Professional competency is at the heart of the final review into building regulations, putting pressure on industry bodies and individual engineers alike to make sure workers have the right skills – or face serious consequences.
So far the response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s final report into building regulations - comissioned by the government after the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June last year - has been broadly negative, ranging from “disappointing” and “a missed opportunity” to a “whitewash”. However the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Royal Academy of Engineering have welcomed the finding.
Reactions have mostly focused on the absence of a ban on combustible cladding, thought to have contributed to the spread of the fire at Grenfell Tower. In response the government has launched a consultation on whether to ban combustible cladding, which Hackitt said she supports.
But although the lack of a combustible cladding ban has attracted most attention, important details on fundamental changes to how professionals will be held accountable when working with High Risk Residential Buildings (HRRBs), which are 10 storeys high or more, are woven through the 156-page report.
Hackitt’s interim report published in December found that under current building regulations, it is too difficult to identify an accountable person as responsibility is often cascaded down the supply chain.
Now, “dutyholders” such as clients, principal designers and principal contractors will be responsible for proving to a new body called the Joint Competent Body (JCA), made up of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Local Authority Building Standards (LABS) and fire and rescue professionals, that they, their staff and their subcontractors have the competence to carry out their responsibilities.
If they are not competent, dutyholders could face serious sanctions – including jail.
Chair of the review and the report’s author Dame Judith Hackitt told New Civil Engineer what the new responsibilities mean.
“If you are the dutyholder, are you responsible for other people’s mistakes? That depends entirely upon whether or not you chose to employ someone who was competent,” she said.
“The whole principle of this is that if you employ someone who is competent, it is reasonable to expect that they will do their part of this job. But that does not resolve you of the accountability for ensuring that they do what they are supposed to do.”
In the report Hackitt advised clients may want to bring back a Clerk of Works-style role to be their “eyes and ears” throughout the design and construction process.
The government said it backed Hackitt’s review and committed to changing the law “to achieve meaningful and lasting reform of the building regulatory system”, including strong sanctions for those who fail to comply.
Although nothing has been confirmed, Hackitt said the new laws could be similar to Health and Safety at Work Act, with penalties ranging from fines to a jail sentence.
“It doesn’t mean that at the first pass you would be slammed in jail. But it does mean that in the same way that the Health and Safety at Work Act kicks in when you put the lives of employees at risk, the same principles would apply that the more serious the offence, the more serious the sanctions.”
Hackitt stressed it is now up to the construction industry as a whole, from architects and engineers to tradespeople, to improve professional competence.
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and other professional bodies have been given a year to come up with a tough body to oversee competence, or the government will do it for them.
Hackitt expressed frustration at the level of fragmentation within the industry, and warned that coming up with an industry-wide, regulatory framework for competencies “ought to be a relatively simple task”.
She added: “What I’m not prepared to have happen is for this to be kicked into the long grass, or for the many different bodies involved in this to continue to do what they’ve been doing up until now, which is generating and proliferating schemes of their own rather than working together.”
The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), which is carrying out its own review into professional competency, said a new regulatory framework overseen by the JCA would be “critical” in ensuring quality and consistency is maintained across the industry.
Peter Hansford, who is leading the ICE’s review, added that Hackitt’s report would directly feed in to the ICE’s own review, with Hackitt is coming to its next panel meeting. “We are supportive, we are aligned and we are working with Judith,” he said.
ICE director general Nick Baveystock said: “The proposed introduction of an overarching body to provide oversight of competence requirements will play an integral role in ensuring the robustness of continuing professional development across all disciplines. The effectiveness of these regulations will rely heavily on the ability of industry to work together on their implementation, and ICE will fully support this.”
Specialist Engineering Contractors Group chief executive Rudi Klein said the UK must enforce a statutory licencing scheme for building professionals and firms, emulating the culture in the US.
He added: “The industry is full of amateurs. We need to professionalise the industry, and to professionalise the industry we need to demonstrate our capability. We cannot delay on a statutory licencing scheme.”
Hackitt recommended a fundamental shift in procurement too. In the report Hackitt set out how clients and contractors must put safety before cost when drawing up contracts.
But she was adamant the requirement does not spell the end of the road for value engineering on projects.
Hackitt told New Civil Engineer: “Nobody is saying you can’t do value engineering, provided you’re doing proper value engineering. What I’ve encountered is people doing what they call value engineering but actually what it means is cutting corners and cutting costs by taking protection measures out that shouldn’t be being taken out”.
According to the recommendations in the report, clients must take care not to pressure those doing the work to cut corners on safety in order to submit a low bid - a shift from pressure to deliver quickly and at low cost.
But Hackitt denied safety and low cost are incompatible. “This is an industry that ought to be innovating and thinking about how it is going to do that. This should be seen as an opportunity, not a threat,” she said.
“I have been party to discussions about how to deliver a safe project. I have never at any point been in any doubt that the people who have been asking me to do that have expected me to do it at least cost, but at no point would anybody have accepted that by doing it at lower cost I was allowed to compromise on safety. I don’t understand why this sector doesn’t get that.”