Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, recommends a “new regulatory regime” for tower blocks. However, this new regime will only apply to buildings with 10 or more storeys. The report does not specify why this particular threshold has been chosen. Up until now, building regulation guidance has drawn a distinction between buildings with fewer than six storeys and those with six or more, recommending that greater care be taken for fire safety on taller buildings.
While some have suggested that this places unnecessary risk on buildings with five storeys, and there have been calls for the limit to be reconsidered - this would not remove current requirements for buildings with between six and nine storeys, but would leave in place the current framework. It is important, therefore, to note that the new changes apply only to buildings above 10 storeys.
Banning combustible materials
Despite numerous groups calling on Dame Judith Hackitt to recommend a ban on combustible material in cladding systems, her final report did not call for such a measure. She writes: “A totally prescriptive system creates an over-reliance on the system by those working within it, discouraging ownership and accountability for decisions. The aim of this review is to move away from telling those responsible [for tower blocks] ‘what to do’ and place them in a position of making intelligent decisions about the layers of protection required to make their particular building safe.”
However, the government have gone a step beyond and announced a consultation on banning combustibles after the review was published.
Large-scale testing regime
To reform the large-scale cladding testing regime, Dame Judith recommends that test houses should produce an annual report providing summary details of tests carried out and the number of passes and failures. She does not, however, recommend any new oversight to the testing regime or that reports should be made public. At present, test reports are considered commercially confidential.
So-called ‘desktop studies’ have been used by industry to clear untested materials for use by extrapolating results from previous tests. Many groups, including MPs from five political parties, have called for this controversial practice to be banned. Rather than a ban, the report recommends that desktop studies should only be carried out by organisations accredited to run large-scale tests. The Building Research Establishment (BRE) runs the only large-scale cladding testing facility in the UK, so it would likely take on much of this work.
One aspect of desktop studies that has been criticised in the past is the substitution of products. For example, despite only one kind of aluminium cladding being subject to a large-scale test, numerous kinds have been cleared for use by desktop studies. Dame Judith appears to sanction the substitution of products in limited circumstances, recommending only the “significantly reduced scope for substitution of any products used in a system without further full testing”.
Before Grenfell, many in the building industry have claimed the privatisation of building control had led to downfall in quality. Dame Judith Hackitt proposes that private ‘approved inspectors’ can still be used, but if they provide regulatory oversight they must be independent of builders, as opposed to the current system, which many have said amounts to the construction industry choosing their own regulators.
The report recommends the rebranding of the Local Authority Building Control as ‘Local Authority Building Standards’. This new body would have additional powers to issue ‘stop’ notices to builders, require changes to building work and work with an increased time limit for bringing prosecutions. Builders would also be required to prove safety to building control more regularly than is currently the case: before getting planning permission, again before starting work, again before the building is occupied and regularly after occupation.
Approved Document B
Approved Document B is the government’s official guidance on how to comply with building regulations on fire safety. According to Dame Judith Hackitt, the government is currently working with the Building Regulations Advisory Committee and industry experts to redraft the document, including “clarifying the language used”.
This could remove some of the ambiguities around the use of combustible materials in cladding, although Dame Judith Hackitt has denied that there is room for interpretation of the document around that point. The report also recommends the publication of a new “over-arching Approved Document” that would cover how different parts of a building interact with each other.
Fire risk assessments
Before Grenfell, the vast majority of fire risk assessments were only ‘category one’, meaning they only looked at common parts, not including cladding, and did not look inside walls. They were to be carried out by ‘competent persons’, but regulations provided no specific definition of competency.
There has been significant criticism of this system, however Dame Judith Hackitt does not recommend any change to the 'category one' practice, but adds that government should now decide what makes a competent person. One of her recommendations is that professional bodies should come up with set criteria for competence, One this is in place, there could be discussions about whether certification by one of these bodies should be compulsory.
Assurity Consulting are leading experts in workplace health, safety and environmental compliance. We work with organisations of all sizes with their fire safety management. For more information on our services, and how we can help you, please contact us on tel. +44 (0)1403 269375 or email us.