Earlier this month the Competence Steering Group released its first response to Hackitt – an interim report on competence schemes for all people working on high-risk residential buildings. If implemented, it could be one of the biggest shake-ups the industry has seen in decades. But has the report been set up to fail?

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The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower has rightly raised huge questions of all kinds about the construction industry – of the codes and regulations it follows, of the products it uses, of the way it procures, of the way it manages the buildings it builds, and of how it responds when rules are bent or broken. Work to answer those questions has been ongoing ever since. But until last week’s publication of a report, called Raising the Bar, relatively little has been said about one of the most fundamental questions of all: are the individuals in the industry competent to do what they do?

The 600-page report, the culmination of behind-the-scenes collaboration by more than 150 institutions and 300 professionals, aims to be a blueprint for how the industry can ensure its designers, engineers, installers and managers are verifiably competent to design fire-safe buildings. Drawn up in response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report on fire safety regulation, its initial aim is to create a framework for the safe construction of high rise housing blocks – high risk residential buildings or HRRBs in Hackitt’s jargon. But its ultimate ambition is much broader: nothing less than a system for proving life-safety competency of individuals working across the whole industry.

So while you may not have heard much about it so far, you probably need to get your head around it. Andrew Barraclough, group design director at contractor Wates, says: “Some people think this is about just turning the dial a bit on fire safety. I think it’s much more fundamental than that. Those who think this is just an HRRB issue are in for quite a nasty shock.”

So, what is the system the report proposes? If agreed, how will it be implemented? And what implications could it have on the cost and availability of skilled people?

Some people think this is about just turning the dial a bit on fire safety. I think it’s much more fundamental than that

Andrew Barraclough, Wates

Huge scale

The first problem the report authors – the industry-led Competency Steering Group (CSG) chaired by Construction Industry Council chief executive Graham Watts – have had to get to grips with is the sheer scope of trades and professions with roles on HRRB projects relevant to fire safety. The report considers 12 separate roles, everything from architects and engineers to specialist fire engineers, product installers, building standards professionals and the entirely new role of building safety managers.  

It proposes nominating existing trade bodies and professional institutions to oversee relevant training and accreditation to those people who need it, where possible. But for some roles, such as installers, there is no clear existing body to take charge, and in the case of building safety managers – a role devised by Hackitt to look after buildings safely after they’ve been completed – the whole profession is still effectively in the process of being invented.

The framework also proposes independent accreditation for those bodies themselves, and a new overarching body overseeing the lot (see box How will it work?).

Wates’ Barraclough says the sheer complexity of this vision could make it hard to roll out. “This is a colossal piece of work,” he says. “The challenge will be in the practicality of how all this happens.” Likewise, Jenny Burridge, head of structural engineering at the Concrete Centre, says she is concerned this complexity could limit industry buy-in: “This report shows just how complicated a task this is. We’ll need to guard against this becoming a kind of bureaucratic nightmare.”

Peter Caplehorn, interim chief executive at the Construction Products Association (CPA) and deputy chair of the CSG which drew up the report, says the body was mindful of this issue: “Clearly, this could get unwieldy if we’re not careful, so we want it as lightweight as possible. But we have to ensure there’s enough in there – people checking the checkers – to give comfort to people that this isn’t the industry marking its own homework.”

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Costs

Either way, the development of new courses, setting up of new bodies, accreditation, administration of lists of accredited workers, and not least the rolling out of training itself will not be cost-free. In the summer, the government estimated the whole post-Grenfell regulatory package, of which this is a part, could cost the industry as much as £570m per year. The CPA’s Caplehorn says: “Obviously there are costs here. Overall, in the short term, its going to cost people more.”  

However, he said it wasn’t yet clear exactly where those costs will fall. Fire engineer Steve Cooper, director at consultant Tenos, says members of professional institutes will be the most likely to bear the brunt. But ultimately, he says, higher membership fees “will be passed on to clients and the cost of buildings will need to rise as a result”.

Given the cost and complexity of all this, a significant concern – voiced in the report itself – is that parts of the industry will just ignore the new requirements, using the argument that they are not directly involved in working on HRRBs. The report says it is thus “vital” government takes the lead by mandating conformity on relevant public sector projects, without which, it says, “companies may choose to shun HRRB work”.

Wates’ Barraclough says: “I suspect only some people will involve themselves, and we’ll get to a partitioned industry,” while lawyer Charis Beverton, senior associate at Winckworth Sherwood, says: “If this ends up requiring significant investment, then firms may well opt out.” The Concrete Centre’s Burridge says: “This will be taken up by bigger companies. But I can see a whole part of the industry saying we don’t want anything to do with it, and stepping away.”

 

How could the report’s recommendations work?

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The proposal is that organisations are appointed or – where necessary – set up to design and run training courses that accredit individuals and firms across 12 different job roles/professions. These roles are: engineers, installers, fire engineers, fire risk assessors, fire safety enforcing officers, building standards professionals, building designers/architects, building safety managers, site supervisors, project managers, procurement professionals, and products. Individuals will be required to undertake regular CPD and submit to re-assessments of competence.

Each organisation with this accreditation responsibility will themselves have to be independently accredited by a qualified body such as UKAS. In addition, an overarching body – provisionally named the Building Safety Competence Committee – will set overall standards for competence, issue guidance and drive ongoing improvement.

Uptake of this new framework will be driven by the forthcoming Building Bill, which the government has said will place legal responsibilities on three roles in any HRRB project: principle designer, principal contractor and building safety manager. Only those verified under the competence framework will be legally qualified to take on these roles, with a new building regulator holding a list of those accredited.

There is not expected to be any direct legal obligation for those operating in the other capacities identified to adhere to the competency framework. However, Competency Steering Group chair Graham Watts said adherence to the framework will be assured indirectly. This is because the responsibilities of the new dutyholders to themselves appoint competent people, and the proposal that three “gateway reviews” will be undertaken by the proposed new regulator of every high rise housing project, will ensure that only verifiably competent people can in practice be appointed.  

Watts (pictured, right) says: “Any project won’t get through the regulator unless it can prove competent people are working on it, and it is this framework which will enable people to do that.

“The bottom line is this system is not going to work if you can undercut it, because it will just be undermined.”

 

Shortages

If this is the case, it could create severe skills shortages for anyone trying to build residential towers, putting more pressure on build costs. Adrian Dobson, executive director of professional services at the Riba, says his concern is not the cost to become accredited but the number of people that choose to. He says: “It’s more about whether we end up with a shortage of qualified people.”

This risk could be exacerbated if insurers prove reluctant to insure practitioners, and by the brief timescale in which the industry will have to adopt this. The competence framework is designed to underpin the government’s forthcoming Building Bill, setting out the new regulatory environment for the industry post-Grenfell, which is expected this winter, for enactment next year.

Andrew Barraclough says: “They’re saying accreditation will be in place by June-July next year – I think this is extremely optimistic. To implement this and get to a new steady state will take a considerable time.”

Winckworth Sherwood’s Beverton says: “There’s a lot of work to do. I suspect there will be some degree of skills gap when this comes in.”

However, CSG chair Graham Watts (pictured below) says a huge amount of work is already going on by existing professional institutions and trade bodies to work up courses and train staff to avoid this eventuality. “Obviously there’s a risk [of not being ready],” he says, “but the training bodies are very alert to this and aren’t sitting around waiting for the legislation to be brought in.” Nevertheless,

he admits that for job roles such as installers, where no clear institutional framework exists, it could “take five years or more” to get the

industry ready. Any firms that do opt out of this brave new world, of course, risk being left high and dry if and when the competency regime is rolled out beyond HRRBs. “Our ambition,” the report states, “is that in time the competence frameworks should be adopted for all building types.”

Caplehorn says this wider adoption is essential to avoid the kind of “partitioned” industry predicted by Barraclough. “Judith Hackitt’s clear aspiration was for culture change,” he says.

“My view is that, if we’re to achieve that, we can’t pick and choose across different bits of the industry. Ultimately, this has to apply to everyone.” For him, that means not just across all types of work, but the same framework ultimately applying beyond fire safety to all types of life-safety critical expertise.

If that decision is made, then there is some optimism that this work could – finally – drive the broader reform in working practices many say they want. “I think this could be the thing that drives culture change,” says Jenny Burridge. “In fact, I hope it is.  

“My fear is that the complexity here limits uptake and stops it being successful.” Whether that happens is still to be determined.

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To Do List: Making the report a reality

A raft of different things need to happen in different areas to get this competency framework running in time for accreditation to commence next summer. Beyond this, the report makes clear that a range of other job roles beyond the 12 identified will need to be brought into the framework, including clients, contractors, subcontractors and those making “on the job” design decisions.

Institutional structures

In each of the 12 job roles bodies need to be appointed to undertake the training and accreditation, including in areas such as installers and the new field of building safety manager, where no obvious candidate exists and where there is no track record of equivalent training. The overarching Building Safety Competence Committee will also have to be formed.

Work up training

Each area will have to devise robust and relevant training courses which individuals can take, deciding the level at which individuals will need to be qualified. Some bodies have already made significant progress on this, others less so.

Get bodies accredited

Each organisation will then need to get themselves and their training independently accredited as meeting the criteria set out by the Building Safety Competence Committee. This will be done by UKAS or equivalent body.

Train and accredit individuals

Only once all this is in place can individuals seek to secure the accreditation to work on high risk residential buildings, undertaking training where necessary.

 

Wider reforms

This framework to ensure people working on high-risk buildings have the necessary skills is just one part of the government’s regulatory response to the Grenfell tragedy. It has started a review of the Approved Documents which sit under building regulations, and in June it made clear its intent to legislate in order to:

Introduce a new “dutyholder” regime  Three individuals will be given clear legal responsibility for projects meeting building regulations, based on existing roles under CDM rules. The dutyholders will be: principle designer; principal contractor and accountable person during the occupation phase.

Set up new regulator  A Building Safety Regulator will be established to overseeing design , construction and management of HRRBs.

Mandate “gateway” reviews of projects  The regulator will be tasked with reviewing all HRRB projects at design, construction and occupation stages to ensure schemes meet standards.

Mandate information provision  Dutyholders will have to ensure that a “golden thread” of reliable and up-to-date information on the design and operation of HRRBs is kept.

Toughen enforcement  The new regulator will take on powers to issue stop notices on projects not up to standard, and prosecute individuals where rules are breached.