James Parker looks at the Hackitt review and the “broken” system of regulation and oversight that may have led to the construction failures at Grenfell Tower.

In the wake of the Hackitt review looking at what needs to be done to fix what Dame Judith Hackitt called a “broken” system of regulation and oversight that may have led to the construction failures at Grenfell Tower, predictably the questions continue.

One of the big ones is why what was ostensibly a review of regulations was never actually fit for purpose in terms of both its head (an engineer without the necessary expertise) and its remit. Because, according to experts across the industry, it is the often confusing, complex and ambiguous regulations themselves which are the problem, not only how they are interpreted – they are almost built to fail.

In Judith Hackitt’s interim report, she, to the disappointment of many in the industry, said however that a fundamental look at the regulations was never the intention: “A systemic review of the regulations by a non-expert in construction was never going to recommend detailed changes to the technical requirements – this is beyond my area of competence.” As to why a ‘non-expert” was given the job, we can only wonder.

Is leaving such an open-ended and easily manipulated system in place tantamount to leaving the way open for another Grenfell?

James Parker James Parker Editor of Housebuilder & Developer

More than just tweaks

Hackitt has however – one assumes perfectly sincerely – decided that things are so bad when it comes to the loopholes and layers of accountability that a way forward needs to be more far-reaching than ‘just’ tweaking regs.

She has attempted in the wake of her final report to assure BBC Radio 4 listeners that the regulations were not fundamentally “broken” – essentially that either a material of limited combustibility should be used, or that materials should be tested (included using the controversial ‘desktop studies’) before they were used.

However it is far from as simple as this, as she knows, and yet there has yet been no concerted effort to attack the undergrowth of the Building Regulations themselves that have grown like topsy over the years.

Clarity gap

There seems to be little mention in the report of the fact that the scope of regulations when it comes to overcladding, as opposed to new build, is questionable.

Hackitt has failed to take a concerted approach to tackling existing regulation – beyond a new overarching ‘framework’ which seems as much about behaviour as regulation.

Seemingly immediately after the report’s release, the yawning ‘clarity’ gap in terms of regulations for tall buildings was swiftly realised by new Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, no doubt acutely aware of the political fallout of inaction.

On one hand, it is to his credit that he has been unequivocal (refreshing among today’s politicians), saying that “The inappropriate use of desktop studies is unacceptable,” and that he “will not hesitate to ban them if the consultation which closes on the 25th of May, does not demonstrate they can be used safely.”

Policing compliance

Is this possible ban of such subjective studies (if not banning materials themselves) somewhat missing the point however?

The real issue may be achieving clarity on who is responsible for policing compliance with regulations, which is currently a multi-faceted prism of professionals, leaving room for risk-dumping by the less scrupulous.

Essentially, giving the referees red cards rather than telling the players to be better behaved might be the way to see real change, but is tackling this mammoth investigation even in the Government’s universe currently,  with so much else on its plate?

Will Hackitt’s new overseeing regulatory body and the “dutyholders” on each project instead be expected to better referee an unchanged set of rules?

Robust procedures and checks

The bottom line is that many ‘combustible’ materials are used in construction, and can be used safely with the right procedures and designs in place.

It’s surely a question of how robust the process of design, testing and accreditation is, and whether there is an enforcement process which will prevent corners being cut?

That means also that the rules themselves need to be robust, so a full reassessment is needed of Building Regulations, and one which tackles overcladding as rigorously as new build.

This will take years, but it’s surely what the UK deserves, especially the wake of the absolute horror of Grenfell.

Ownership

Hackitt may be right that “a totally prescriptive system creates an over-reliance on the system by those working within it, discouraging ownership and accountability for decisions.”

However is leaving such an open-ended and easily manipulated system in place tantamount to leaving the way open for another Grenfell?

Leaving it all to industry to resolve will not be the answer, whether or not the industry accepts collective responsibility. The Government needs to grasp the nettle of overseeing construction again. 

James Parker is editor of Housebuilder & Developer