which fire safety will be regulated in Higher Risk Residential Buildings (HRRBs).
But there’s the rub – is it feasible for such a fundamental change in regulatory regime to be applied to such a small subset of buildings only? While Dame Judith Hackitt’s brief was to focus on HRRBs she was clear that she believed the entire building regulatory regime was not fit for purpose and that a change of culture was necessary throughout the construction industry.
The ASFP welcomes the broad thrust of recommendations which will certainly lead to massive improvements in the way fire safety is managed in HRRBs. While we understand the principle of applying requirements on the basis of highest risk, it seems unfair and inconsistent to say that improvements that would ensure that all buildings would meet minimum safety standards should only be applied to a tiny percentage of our building stock. Furthermore, what happens to buildings that fall just outside the scope of HRRBs?
On a solely practical basis, can all the players from designers through to building managers be expected to provide the people, products, procedures and installations to satisfy the two different sets of regulations? This would represent a huge duplication of time, effort and money and presumably it would lead to yet more confusion about the regulatory regime, with the possibility of yet more ‘mistakes’.
There have been hints that in future the new regulatory regime could be rolled out to other buildings. But, in the meantime, the attitude seems to be that we can carry on constructing buildings that often don’t even meet the minimum fire-safety standards that are set out in our existing building regulations. What sort of signal does this send out to the construction industry that is in such desperate need of culture change? That HRRBs should receive ‘Rolls-Royce’ fire protection while the rest of our building stock can carry on with the ‘same old rubbish’ procedures and practices that lead to clearly deficient fire protection?
Within the consultation there is a proposal for a new building-safety regulator to provide oversight of the new regulatory regime for HRRBs, as well as setting standards, improving competence and advising government on changes to scope. While such a body would offer clear benefits in terms of providing clarity on building safety, this would be a massive undertaking and there is currently no clear idea of how such a body would be structured. A simpler solution with more immediate results for all building types might be to simply ‘beef up’ the current system and ensure it is adequately resourced, while at the same time introducing mandatory consultation with the fire and rescue service during design and construction.
The consultation also proposes a tougher building-safety regulatory framework with a strengthening of enforcement powers and sanctions. It introduces new criminal offences including: failure to register a building in scope; failure to comply with building-safety conditions; carrying out work without gateway permissions, with penalties applied by the building-safety regulator.
The consultation creates new Duty-holder roles in design and construction; in occupation; and during occupation. These Duty-holders will have to demonstrate how they manage risks through a safety case approach at a number of defined gateway points during the construction process before proceeding. We are concerned about the numbers of Duty-holders now proposed, which has risen from three under Hackitt to six, plus the addition of a building-safety manager.
The responsibilities placed on Duty-holders, of course, lead to the thorny issue of competency. Such an approach will require a whole new range of skills for Duty-holders and those they appoint and a clear competence framework must be created to ensure they have the appropriate skills and training to execute their duties.
We have been here before with the introduction of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order. This created a whole new ‘profession’ of fire-risk assessor. However, there were no defined requirements for knowledge, skills, training, experience or qualifications for such assessors – an issue which the fire industry is still struggling to remedy.
Dame Judith rightly recommended that an overarching framework be put in place to ensure competence for all involved in the construction industry and in the fire-safety management of buildings. Work is still ongoing within the Competency Steering Group of the Industry Response Group to develop such an approach, but there remains a difference of opinion regarding the favoured way forward, particularly with regards to installation contractors.
As we have highlighted before, organisations from the fire sector strongly favour third-party certification of installation contractors as the way to demonstrate competence, whilst those from the wider construction industry rest their hopes on NVQs and the CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card scheme.
In terms of demonstrating competence, the idea of a card-type system with specialisms listed is very attractive. Unfortunately, some of the routes to obtaining such cards are currently unsatisfactory and often not rigorous enough. Many of the specialist industry sectors, including passive fire protection, believe that assessors may not be sufficiently skilled in the particular specialism and thus the assessment may become something of a tick-box exercise. An agreed competence framework that meets the needs of all is the only way forward if we are to be assured that buildings are being properly constructed and managed throughout their entire lifecycle.
As we consider our responses to the Government Consultation, it is clear that the proposals offer a brave new world of ‘Rolls-Royce’ fire protection for HRRBs. But the question remains, while it may be difficult and huge in scope, can we really afford to continue to ignore the regulatory regime that applies to the majority of our building stock? Such a move will inevitably lead to a continued race to the bottom in terms of culture and competence and result in yet more confusion within the construction industry. Perhaps we should have learnt by now that reliable fire protection is not a luxury but a necessity that is worth paying for.
For more information, go to www.asfp.org.uk