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News & opinion

22 MAR 2018

The future of building control

David McCullogh, Chair of RICS' Leaders Forum on Fire Safety, weighs up initial industry submissions to the Hackitt Review and considers the future of building control.

The future of building control is something that has been discussed many times. I have been involved in the profession for 40 years, and it has been a constant theme over that period.

Many documents issued over the years have resulted in step changes to building control, from the introduction of competition in 1985 to two separate revisions to the overall system in 2007 and 2009; RICS responded to the latter through its involvement in forming the Building Control Alliance and preparing its subsequent report, 'A Building Control System for the 21st Century'.

Unlike the introduction of competition, which centred on the building control service, the 2007 and 2009 revisions widened their scope to include the whole system – legislators, designers, constructors, auditors and even users.

More recently, the terrible events at Grenfell Tower have again raised questions as to the adequacy of the building control system. There are two separate inquiries going on into this that will inevitably affect the industry.

The first is the public inquiry chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, and the second is the independent review of the Building Regulations and fire safety being carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt and her team (see Building Control Journal November/December 2017, p.4-5).

The review

The Hackitt Review does not presume anything about the outcome of the Moore-Bick inquiry; but it was felt that there was sufficient early commentary being made in the industry’s reactions to the Grenfell fire to warrant a closer look and debate.

RICS responded with the establishment of a Leaders Forum on the issues, which involves a range of experts from various disciplines across the organisation who can offer a dynamic voice on emerging issues, particularly in terms of giving guidance to members and allowing them a means of input to the Moore-Bick Inquiry and Hackitt Review.

The latter review aims to examine:

  • the regulatory system around the design, construction and ongoing management of buildings in relation to fire safety
  • related compliance and enforcement issues
  • international regulation and experience in this area.

Ten specific questions are being asked by the review:

  1. Are the Building Regulations easy to understand?
  2. Are roles and responsibilities evident and understood in relation to building work’s compliance with the regulations?
  3. Are roles and responsibilities evident and understood in relation to maintaining fire safety in the occupied building?
  4. Is competence adequate throughout the building control system?
  5. Is the enforcement and sanctions regime adequate?
  6. Do tenants and residents have an adequate voice?
  7. Are the quality assurance and testing regimes for materials adequate?
  8. Would different regimes for high- and low-rise buildings be sensible?
  9. Are there lessons that could be learned from other parts of the world?
  10. Are there lessons that could be learned from other sectors?
  11.  

RICS has responded to the Hackitt Review in a strategic manner by assisting the Construction Industry Council (CIC) in offering an overall response from the professions, backed up with our independent submission to the review.

The Leaders Forum’s views do not only relate to the matters addressed in the Hackitt Review but also wider areas about which RICS members are being asked, including asset management and impact. Readers may be interested to learn that there is an open RICS community about fire safety in which you can participate should you wish. This can be joined by emailing internationalsupport@rics.org.

We have attended a CIC briefing with Dame Judith, and represented RICS and CIC at a round table of wider stakeholders in the field of fire safety. As this is an ongoing process, it is likely that there will be an interim report followed by further work; we on the RICS team would be happy to hear any views on this. Dame Judith is expected to report early in the new year, and as you read this her interim report may have been issued. Look out for our response to this on the RICS website.

Turning to the submissions to the Moore-Bick Inquiry, there are common themes emerging, and it will be interesting to see where his report eventually goes on these.

Statute v guidance

On the clarity of documentation used to support the overall building control system, there are many observers who think that the difference between statute and guidance is commonly misunderstood. This has long been reported and will come as no surprise to readers of this article.

This misunderstanding can feed into a perception of non-compliance when an alternative approach has been used on a building, such as fire engineering. It will be useful therefore if the distinction between statue and guidance is clarified. There have also been suggestions that a full review of Approved Document B is overdue, and that long-held assumptions behind fire safety strategy, people’s behaviour, escape times and so on may need reconsidering. This need for reflection may also be affected by the Moore-Bick Inquiry’s findings.

There are commentaries, too, on the functional nature of the Building Regulations and the perceived confusion this creates compared to the previous, more prescriptive regime. We understand this, but while we support more clarity we do not support a return to prescription. The freedoms for innovation and flexibility in a functional system far outweigh the perceived confusion, which could be overcome with more education rather than a return to prescription.

Roles and responsibilities

There will inevitably be a focus on the role of the building control body and the fire authorities, but no doubt there will be also be a thorough examination of roles and responsibilities throughout the design and construction process.

As we all know, the statute lays the responsibility for compliance on “the person carrying out the work”, but we need to get to the root of who this is. Many respondents have referred to the comparative clarity of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations regime, and perhaps we will see some parallels drawn between these and the statute. The role and competence of fire consultants in particular need to be reinforced, with some suggesting that they should be regulated.

In regard to the maintenance of fire safety in the completed building, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 regime has been criticised as being difficult to understand, thus making subsequent compliance problematic – especially in relation to carrying out suitable fire risk assessments.

Another common concern is the failure to comply with Building Regulation 38 when fire safety information is not passed on to the responsible person. It may be that this information is made available, but communication of its availability is not clear, or the information is not presented in a manner fit for the intended purpose.

Competence

Competence will be a big issue, as there are references to this in many industry responses I have seen. Building control bodies will be challenged about their competence, as will fire authorities, but I am sure that there will also be challenges for many other organisations. If roles and responsibilities are to be challenged in this way, then ensuring competence is essential.

There are still too many people relying too heavily on the nod from a building control body or fire authority. The inevitable references to more supervision on site are being made, and the RICS and CIC submissions reinforce the importance of this: getting work carried out correctly in the first place rather than focusing on how to spot defects after the event is crucial to compliance.

The competence of fire risk assessors has been identified as an area needing attention, so we are pressing for, and assisting in, the establishment of a registration scheme for such individuals.

Enforcement

Every time that the success of the building control system is debated, the issue of enforcement and sanctions raises its head. We have long debated the issue of how hard it is to get successful enforcement in motion, and amendments were made to the regime in the 2008 revisions. Industry responses to the Hackitt Review are still suggesting enforcement continues to be weak, however, and local authorities will no doubt be keen to see further enhancements if possible.

Tenants’ voices

Giving tenants and residents a voice is something new to the Building Regulations regime. Allowing them a chance to express themselves in the consultation process will of course be possible, but it is not likely to be the same for the Building Regulations process.

There could be developments in the Fire Safety Order, perhaps; however, most responses I have seen have veered away from commenting on this. It will be interesting to see Dame Judith’s initial thoughts on the matter.

Quality assurance and testing

Quality assurance and testing of materials are other areas on which there has been much commentary. Some are suggesting that testing regimes need to be reconsidered in the light of emerging worldwide issues, particularly fires and cladding. There has been a lot of criticism of the complexities, inconsistencies and cross-referencing capability of test reports and compliance requirements. I am sure this is due to the desire of testing houses to be scientifically accurate rather than any wish to be opaque, but perhaps some thought will be given to different methods of reporting.

Manufacturers’ literature has also been criticised along similar lines, and there may be pressure for some common international standards in this area – pressure which we would support.

High rise v low rise

With regard to the separate standards for high-rise and low-rise buildings, I think there will be a consensus that these can be easily accommodated in the existing guidance formats. We have, however, suggested that thought should be given to the inclusion in Building Regulations of property protection for socially important buildings such as hospitals, schools and social housing, as the loss of these can have a considerable effect on the welfare of local communities.

Benchmarking

Many responses compare UK building control with the profession elsewhere in the world, or with other professions, and these examples are all worthy of consideration. Sir John Egan once talked about the value of comparing building control to the automotive industry, and there are similar examples in industry responses of the lessons that can be learned from high-risk engineering sectors such as aviation.

Too often we claim our industry is unique without giving serious consideration to benchmarks from elsewhere. However, it is such comparisons that can enable remarkable improvements for any profession, and it is the right time for us now to embrace these possibilities.

Acknowledgement

The author wishes to thank Martin Conlon, Chairman of RICS Building Control Professional Group, for his support with this work.

David McCullogh is Chair of the RICS Leaders Forum on Fire Safety

This article was first pubished in RICS Building Control Journal (Feb/Mar 2018)