With the full Hackitt review due to be published in May, we’ll doubtless see promises of big, headline-grabbing structural changes. But without wider industry involvement, will changes receive the backing they need?
In a little under three months’ time on 14 June, the country will stop on the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington to remember the 72 people who died and the many others who were injured in the disaster. Public outrage will still be palpable and it will be left to politicians, community leaders, regulators and the media to explain why it happened and how it can be stopped from ever happening again.
The role of government and public sector bodies will once again come under fierce criticism, along with the construction and property management industry – the people who designed, built and installed the products and those who managed the tower and others like it across the country.
The construction industry has been largely silent apart from a few responses to probes by the media
Nearly one year on, many questions remain unanswered and we could have a long wait for Sir Martin Moore-Bick to carry out his public inquiry into the fire. Meanwhile we have had Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report into the Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety – publication of the full review is slated for May. Her initial findings, released at the end of last year, concluded, among other things, that a wholesale cultural change is required in the way buildings are designed, managed and built. She concluded that there has been a systemic failure in the way our sector operates. And she highlighted six key areas of focus.
In broad terms, this amounts to ensuring future regulation is proportionate and risk based; clarifying roles and responsibilities in building safety; improving competency in the construction industry; improving the process and enforcement of regulations; engaging with residents to ensure their voices are heard; and improving the testing, marketing and quality assurance of construction products.
In other words, she has been running the rule over the industry from top to bottom and her initial verdict is damning. Could it have been anything else?
The danger is that by not engaging the industry on a broader level, the detail that is required for an industry to change and specifically the detail on building regulations and the qualifications of the folk doing the work will be overlooked from the outs
Since December, a number of things have happened in this area. Dame Hackitt has set up a number of working groups, each replete with esteemed industry leaders, to examine each topic under a microscope. Their feedback will inform her recommendations – though there are rumours that they’ve rarely met. Local councils have run emergency reviews of their towers and housing stock following the very real worry and protests of community groups and residents.
But the construction industry has been largely silent apart from a few responses to probes by the media and particularly Sky News, where Celotex and BRE were posed a series of questions.
Trade associations are engaging with Hackitt and feeding back to their members but there is a lack of transparency and a reluctance to go on record. On one level, this is completely understandable: the reality is companies large and small are terrified of being sued and will be assessing their own indemnity positions, doing what all companies must do to protect their business and the livelihoods of those who work for them. Such is the sensitivity of the ongoing investigations, however, that the silence is masking a crippling lack of leadership and the fear is that this lack of engagement will lead not only to poor regulation but to regulation that doesn’t make a blind bit of difference when it comes to preventing another Grenfell. You see, you can change the systems, the structures and processes, and you can say you’re going to change a culture. You can even recommend that new systems of checks and balances for products and inspections will be put in place and a new tougher housing minister by the name of Dominic Raab can be brought in to talk a tough enforcement game. But all the work is happening behind the scenes and anonymously. What we need is more open engagement rather than the hush-hush of private meetings and confidential documents.
The danger is that by not engaging the industry on a broader level, the detail that is required for an industry to change and specifically the detail on building regulations and the qualifications of the folk doing the work will be overlooked from the outset (click here for one industry professional’s views on this).
Doubtless we’ll see promises of big, headline-grabbing structural changes – which may even include the role of approved building inspectors being beefed up – but unless the wider industry is involved in the process those changes may not receive the backing of the very people needed to make them happen.
So come 14 June – construction will not have moved on. And because construction is not informing the Hackitt review in the way it should be in an open and transparent process, the review will not be enough to move construction on to where it needs to be and an opportunity will have been missed. At the moment, our industry is noticeable by its absence from an open debate. It must speak out and inform the Hackitt review while it still can.
Tom Broughton, editor-in-chief, Building