The Hackitt Report calls for a “radical rethink” of the regulatory system. But will government support the findings, or will it just “cherry pick” the easy wins?

Stephanie canham landscape

The final report on the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety - Building a Safer Future (aka The Hackitt Report) was published on 16 May, just under a year after the tragic events at Grenfell Tower.

The report calls for a “radical rethink” of the regulatory system and construction sector’s approach to fire safety in higher risk residential buildings (HRRBs). It does not pull any punches. It attributes industry failings to matters such as ignorance, indifference, lack of clarity about rules and responsibilities, inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement and a failing building industry with a “race to the bottom” culture that prioritises profit over safety. Whilst the report focuses on the effect of these issues on HRRBs, it is adamant that the findings could be of wider application and states that reform of the procurement process should be adopted by the government not just for HRRBs, but also for other multi‑occupancy and institutional residential buildings.

Is the government inclined to support the findings of the report or will it just “cherry pick” the easy wins? Will there be legislative change? That remains to be seen

One matter for debate which arises out of the report is whether procurement processes and contractual arrangements between parties to a construction project will have to change to accommodate its recommendations. Dame Judith certainly thinks so. There is express criticism of: design and build contracting “which can often result in uncontrolled, undocumented and poorly designed changes”. Avoidance of accountability being “handed down” through the supply chain; low contract margins and restrictive payment practices the report suggests should be avoided as they put pressure on the supply chain to save costs by using cheaper and unsuitable materials.

Whilst the report recognises that construction companies are businesses, it robustly maintains that prioritising building safety and establishing collaborative relationships between the client, contractor and the supply chain will result in better value, efficiency and increased productivity. It is claimed that this should offset any increased costs of implementation of the report’s core recommendations.

Whether or not the construction industry will be persuaded by these assurances, the report is unlikely to be controversial in its view that safety considerations for those who live and work in new and refurbished structures should be paramount. Safety of those working on and around sites has been at the forefront of a drive for industry change since the introduction of the Construction Design and Management (Regulations) (CDM) in 1994. The report advocates a similar regime to apply throughout the life cycle of buildings from the purchasing of land to the maintenance and occupation of the completed project. It also requires contracts to specify that safety requirements should not be compromised for reasons of cost reduction.

There would be a two-pronged approach to achieving these aims: identifying duty holders (with similar roles to that of the client, principal contractor and principal designer under the CDM) and the setting up of a new regulatory body in the form of a single Joint Competent Authority (JCA) to regulate and check fire and structural safety in HRRBs. These two recommendations, if put into practice would certainly prompt a review of contract conditions to expressly allocate new responsibilities and commercial risk. These ideas are not without potential difficulties. Two immediately spring to mind: how will ongoing liabilities for a building’s entire life cycle be funded and insured and how will the risks of delay/change be managed if building plans are not approved at the relevant stage by the JCA?

All these matters can be resolved if there is a willingness to do so and cultural change becomes a reality, but the report also intends there to be “real teeth” with its recommendations being backed up by legislation. This is intended to ultimately create “a system whereby duty holders will not be able to gain permission for land use, start the building work or begin occupation until they meet the necessary requirements”.

Is the government inclined to support the findings of the report or will it just “cherry pick” the easy wins? Will there be legislative change? That remains to be seen. The ministerial statement responding to the report published on 17 May was certainly full of sound and fury, but what does the statement actually signify? Who really knows?