Standard practices are ’gob-smacking’, says chair of board behind building safety regulator

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Judith Hackitt

The author of the government’s review of fire safety regulations has said the construction industry lacks the leadership to make the necessary changes to make itself safe, describing common practices as “jaw dropping”.

Speaking at a conference for the construction products manufacturing industry, Judith Hackitt, who has just been chosen to lead the board creating a new building safety regulator, said the industry fell back on “excuses” to justify its inability to improve. 

Her comments last week came in the wake of the restart of the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire, in which many of the firms involved have sought to blame other companies or the government for the failure of the tower’s refurbishment to meet the requirements of building regulations.

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She said: “There are people who are already making moves and who are already doing the right things. But my observation would be that there’s not enough of it, there’s a lack of leadership, there’s a lack of real drive and collective commitment to make this happen.”

She also complained that change was happening too slowly, despite her review of fire regulations having been published over 18 months ago, and the government having set out its plans for how things will change.

She said: “I still get this strong sense that this industry is waiting to be told what to do by this regulator. And I don’t know why. Because you know what you need to do. And I believe you can get on with it. I believe it is folly not to get on with it.”

Hackitt described some of the practices she had seen in the industry while researching her review as “jaw-dropping”, with the lack of proper change-management on projects as “nothing short of gob-smacking”. She said: “When people say to me things like ‘the architect’s not allowed on [the building] site’, I’m like, ‘What? Why? What’s going on?’ Why would you exclude someone who came up with the concept [of a building] in the first place, unless you’re trying to cheat.”

Hackitt is chairing the transition board for the new Building Safety Regulator which is being set up, following the recommendations of her review, to ensure the safety of high-risk buildings from fire. The body is due to start working in shadow form in advance of legislation which will give it statutory legal powers next year.

She said the fragmentation of the industry, which sees tens of thousands of firms engaged in multiple layers of subcontracting on even small jobs, was too often used as an excuse for not taking fire safety more seriously.

“We need a culture change in this industry. You need to care about the buildings that you are in the supply chain for. You need to care that the people who are going to live in them and work in them and sleep in them feel safe and are safe. Until you care, this system will not change and will not work.

“There’s too many excuses and the one I hear more often than not is that this is such a fragmented industry. Well perhaps you need to change the level of fragmentation within the industry.”

She also called on the industry to adopt less “adversarial practices” and recognise that project teams should be collaborating around delivery of a “collective purpose”.

She said the current system of individuals and firms taking out professional indemnity insurance wasn’t working in the interest of projects’ clients, calling for more use of collective project insurance instead.