Change of regulation and culture needed to improve fire safety in buildings, independent reviewer says

Out-Law News | 19 Dec 2017 | 4:25 pm | 3 min. read

Wholesale regulatory and cultural reforms are needed in the context of fire safety in buildings in light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy earlier this year, the person tasked with conducting a review of building regulations has said in her interim report.

Dame Judith Hackitt said (121-page / 1.44MB PDF) that "the current regulatory system for ensuring fire safety in high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose". She identified a mix of reasons for this, including "complex and unclear" regulations and guidance, "poor" clarity over roles and responsibilities for fire safety, as well as weaknesses in compliance, enforcement and sanctions processes. "The lack of meaningful sanctions does not drive the right behaviours," she said.

Dame Judith said there needs to be a shift towards "more risk-based and proportionate" regulation and that the rules and guidance that apply "must be simplified and unambiguous". She further called for greater accountability for fire safety. She said individuals who "commission, design and build" properties should be identifiable as responsible for ensuring those buildings are fit for purpose.

"Responsibility and accountability must rest with clearly identifiable senior individuals and not be wholly dispersed through the supply chain," she said.

A "universal shift in culture" is needed to support the reforms, she said.

"Changes to the regulatory regime will help, but on their own will not be sufficient unless we can change the culture away from one of doing the minimum required for compliance, to one of taking ownership and responsibility for delivering a safe system throughout the life cycle of a building," Dame Judith said.

Dame Judith was appointed by the government to lead an independent review into building regulations and fire safety following the Grenfell Tower fire. The fire in June killed 71 people. Dame Judith's review is separate from the public inquiry that has also been set up to look into the disaster.

Katherine Metcalfe, who specialises in fire safety regulation at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that Dame Judith's recommendations seek reforms akin to the far-reaching changes implemented to improve health and safety offshore in response to the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, where 167 people died following an explosion on a North Sea oil production platform.

We can expect Dame Judith's final report, due to be published in spring 2018, to introduce new duties for individuals, backed up by criminal sanctions for failure to comply, Metcalfe said.

In the long term, Dame Judith said she wants to see a move towards a risk-based approach based on framework or goal-setting standards, with the detail of how to comply being left to better-defined duty holders.

Metcalfe said that implementing that recommendation would alter the style of building regulation to make it more like health and safety law. She said it is perhaps unsurprising that Dame Judith has made recommendations in this respect given her background as former chair of the Health and Safety Executive.

In addition to longer term reforms, Dame Judith also outlined interim recommendations for immediate action. One of those recommendations concerns the competence and qualifications of those working on the design, construction, inspection and maintenance of complex and high-risk buildings. 

Dame Judith's recommendation puts industry, professional and accreditation bodies on notice that they must work together to establish a robust, comprehensive and coherent competence assurance system covering all disciplines for work on such buildings. This assurance programme should apply to engineers, those installing and maintaining fire safety systems and other safety-critical systems, fire engineers, fire risk assessors, fire safety enforcement officers and building control inspectors, according to the recommendation.

Metcalfe said that if industry fails to put in place the system it is likely to result in legislation being introduced.

Metcalfe said: "There have long been calls for improved regulation of fire risk assessors. Notably, this was explored at the Fatal Accident Inquiry into a fire at the Rose Park care home which resulted in the death of 14 residents in 2004, almost 14 years ago. Whilst industry schemes have developed, they are diverse and participation is not compulsory." 

"A new scheme might well take a similar form to the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register (CSHCR) developed by industry in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive to raise standards and ensure minimum competence levels amongst health and safety consultants. Any new register would be much wider, given the number of professional disciplines identified by Dame Judith in her report," she said.

Other headline interim measures include a proposed tightening of the requirement to review fire risk assessments. Instead of having to conduct those assessments on a "regular" basis, as is currently the case, the assessments would have to be carried out annually.

A further requirement to share fire risk assessments with building residents and the appropriate fire and rescue service is also to be introduced.

UK secretary of state for communities and local government, Sajid Javid, confirmed that the government accepted all of the recommendations made in Dame Judith's interim report.

"We agree with her call for a change in culture and a more effective system that will encourage people to do the right thing and hold to account those who try to cut corners," Javid said in a speech in parliament. "Everyone who is part of the system – including government – has an important role to play in delivering this change in culture and mind set. We fully support this direction of travel that has been signalled in Dame Judith’s report."