Building a safer future

Hywel Davies assesses the implications of the government’s fire safety implementation plan

The government’s response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report arrived, as promised, late in the ‘autumn’. On 18 December, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, published the implementation plan, with a very heavy emphasis on the safety of residents, in a statement to the House of Commons.

He reiterated Dame Judith’s conclusion that the current system is not fit for purpose and that a radical systemic overhaul is required.

While acknowledging this will take time, Brokenshire noted that the recent amendments to the Building Regulations – which came into force on 21 December 2018 (see panel ‘Combustible cladding ban’) and cover external walls of buildings containing residential units more than 18m high – already go beyond Dame Judith’s recommendations.

Reform programme

The Implementation Plan commits the government to take forward all Dame Judith’s recommendations. This will require a significant programme of reform that will take years to deliver in full. It is intended to:

  • Create a more effective regulatory and accountability framework to give greater oversight of the industry
  • Introduce clearer standards and guidance, and a new Standards Committee to advise on construction product and system standards, and regulations
  • Put residents at the heart of the new system of building safety, empowering them with more effective routes for engagement and redress
  • Help create a culture change and a more responsible building industry, from design through to construction and management.

There is a commitment to work in four specific areas. We are promised a stronger, more effective regulatory and accountability framework – focused on keeping people safe – and a tougher oversight regime with stronger and better-enforced sanctions to prevent and punish wrongdoing. Readers of this column over its 10-year life will know how much that is needed and how challenging it may prove to be.

The plan promises an early trial of the system soon, through a ‘joint regulators group’ to help the transition to the new regulatory framework. This appears to take forward Dame Judith’s idea of a ‘joint competent authority’, bringing various regulators together.

There will be a consultation later in the year about extending the scope of this body beyond the original high-rise residential buildings to incorporate other building types and occupancy characteristics.

Clearer standards and guidance are proposed that can be better understood by those carrying out building work, so they can readily identify what is required to make buildings safe. There will also be action to improve the way in which construction products are tested, labelled and marketed.

Combustible cladding ban

The Building (Amendment) Regulations, SI 2018/1230, were published on 29 November and came into force on 21 December 2018. The amendment implements the promised ‘ban on combustible cladding’ by prohibiting the use of combustible materials anywhere in the external walls of high-rise buildings more than 18m above ground level that contain one or more dwellings.

For more information, see CIBSE’s technical note.

At the heart of the new system, will be a stronger voice for residents. In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, it became very obvious that residents’ concerns had gone unheard – a complaint echoed extensively by many others in social housing. The plan commits government to give residents better information and to empower and engage them. Those views have also shaped the government’s recently published social housing green paper.1

The government wants the new system: to drive better communication between residents and those who manage their buildings; to deliver access to appropriate information; and create effective routes for raising concerns and offering a remedy when things go wrong. The plan is clear – there must be properly defined and accountable dutyholders, even if the various legal structures may make this complicated. A further consultation is promised in the spring.

Culture change

The final aspect of the implementation plan sets out how the government intends to work with industry professionals ‘to help them lead the required culture change and prioritise public safety’. There is a commitment to ‘champion those who are doing the right thing, [and] challenge those who have further to go, including by supporting local authorities to take enforcement action’. This is welcome news and, as a professional body, CIBSE has to be committed wholeheartedly to support this.

The plan acknowledges the immediate and ongoing industry response to the call for greater definition and explicit assessments of competence for professionals working on these buildings. It commits the government to look at the outcome of this when it is complete in May, and to consider whether legislation is needed to assure the competence of those carrying out building work.

This has fundamental implications for CIBSE members and, possibly, even greater implications for those who do not belong to a UK professional body.

It is looking increasingly likely that – for those who work on the higher-risk buildings that come within the scope of the new regime – there will be a clear and legally backed regime requiring assessment of competence. Those who are already chartered professionals with UK bodies will probably have a significant start, but there will still be a need to show fitness to work on the buildings that are covered by the new rules.

This implementation plan promises a major programme of work to address these challenges to the way we build and the way we manage building safety. The government is clear that it is required to ‘rebuild public trust and deliver the meaningful, lasting change that is needed’.

Achieving the systematic overhaul envisaged will require all parties to change and to put residents’ or occupiers’ safety at the heart of the system. As we begin a new year, what better commitment could we all make than to wholeheartedly support this call for change? We owe it to the victims of Grenfell Tower.


  1. A new deal for social housing green paper.