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Review of building regs lays bare a regime 'not fit for purpose'

The interim report from the government’s review is a damning indictment of a system marked by confusion and lack of responsibility

Dame Judith Hackitt, leading the review of building regulations ordered in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy, has described the current regulatory system as ‘not fit for purpose’ in dealing with high-rise and complex buildings.

The review’s interim report reveals a desperate state of affairs, ranging from an overly complicated set of guidance - with reams of Approved Documents that contractors too often read in isolation; to key safety functions that have no standards for competence;  through to a system which regularly creates confusion over who is responsible for the work and the building itsellf.

Dame Judith begins her interim report with a fundamental conclusion about the inadequacy of the regs, then continues in the same vein for almost 50 separate points.

Confusion about the regs themselves

The report says: ”The Building Regulations 2010 are clear about the outcomes to be achieved but not about where responsibilities lie. There is widespread confusion about what constitutes the regulations and what is guidance. The guidance on ways to meet the Building Regulations, set out in the Approved Documents, are frequently referred to as ‘the regulations’; The Approved Documents are not produced in a user-friendly format.”

Responsiblity not taken appropriately

The responsibility chain is one of the areas where work is most needed, the review says:

”There is a general lack of clarity around, or statement of, roles and responsibilities throughout the system. Even where there are requirements for key activities to take place it is not always clear who has responsibility for making these happen. There is no requirement for identifiable, named dutyholders responsible for ensuring and proving compliance with the Building Regulations.”

Competence for complex structures not proven

Competence is another area where the current system is sorely lacking, according to the interim review. The report sets out starkly that the demands of high-rise and complex buildings are not met with a suitable integrated qualification.

”The means of assessing and ensuring appropriate levels of competence throughout the system are unclear and inadequate. The competence of those involved in the design, construction, ongoing operational management and maintenance of complex and high-risk buildings has been called into question. While there are many instances of competent people planning, building and maintaining buildings in a conscientious way, there is no consistent way to assess or verify their competence. Numerous examples have been quoted, demonstrating lack of competence among designers, builders, fire engineers, fire consultants, fire risk assessors, building control inspectors and others, which compromises the fire safety of buildings.”

Enforcement and compliance are not followed through

The report is scathing about the current lack of enforcement within the building regulations infrastructure:

“Enforcement and sanction measures are poor and do not provide adequate means of compliance assurance, deterrence or redress for non-compliance; There is widespread deviation from what is originally designed to what is actually built, without clear and consistent requirements to seek authorisation or review, or to document changes made…While informal enforcement activity by building control bodies generally leads to compliance, where non-compliance is identified, LABCs are deterred from taking formal enforcement actions by the cost of pursuing cases through the courts, and the historical failure of the courts to impose robust sanctions.”

Products and certification

One of the most critical sections in the interim report - and perhaps one of the most surprising to those outside of the materials supply chain - is the assessment of product compliance and certification. It reveals a regime where suppliers are self-certifying products as meeting the required standards, based on desk studies rather than realistic or in situ testing, and testing individual components in isolation rather than testing them as complete systems. The Grenfell cladding is a typical example of this.

The report says: ”Current methods for testing, certification and marketing of construction products and systems are not clear. DCLG’s Building Safety Programme identified more than 200 high-rise residential buildings across England fitted with aluminium composite materials cladding systems that are likely to present a fire hazard. There does not appear to be a single, simple reason to explain why so many buildings are affected.”

The review goes on to criticise the methods of product certification with a litany of failings: ”Products are marketed with specification data presented in ways which can easily be misinterpreted; Individual elements are being used as part of compound systems that are not being fully tested as systems; The widespread use of desktop studies to assess equivalence of products and systems is not properly managed or controlled in terms of both the circumstances in which they can be used and the qualifications and experience of those undertaking them; Test results, desktop studies, and the details of those who produce them, are not made public; A number of people engaged in the system have said that the test conditions used do not adequately reflect real-life conditions;The integrity and efficacy of product and system classifications are highly dependent on correct installation by competent and knowledgeable persons.

Fire safety

Fire safety was obviously a key concern for the review in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy and Dame Judith’s findings revealed a wholesale lack of appreciation of the safety-critical nature of fire safety provision, responsibility and certification.

The report says: ”There is no requirement in the Building Regulations for existing buildings to be brought up to the latest fire safety standards, as long as during any refurbishment the existing provisions are ’not made worse’…There is evidence of a number of key control stages of the process not being followed as intended; for example, the handover of fire safety information and the issuing of Completion Certificates.”

It calls into question the current regime of fire risk assessment: ”In particular, for fire risk assessors undertaking risk assessments on complex and high-risk buildings there are no statutory registration or accreditation requirements…Information provided to residents of complex and high-risk buildings on the key fire safety measures, their importance and residents’ responsibilities is highly variable and too often non-existent; Fire and rescue service personnel may raise concerns about compliance with the Fire Safety Order which are not acted upon because of cost, because the building work is too far advanced to make changes or because their advice is ignored; Once a building is occupied there is a requirement for a fire risk assessment to be carried out regularly by a ‘responsible person’, but no requirement for this to be reported to a regulator or for this to be shared with residents.”

Residents’ views are not being heard

The report notes that many current tenant management systems are overly complex and bureaucratic for residents to raise concerns about the buildings they live in. It says: “The route for residents’ concerns to be raised and addressed is unclear and inadequate.

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