Raising the Bar is an important report with many laudable aims, but will the industry and government back it?

chloe mcculloch black

Mid-August is never a great time to release a heavyweight report – the fact is the summer holidays mean few people are about and in any case very little presently can penetrate the wall of Brexit no-deal fears that dominate all media outlets. So it was perhaps not surprising that on Friday last week when the Competence Steering Group (CSG) decided to release its interim report, called Raising the Bar, on competence schemes for all people working on high-risk residential buildings (HRRB), very few in construction seemed to register the fact.

In normal times you might expect a flurry of press released responses to any formal follow-up to the Hackitt report’s call for industry reform, but that was not the case. Building has done the rounds to get reaction and at the time of going to press not many people seemed to have read it. 

If the recommendations in this report – designed to raise the standards of the construction professions and trades – are implemented, it could be one of the biggest shake-ups the industry has seen in decades

Let’s hope that’s just a reflection of people being busy sunning themselves in warmer climes and soon they will be back and ready to get stuck into the detail, because if the recommendations in this report – designed to raise the standards of the construction professions and trades – are implemented, it could be one of the biggest shake-ups the industry has seen in decades.

So what does the report call for and how radical is it? The executive summary, with a foreword from Graham Watts, who leads the CSG, sets out the broad aims: “The CSG’s goal was to ensure that ALL individuals involved in HRRBs, including those who do not identify with being a ‘professional’, cannot accidentally (or deliberately) slip through the net – and moreover, that their obligation to carry out their duties competently is spelt out to them.”

Of course, aspects of the report have been well trailed in recent months, not least by Watts himself who spoke at a Building Live event in June. There he outlined the 12 working groups tasked with coming up with competence frameworks for the various professions and trades, as well as establishing an overarching competence body that will sit within a new building safety regulator that has been proposed by the government in response to Hackitt.

One of the report’s expected main proposals is for the role of the overarching competence body to be taken by a new Building Safety Competence Committee, and it says this dovetails with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s suggestion of driving standards among the general workforce while focusing on three legal dutyholders: principal designer, principal contractor and building safety manager.

But the report also appears to hold out the possibility of widening the scope of buildings affected by its recommendations. While the legal scope of the competence framework is to ensure standards for people working on HRRBs, the report says: “Our ambition is that in time the competence frameworks should be adopted for all building types”. The CSG told us its report refers “to buildings in scope to the recommendations”, meaning HRRBs, but added “which may change over time as the scope widens”.  If it did, this would surely have much wider bureaucratic consequences for the industry and in some areas mean costly new burdens for contractors.

Even without the widened scope, industry experts have raised some concerns, questioning how the competence frameworks will work in practice, who will pay for all this new assessment work and who will maintain registers of competent people. One of the industry groups that stands to be most affected by the report if implemented is defined in the document as “installers” – those who would not normally be expected to have formal accreditation. Under the recommendations, they would have to demonstrate minimum qualifications and to undertake regular CPD training.

It’s obviously the less regulated end of the industry that has come under the greater scrutiny after the Grenfell disaster, but few would argue that standards need to be improved across the board and this raises quite fundamental questions about competency – what it is and how you prove it. Would a highly qualified tunnelling engineer be competent to work on an HRRB, for example? And who decides?

Let’s be clear, everyone we have spoken to has welcomed the broad aims of the report, acknowledging them as “laudable”. But as Steve Cooper, a director at fire engineering consultant Tenos, says: “How this [report is] implemented and who enforces it is going to be very problematic and difficult to agree.”  

Of course, this is only an interim report and it is out for consultation for two months. The CSG says it wants to use this period to gauge reaction from all sectors to its recommendations on issues such as affordability and insurability. For individual companies such issues will no doubt be a concern, but there is a strong sense that we are some considerable way off from seeing the substance of this report becoming a reality. Industry buy-in is a key stepping stone along the way, but government backing will be the clincher. It’s hard to see how any of this can happen without it adding costs, so change will surely have to be mandated to get more resistant elements of the industry on board. Will Boris Johnson’s government have the time or inclination for that?

Chloë McCulloch, editor, Building