BUILDING SAFETY BILL CONSTRUCTS A NEW REGIME

The draft Building Safety Bill has come back from consultation. Out of the ashes of the Grenfell Tower fire, hopes are high that the bill will make at-risk homes in the UK safer. 

The fire at Grenfell Tower in west London on the night of 14 June 2017, which left 72 people dead, exposed serious flaws in safety systems, and deficiencies in the way buildings are constructed, maintained, refurbished and certified as safe to live in.

Recommendations for extensive change from Dame Judith Hackitt’s 2018 Independent review of building regulations and fire safety were accepted by the UK government, resulting in the draft Building Safety Bill, which was published for consultation in July. 

Though the draft bill is a framework law – laying the ground for multiple pieces of secondary legislation – its breadth has been greeted positively by most industry bodies. Many have welcomed the creation of a new Building Safety Regulator, to be undertaken by the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

It will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the new regime and for policing the more stringent safety measures required for ‘in-scope’ buildings, defined as multi-occupied residential buildings of 18 metres or more in height, or more than six storeys, where fire or structural failure could lead to multiple fatalities. There are approximately 13,000 of these, according to the government’s impact assessment for the bill.

Eddie Tuttle, director of policy, research and public affairs at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), says the in-scope definition is likely to be extended from residential buildings to cover other types such as schools, hospitals and care homes: ‘A simple barometer is that it could apply to everything that we build.’

‘THE BILL BRINGS IN THE NEW DUTY HOLDER ROLE OF THE ACCOUNTABLE PERSON FOR AN IN-SCOPE BUILDING IN USE’

Broadening the scope would create a massive workload of remediation of existing buildings to comply with the regime’s safety standards, says Eddie, but that extra work could benefit a construction industry hit hard by COVID-19. ‘The question for government is, who is going to pay for that?’ he adds.

The bill brings in the new duty holder role of the accountable person for an in-scope building in use – usually the owner or building leaseholder or management company – who has primary responsibility for users’ safety. The accountable person must submit the building’s safety case document to the regulator and appoint a competent building safety manager to support them in ensuring residents are protected.

IRONING OUT ISSUES

The National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) noted that the proposals meant mixed-use buildings might have multiple accountable persons, which was not what the Hackitt review envisaged. ‘NFCC believes that having a lead accountable person for a building, who would coordinate across these roles, would support clarity,’ says chair Roy Wilsher.

Former CIOB president Paul Nash, who chaired one of the industry working groups that advised the Hackitt review, says that the accountable person role will help maintain the ‘golden thread’ of information passed on through the duty holders at all stages of construction and occupation that Hackitt said was essential to avoid major safety lapses. But he also cautions that keeping track of who fills that accountable position, as buildings change hands repeatedly or are bought by overseas investors, may be a challenge.

At Local Authority Building Control (LABC), director of regulatory policy Martin Taylor agrees that the biggest challenge for building owners is going to be ‘moving to that duty holder principle, understanding that they have responsibility to deliver buildings that are safe to the occupants’.

IN THE BILL: CRITICAL CONTROL

The draft Building Safety Bill published in July paves the way for hundreds of statutory changes, including:

  • The creation of a new Building Safety Regulator within the HSE, responsible for implementing and policing the new regime for higher-risk residential buildings through sanctions including notices, fines and imprisonment. It will also be responsible for promoting competence among building and maintenance professionals and higher standards across the built environment.
  • A new accountable person role for high-risk buildings in use, with overall responsibility for ensuring residents’ safety and consulting with them. The accountable person must prepare a safety case report on the safety risks associated with the building and how they are controlled.
  • A new building safety manager role, reporting to the accountable person and responsible for managing operational safety of high-risk buildings in use.
  • Establishment of gateways, sign-off points for critical safety information before construction or occupation can proceed.
  • Appointment of a new homes ombudsman scheme to enable owners of new builds to escalate complaints and promote better standards among developers.
  • A new system of approval for construction products with provision for their restriction if they do not meet required standards.

DO YOUR DUTY

IOSH Council member Anne Isaacs has worked as estate manager of a 1930s west London housing development for three years. She has been preparing for the new regime for some time, but says the allocation of the accountable person and building safety manager roles between the owners, represented by a leaseholders’ board, the management company, which employs its own surveyor, and herself, is under discussion. ‘It still needs to be ironed out and everybody’s roles put in the chart.’

‘CLIENTS MAY HAVE TO COMMIT TO PREPARING A LOT MORE INFORMATION UPFRONT THAN THEY WOULD HAVE DONE’

These new duty holding positions will not exist in a vacuum – they must be overlaid on those mandated by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 with its ‘responsible’ and ‘competent’ persons and at the construction stage with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015, with its duties for principal designers, principal contractors and clients. The experts contacted by IOSH magazine seemed confident that the new roles will mesh with existing ones without gaps or significant duplication.

The bill establishes three fixed stages, or gateways, in the design, construction and handover for use of a building in the higher-risk category to ensure that vital safety information is provided to the regulator. ‘The gateways are important but will present some interesting challenges,’ notes Paul Nash. ‘Not necessarily for designers and contractors but for clients, who may have to commit to preparing a lot more information upfront than they would have done historically.’ 

COMPETENCE IS KEY

The new regime places great emphasis on the competence of duty holders and those who support them. The training and development bar for architects working on in-scope buildings will be raised and there will be strict competence criteria in future regulations for the new building safety managers. 

‘Competence is key,’ says Eddie. ‘This will be a wake-up call to the professional bodies because just having the letters after your name is going to cut the mustard in terms of who is competent in terms of working on certain buildings.’ 

Martin says the LABC, representing the building control surveyors who will help the HSE verify compliance with the Building Regulations, has already revamped its training and development support: ‘We’ve launched whole packages of qualifications for the building control community and a standards framework for all LABC surveyors, and we have rolled out a programme of examinations so our surveyors can prove their competence.’ Other professions may have been slower to react because of shortages of competent people, especially if the definition of in-scope buildings is stretched, the experts warn.

Most of the draft bill’s provisions apply primarily to England and Wales, but Paul says he expects that the regimes in Scotland and Northern Ireland will be aligned eventually with its principles.

The consultation period has ended and a revised draft will follow. ‘This is an exciting opportunity for the government to bring the regulations up to scratch and address a number of issues with the regulatory regime,’ says Eddie.

‘We think the framework’s there and we’ll be happy to contribute to the development of secondary legislation,’ says Martin.

Anne Isaacs’ husband is a firefighter who attended the Grenfell Tower fire. ‘That day is never going to leave me,’ she says. ‘When I look at what [the government] are doing, it fills me with hope that we are going in the right direction.’

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