21 August 2019
The Government’s consultation on building safety reform closes this week. It takes forward Dame Judith Hackitt’s proposes for clear roles and responsibilities in building and fire safety, with a new regulator underpinning the system. It’s hoped this will push our industry to be more proactive, with an obligation on key duty holders to report directly to the regulator, says Mark Varley, Head of Health and Safety at FirstPort.
The consultation paper is packed full of references to our industry’s culture. Some might take a cynical view of this. It’s true that calls for cultural change often lead to little or no real action. But this time it feels different. That’s because Government isn’t asking our sector to change its culture, but mandating it.
Clarity breeds trust, trust breeds confidence
Culture doesn’t spring up from nowhere – it’s made up of values and assumptions, attitudes and behaviours. And any historian will tell you these things can be changed by new rules and institutions. One only needs to look at sectors like the airline industry to see how clear regulation and good communication can be effective – is there anyone who doesn’t know what to do if they find themselves in an in-flight emergency?
In our sector, piecemeal regulation and undefined responsibilities have led to a culture of corner cutting, cost saving and poor communication. The new regime wants to sweep this away – using mandatory reporting, registration, enforcement and sanctions to improve transparency and ensure that short-cuts on safety are no longer an option.
Clarity breeds trust, trust breeds confidence
Chapter 4 of the proposals talks specifically about a ‘culture of openness’ when it comes to resident engagement in the new regulatory system. This is chiefly about providing detailed and clear information to residents. As property managers, we know that openness and clarity breed trust, and this is exactly what our engagement strategies must focus on.
It’s also about confidence. We need to make sure residents are certain they are being supported by building experts – they need to be empowered to ask questions and challenge the accountable person or building safety manager when necessary. In future, they’ll have the power to do that through better rights of redress and escalation.
Better relationships with residents will also help the building safety manager reduce risk in people’s private properties. This is a crucial. 75 percent of landlords and building managers say they have been refused entry despite having a fire safety concern. So it’s good that the Government is proposing residents will be bound to reasonably co-operate with the accountable person on building safety issues. Here, openness isn’t just being encouraged, but enforced when necessary.
We must work together
This principle of openness equally applies to the design and construction stages. We’re a diverse sector and generally do a good job of collaborating across specialisms. When it comes to building safety especially, we must never work in silos.
To create a truly open culture, those who manage buildings in the occupation phase will need thorough insight of key information produced throughout an asset’s lifetime – from initial blueprints, to a paper-trail documenting changes to the building fabric. This was a key tenet of Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations.
Professional building managers are well placed to manage the ‘golden thread’ of information on behalf of the accountable person and help monitor activity during the occupation phase. Ultimately though, building owners will need to be sure they are dealing with building safety experts.
The work Government is doing on regulating the managing agent sector is therefore timely. Recently proposed measures by Lord Best’s working group on property agents will strengthen the principles of good practice already adopted by the best operators in our sector, while exposing the worst excesses and weakest performers. These new standards will help our industry earn the confidence of clients and customers alike – something which is especially important where residents may well themselves become the accountable person, like in blocks owned through commonhold or where Resident Management Companies are responsible for running developments and discharging safety obligations.
Nowhere to hide
As Dame Judith Hackitt told the Housing Committee last week, it’s matter of regret that it has taken so long to get this far. Yet the direction of travel from Government is encouraging; it wants to shine a light on bad practices and leave nowhere to hide when it comes to building safety.
The last two years have shown how complex this issue is – a quick fix was never going to be possible. But the framework proposed by Government is a good first step – it provides the overarching rules, principles and systems that building safety has been lacking. Now, our sector needs to take ownership of our responsibilities and show we’re ready for real change.