What the Building Safety Bill means for construction

The Building Safety Bill sets the stage for the most fundamental reform of regulations relating to the construction and operation of buildings in two generations. Hywel Davies says it will lead to radical change for all

It is now a little over three years since the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower that ended 72 lives and changed many others forever. We have seen changes to both the Building Regulations and associated guidance to restrict the use of combustible materials in high-rise buildings.

We have also seen vastly more scrutiny of the fire performance of products specified for all new buildings and major refurbishments, as well as massive dislocation of the housing market as a result of the blanket application, by the insurance and finance industries, of enhanced scrutiny intended only for buildings above six storeys high.

Dame Judith Hackitt was appointed to review the Building Regulations and fire safety of high-rise residential buildings in August 2017. In May 2018, she made 52 recommendations for changes to the regulations and the way the industry operates in order to improve residents’ safety. Above all else, Dame Judith called for a change of culture, and an end to what she called the ‘race to the bottom’ that drove down standards, prices and any sense of personal responsibility.

Two years on, we have the Building Safety Bill. A draft Act of Parliament, it is not an easy read. It amends significantly the Building Act 1984 and creates a new national Building Safety Regulator (BSR) to provide stronger oversight of safety and performance for all buildings. It will initially be directly responsible for buildings above six storeys, or 18 metres high, with residential units, although the bill also gives powers to extend the regime to other buildings.

The draft bill underpins a new regime for the statutory management of the safety of high-rise residential buildings

The draft bill also underpins a new regime for the statutory management of the safety of high-rise residential buildings, covering the design, construction and operation of all buildings in scope – both new and existing – managed by the new regulator.

It heralds significant change for the building control profession. As recommended in the recent future of building control report, it contains enabling provisions for independent oversight, standards setting and codes of conduct for individual building control professionals and the organisations that employ them, public or private. There is also statutory registration of those professionals to protect the public interest and drive further improvements in competence in the building control sector. The bill also provides for the BSR to manage directly the building control function for buildings in scope.

All those working on high-rise residential buildings, not only building control professionals, will be required to demonstrate and maintain competence. New statutory roles and responsibilities are created for an ‘accountable person’ and a building safety manager, covering the operation of residential buildings in scope.

They must prepare and maintain safety cases, including for existing occupied buildings, for regular scrutiny by the BSR. These will employ the ‘golden thread’ of digital information to support safe management. Failure to comply will be a crime by the accountable person.

The bill also includes provisions to deliver a new homes ombudsman and a statutory regime for social housing complaints. It enables the creation of a new Construction Products Regulator, to work alongside the Building Safety Regulator, to oversee the system of product testing and certification. Outside of the European Union, government has greater freedom to decide which products to accept on the UK market.

The bill is drafted by lawyers, for lawyers, but it is also drafted for readers of this Journal – and for survivors of Grenfell and, indeed, all residents of high-rise residential buildings.

It is accompanied by extensive notes, which explain the intent of the new provision, how it changes current provisions, how proposed new powers will be used, and, in some cases, who is liable to go to prison.

At this time of year, columnists often propose reading lists for the summer holidays. The explanatory notes to the Building Safety Bill are perhaps an unusual recommendation, but in this unusual holiday season that we never want to relive, we owe it to all those who died in the fire at Grenfell Tower – and those who survived – to do everything in our power to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again.

Being familiar with the bill, and preparing for the imminent changes, is the least bit of CPD any building professional could do this summer.

Dr Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE