Designers, builders and landlords who seriously risk the safety of occupants in high-rise buildings should be subject to the full range of penalties for health and safety offences, including prison sentences and unlimited fines, Dame Judith Hackitt has urged in the independent review into building regulations.
Hackitt has called for a "radical rethink" of the whole regulatory system, in the report commissioned by the government following the Grenfell tower fire in which 71 people died.
Her report focuses on four issues - ignorance, indifference, lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities and inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement tools.
‘Enforcement not pursued’
The report proposes to create stronger incentives for individuals and organisations to ensure new and existing high-rise residential properties (HRRBs) of 10 storeys high or more are safe for residents and workers.
“The size or complexity of a project does not seem to inform the way in which it is overseen by the regulator. Where enforcement is necessary, it is often not pursued. Where it is pursued, the penalties are so small as to be an ineffective deterrent,” says the report.
It proposes creating a brand new ‘Joint Competent Authority’ tasked with ‘expert scrutiny’ of safety, and with ‘stronger enforcement tools’ to punish oversights in safety. It would apply to all those involved in the lifecycle of a building including ‘those who procure, design, create and maintain buildings’.
“In the most serious of cases, where the non-compliance poses a real and credible risk to safety of building occupants now or in the future there needs to be a move to replicate the full range of penalties assigned in the Health and Safety at Work Act,” the report says.
It is a hugely significant change because, although, in theory the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) can take enforcement action if building safety is found to be compromised, in practice, this rarely happens, says the report.
Cases of formal enforcement for building safety have fallen by around 75% in the last 10 years, it says.
‘More expert scrutiny’
The report proposes the JCA’s primary aim must be to oversee building safety and take action against those who do not comply.
Its members would be the Local Authority Building Control, the Fire Rescue Authorities and HSE. These already all have roles within the regulatory framework now – HSE has regulatory oversight during the design and construction of a building, for example. But the JCA would be in a stronger position to assess building safety to ensure ‘closer, more robust and more expert scrutiny’ of HRRBs’. It would provide a simpler ‘framework for those bodies to work together’ on building safety, rather than each following separate pieces of legislation and involving several different regulators.
Like the HSE currently, the JCA would have the power to serve improvement or Correction Notices, and also Prohibition or ‘stop’ notices. These would be served on dutyholders when JCA/Local Authority Building Standards are of the opinion that the building work (or supporting processes) appears to have serious deficiencies which could impact significantly on building safety.
Failure by relevant dutyholders to comply with either type of notice would be a criminal offence
Big cuts in inspection
Commenting on the recommendation, Hugh Robertson, senior policy officer for health and safety at the TUC, said any proposal to improve the effectiveness of the regulatory framework through pooling expertise must be welcome: “but the question of who the regulator is, has hardly been the main issue. Instead it is the cuts in their numbers.
“A Joint Competent Authority will only be effective if the bodies involved have got sufficient resources, and we have already seen big cuts in levels of both inspection and enforcement action from all three of the regulators over the past 8 years,” he added.
He supported steps to establish lines of accountability among the myriad of roles involved in a building’s lifecycle: “The Authority will also have to know who to deal with at every stage of the life of a tower block, including design, construction and during its use, yet, given the rows that are going on over the issue of the responsibility for cladding on existing high-rise blocks, it is clear that there is considerable confusion over who is accountable. Is it the builder, the freeholder, the management body, or the individual leaseholders, which is why the report’s proposal for a named “duty-holder” is a step forward.”
The British Safety Council has welcomed the review and the proposal for stronger enforcement, but added it would have more teeth if sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences were also extended to cover fire and building safety.
The Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire was published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government on 17 May.
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