The Symptoms Vs the Disease
by David Frise
Let’s look at the issues caused by regulations and lack of enforcement:-
There are rightly calls for wholesale change and after years of sniping at ‘unnecessary regulations’, we may have to reverse the attempts at cutting red tape.
But what were those regulations that were consigned to history, might they have led to this tragedy? That is a more difficult question to answer. We all complain about red tape but when asked which regulations would you like to get rid of, invariably a room full of construction specialists will be unable to name one. In fact, they will usually include some they feel should be added.
So it is not necessarily that the government has revoked some essential piece of safety regulation, it is more that they have set the tone. Regulation is an unnecessary impediment to innovation and progress, usually dreamed up by some faceless bureaucrat that the government can do nothing about, but accept and implement.
As a consequence, you have a culture of non-enforcement. The biggest complaint of specialist contractors is that building regulations are paid lip service. There are precious few prosecutions for a failure meet the requirements of building standards and none for a failure to comply with the energy efficiency targets described in Part L of building regulations. When challenged, DCLG, the department responsible for building regulations, ask “what should we do, call in the building police?”
At the very least there is a culture of neglect, as we have seen with the delays to Part B of building regulations, which include fire regulations. In fact, the role of Building Control has progressively been downgraded, with the provision of private providers, this adds a commercial dimension to the checking of buildings. It is not about doing a thorough inspection, it’s ‘can you do it cheaply’ and ‘can you help get around more expensive requirements by beneficially interpreting regulations?’
The process was clearly identified in the recently published Edinburgh Schools Report into the closure of 17 schools in Edinburgh following a wall collapse;
A number of witnesses to the Inquiry identified a desire to reduce the cost of fees as a major factor in deciding the level of provision of effective inspection of construction, rather than a serious assessment of the risks of not providing for adequate independent scrutiny
Consequently, with little or no chance of prosecution, a culture of non-compliance is prevalent. And this is portrayed, or it was until Grenfell, as a victimless crime.
This culture of neglect will hopefully be addressed and redressed with Dame Judith Hackitt, Chair of the Engineering Employers Federation, leading a new independent review of Building Regulations. The review announced on Friday as part of the continuing response to the Grenfell tragedy and is the first opportunity for meaningful review of Building Regulations in many years. At the BESA, we are encouraged by the broader focus of this review and its focus on tall buildings, compliance and enforcement.
The simple solution to addressing regulation and enforcement does not require rafts of legislation (except perhaps in fire safety), but the simple enforcement of simplified regulations, which are designed to give us a safe, healthy built environment that we can enjoy in a sustainable way. For this to work, Building Regulations and Planning Consents need to be matched to output, not theoretical models as they currently are. In other words, the process should be about what you actually deliver, not what you promised to deliver.
We are encouraged by the broader focus of this review and its focus on tall buildings, compliance and enforcement. Dame Judith’s appointment is significant, as a former head of the Health and Safety Executive and an active fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, it shows the government appreciates the importance of engineering expertise to undertake a review of this nature.
For Part L of Building Regulations, which deals with the conservation of fuel and power, for example, this would mean instead of complicated SAP and SBEM modelling, the requirement would be to meet a notional energy and carbon target per square meter. How you achieve that would be up to you as the expert designer, but you would be required to prove that you had met the target or produce an explanation of why you had not.
Someone with an engineering background, like Dame Judith, will understand what changes can be made for the future and how to make the regulations more effective.
Who will enforce it? Not the DCLG’s “buildings police”, but the freeholder of the property. They would be required to prove that the building meets the requirements of building and planning regulations and the local authority could audit a small percentage. The same principle that HMRC employs, with crippling fines for those who try to cheat the system.
We may see a future where freeholders would need to employ professional experts to carry out this task on their behalf and at their own expense. You would also have to allow scope for those who genuinely innovate and fail (not with safety of course) but otherwise you place the emphasis and responsibility where it should lie; with the freeholder.
Before we throw our hands up in horror at the additional expense, they are not being asked to do anything they are not already required to – but don’t. Surely, they intend to build the thing they put in for planning? You wouldn’t dream of getting in an aircraft that had not been tested, so why would you live or work in an untested building, when you spend over 80% of your time inside?
Our built environment has a huge impact on our society, the buildings and places we construct will be there for years. A couple of thousand pounds saved by a developer or a contractor in the short term can have huge costs long term for all of us when it comes to health, safety and economics. With 455 towers planned for London alone, the focus will be on these buildings but the same issues apply to our schools (witness the recent Edinburgh Schools’ closures because of structural safety concerns) our hospitals, offices and homes.
We have seen countless reports on the ills of the construction industry, going all the way back to the Simon Report in 1944. Almost all focus on dealing with the symptoms and not the disease. Talk of collaboration, a digital revolution and innovation will all help, but to fix this we need to start with the disease. We need to be building an entire product, not just assembling a collection of individual products. The freeholder has to want a complete product that meets design, complies with regulations and planning requirements and must have responsibility to deliver that to the population at large.
We all live in the built environment, so is it unreasonable to ask freeholders to be responsible for making sure they enhance that environment through sustainable, safe development?
The responsibility to ensure the compliance of the building with the required standards lies with the builder who should have in place proper inspection of the works, however by definition such self-managed inspections cannot be independent of the builder.
With the launch of Dame Judith’s new independent review, we are finally going to have an open and frank discussion on the regulatory system around design, construction and ongoing management of buildings. We can examine the related compliance and enforcement issues and we are ready to work together towards updated building regulations that are safer, more efficient and fit for purpose.
We would like to acknowledge Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) in allowing FIS to reproduce David Frise’s article.