Against the odds it seems that progress has been made behind the scenes – with, rumour has it, the help of about 100 civil servants – to implement Hackitt’s review
“It is time for this industry sector to step up to its responsibilities. I call on industry leaders to start working with government and start delivering these reforms now.” That was Dame Judith Hackitt’s challenge to construction back in May at the launch of her review into building regulations and fire safety.
In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people, she called for wholesale culture change in the construction industry and a regulatory system that assigned responsibility and held people to account.
In all, her report contained 53 recommendations and she warned at the time that the industry should not be allowed to pick and choose which to implement; there should be no compromises with people’s safety ever again.
This is not a case of an industry outsider coming in, writing a report that tells everyone they are doing it all wrong, only to head off, never to be heard of again
Well, it’s five months on from the report and many people – including residents of towers covered in ACM cladding – are wondering what the government and the construction industry are doing to make sure these recommendations become a reality. Some of them got the chance to ask Hackitt herself this week at a House of Commons event designed to bring “together influential individuals who support the systemic change in the construction industry”.
At the launch of the 100% Hackitt initiative, she had to address criticisms from some of the MPs on the speaker panel and audience members that not enough was being done to make buildings safer. She stressed that the communities department had committed a significant amount of resources to implementing the recommendations in her report and it has emerged that the secretary of state, James Brokenshire, would be unveiling an implementation plan – including details of the new Joint Competent Authority to oversee management of safety risks in high-rise residential buildings across their entire lifecycle – before Christmas.
It is also interesting to hear from Hackitt that she is part of a new safety committee set up to implement industry change. This is not a case of an industry outsider coming in, writing a report that tells everyone they are doing it all wrong, only to head off, never to be heard of again. Hackitt says she wants to stick around to see her recommendations through.
Part of her reasoning seems to be that she has identified a tendency in the construction industry to launch multiple initiatives in a fragmented way (there are probably few insiders who would disagree with her there). She would prefer everyone to take a bit more time and she wants to help co-ordinate the change.
This is all positive stuff. So why the level of distrust evident among some of the event attendees this week? Clearly Grenfell is always going to be an emotive issue. Emma Dent Coad, one of the MP speakers at the event, voiced the concerns of her Kensington constituents when she branded the way contractors substitute building materials with cheaper products “disgusting” and suggested the industry’s attempts to reform were too little, too late and happening too slowly.
And it was noticeable how quickly Brokenshire moved to ban combustible cladding materials – despite Hackitt not calling for such such a measure – evidently keen to show government is listening to public opinion. Clearly, Hackitt’s logic that prescriptive guidance will not be enough to fix a broken system did not convince the public, and only a ban would do, although some campaigners think even the proposed ban does not go far enough.
Then there is the news that central government has started to distribute £400m to replace ACM cladding on high-rise residential buildings owned by councils or housing associations. Again, this has been welcomed, although there are demands for more funding to replace other types of cladding feared to be unsafe.
But there’s another source of discontent: a perception that while ministers say there can never again be another Grenfell and that social housing residents are a government priority, the reality is that too much ministerial and civil service time is taken up handling Brexit. It’s an understandable point of view given that the government stated this summer there are 7,000 civil servants working on Brexit and there’s approved funding for 9,000 more “to accelerate preparations”. It’s been widely touted that many of these are now focused purely on the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
Every day seems to bring a fresh Brexit challenge for the prime minister to face down. After last week’s Brussels summit failed to make a breakthrough in the negotiations (she’s 95% there, folks), she was in the House of Commons on Monday explaining how she is balancing the need to deliver on the Leave vote while simultaneously doing her best to protect jobs and ensure nothing gets in the way of entrepreneurs and small businesses. Good luck with that one.
So, eye off the ball? Well, clearly Theresa May, her cabinet and their civil servants have a lot on their plate. But against the odds it seems that progress has been made behind the scenes – with, rumour has it, the help of about 100 civil servants – to implement Hackitt’s review. With a fair wind, we could see some regulatory changes going before parliament before the end of the year. There’s a long way to go, but it’s just possible this could be one of those rare things: an industry report that actually leads to action and change within our lifetime.