Following the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June 2017, Dame Judith’s independent review of building regulations and fire safety culminated in the publication of her report on 17 May 2018, together with a statement to the House of Commons on the same date by James Brokenshire, the Housing Secretary.
Mr Brokenshire pointed out that the cladding used on Grenfell was unlawful even under the existing building regulations, and should not have been used. The House was informed that the current system was not fit for purpose and that both major legislative reform and a change of culture were needed.
In her “personal view” in the preamble to the report, Dame Judith also stated her belief that there is “a cultural issue across the sector, which can be described as ‘a race to the bottom’ caused either through ignorance, indifference, or because the system does not facilitate good practice.”
As a result her report recommends a new model where the responsibilities of each of the client, the designer, the contractor and the owner are made clearer, and where they are overseen by, and held to account by, a new independent Joint Competent Authority (JCA). The JCA will consist of Local Authority Building Standards, fire and rescue authorities and the Health and Safety Executive.
The new regulatory system is to be “outcomes based”, with incentives to do the right thing and serious penalties for those who put occupiers and visitors of multi-occupancy higher risk residential buildings (referred to as HRRBs) at risk. These are buildings that are ten storeys or more in height.
The report aims to ensure that there will be greater clarity and accountability thoughout the entire life cycle of the building. This will start with a requirement to spend more time on getting the building design correct in the first place and move through a more rigorous change control process. Record keeping requirements will be strengthened so that there is a clear audit trail for any changes to the previously signed off plans, and a need for more significant changes to be approved by the JCA before they can proceed.
During occupation and maintenance of the building, there will be an identifiable duty holder whose function it is to maintain the fire and structural safety of the building. There will be a need to present a safety case to the JCA on a regular basis, together with a mandatory incident reporting mechanism.
There will also be a clearer process for testing and certifying products used in construction, a need for test findings to be made public and for action to be taken if the findings show that they put people at risk. Clearer labelling and improved product traceability and regular reviews of testing methodologies should all improve performance and quality control.
The role of residents will be reinforced, providing reassurance and recourse by way of greater transparency, better involvement in decision-making and a “no-risk route” to escalate concerns for fire safety.
Dame Judith describes her recommendations as “a mutually reinforcing package”, and as “a series of interdependent, mutually reinforcing changes where one measure drives another”. Whilst she cautions against treating the report as a shopping list and acknowledges the time it will take to implement all the elements, the focus is clearly on systemic change.
Those operating in this area, whether as designers, builders or testers, and whether of buildings or constituent elements, as well – crucially – as those living in HRRBs, will all need to keep an eye on the significant changes that are on the way.
If you have any issues that you need help with, our Investment and Commercial Property teams specialise in advising clients in this area.