Review of the Draft Building Safety Bill

There was an initial, resounding welcoming of the Government’s promise to bring forward changes that will improve building and fire safety – it’s something for which many campaigned for years. But since the announcement was made in July, there has been time to reflect on how feasible the proposals actually are, how they will impact innovation and whether it has implications on our collective responsibility to protect a building’s residents.

In a perfect world, every single dwelling would offer the epitome of safety. This will never be realistic because so much of the construction industry is driven by cost, but what this draft bill offers is a starting point; building on the success of the Hackitt Report, there are changes being made to the way tall buildings will operate in the future and, from there, we can start to look at every other type of home.

But while pivotal for health and safety, and ground-breaking in its findings, we are three years on from the Hackitt Report and so far, there has been very little change. That’s because fire safety is not a sexy thing to spend already limited budgets on; it’s something developers and residents alike never want to have to work. It should be an automatic tick box exercise, with no compromise on using the best possible products to fire-proof a building. But it isn’t. The best outcome would be that the Building Safety Bill drives us one step closer towards that.

The industry has always sought clear and concise legislation on fire safety, but one major factor behind previous governments not implementing it has been a worry it would stifle innovation; the idea that too much regulation will put the brakes on thinking outside the box. Instead, what happened was that manufacturers designed and built in line with the many grey areas that existed and now we have a market saturated with products that won’t meet retrospective legislation. Implementing a Bill like this will, instead, drive innovation because it will provide very clear parameters on what does and what doesn’t need to be present to meet these new standards.

The problem will come when these new products reach the market at a higher price point than current offerings. The additional research, development and testing to meet new legislation will drive up costs which will be passed on to developers, who have long had to de-spec to meet tightened budgets. If, though, there is clear guidance that fire safety is not an area which can now be value engineered, developers will simply have to look elsewhere for their cost savings.

There are significant questions already being raised about how the government intends to police the proposals within its bill. Initial suggestions are that there will be an individual appointed to post that will be responsible for overseeing all elements of health and safety within the UK’s tall buildings. But this simply isn’t feasible; this would put such enormous pressure on a single person that the role will be almost impossible to fill. But even if it was, it would mean the individual having a huge amount of knowledge about the general construction of tall buildings – not just in terms of fire safety. It’s a multi-faceted issue which requires knowing the ins and outs of all areas of building control, and I’m yet to meet a person in the industry with this level of insight.

Additionally, there is only so much one person in a senior position can do about maintaining the health and safety of residents in a building, because a large part of it functioning to its best capability comes down to the users. While it’s fantastic that the public has played such a large role in the development of this draft Bill, ultimately what’s needed is a mass education on how, in the event of a fire, to manage and safely exit a tall building in order to preserve life. The government must, in its pursuit of this new legislation, continue to work with manufacturers, developers and residents to ensure there is well rounded guidance on what to do in an emergency because until there are some certainties that this can be delivered, it makes all the upfront work meaningless. And that means the progress this Bill promises, would actually take us two steps back.

 

Dan Ternent, Business Development Director, Exyte Hargreaves

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