Building safety champion Dame Judith Hackitt has announced plans to recognise companies who reform their working practices before they are forced to do so by new regulations.
Hackitt, speaking at the BESA National Conference, said businesses should not be waiting for the new building regulations due to come into force in 2023 and the appointment of the new building safety regulator before making essential changes.
She also appealed to the industry’s better nature by asking business leaders to reflect on the “shameful legacy of regulatory failure” that has left people “stuck in apartments that have become like prisons” due to poor quality work and safety breaches.
She told online delegates: “People choose to live in high-rise blocks because we are a crowded island and those people deserve to feel safe. We owe it to them.”
She congratulated the sector for the way it had dealt with the Covid pandemic; adding that it proved the industry could change its working practices if it wanted to. “So, if you can do it for one reason you can do it for another,” she said.
The draft building safety bill, which was developed after the government accepted all of the recommendations in the Hackitt Report produced in response to the Grenfell disaster, will create a legal framework for holding non-compliant companies to account. The new regulator will also have retrospective powers to raise prosecutions for poor-quality work being carried out now.
“It will no longer be possible for people to say they did what the rules said they could; or did it because the rules didn’t tell them they shouldn’t,” Hackitt told the conference. “Knowing that the regulations are coming should be enough reason to start making changes now, but it also makes business sense to get ahead of competitors and ahead of the game – you can then avoid costly arguments about rectification in the future. Not to mention the potential threat of added penalties from the regulator.”
She said there were too many companies not doing anything at all, but there were also a “good number” of early adopters. “So, we are looking at ways to recognise those companies and reward them with a special accreditation for taking the lead – giving you another reason to be ahead of the game.”
Hackitt said the new regime would require a step change in approaches to safety management and control. “You must be able to demonstrate you have the system in place and the leadership to make sure work is done properly… and you will need to employ competent people at every stage.”
She also criticised firms that had deliberately decided not to record project information despite the widespread availability of digital technology that made it straightforward. “That will no longer be allowed,” said Hackitt.
CIBSE technical director Hywel Davies also described the draft bill as “the biggest shake-up of the construction industry in the past 40 years”.
Although the industry had been able to “see off” previous attempts at reform in the past, Davies said that would not happen this time because the Grenfell tragedy had changed the political landscape.
“There is a new political drive. It’s certainly the biggest change in our lifetime,” he said.
Davies also pointed out that the new regulator would oversee all buildings – not just the residential and ‘at risk’ buildings identified by the Hackitt Review. It would also have considerable enforcement powers over product manufacturers.
Hackitt said buildings over 18 metres in height were the focus of the legislation because that is where there is the greatest potential for loss of life. “However, that does not mean we don’t recognise the difficulty for people in other types of building,” she added.