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Building on the plan

27 February 2019

The plans to strengthen the regulatory framework for building safety puts residents at the heart, but there must be plans in place beyond residential and fire.

MAJOR CITIES around the UK are experiencing substantial investment in new and refurbished buildings. From office blocks to residential apartments, from new schools and hospitals to major infrastructure projects, urban landscapes are undergoing exciting and unprecedented transformation. 

This investment represents exciting times for the future prosperity of our cities but it is vitally important, the safety of the people who will use those buildings, is thoroughly planned and that those procedures are regularly audited and updated. 

In December 2018, the Secretary of State for Communities, James Brokenshire, announced detailed plans1 to strengthen the regulatory framework for building safety. 

This followed the recommendations made by Dame Judith Hackitt’s, Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety2, published in May 2018. The Hackitt Review is the result of a detailed investigation into building regulations and fire safety, undertaken in response to the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017.

Brokenshire’s new implementation plan involves establishing a Joint Regulators Group, comprising key regulatory partners (HSE, Local Authority Building Control, the Fire and Rescue Services and the Local Government Association). The group will pilot new approaches and assist with the transition to a tougher and more rigorous regulatory framework. This will be backed by stronger oversight and sanctions which work to enforce and improve accountability.

Crucially, the new regime aims to facilitate better understanding of what is required to ensure buildings are safe through clearer standards and guidance. It also seeks to drive culture change to increase responsibility for building safety and improve the rigour of product labelling, testing and marketing. 

The plan will also put residents at the heart of the new regulatory framework through better engagement between them and those managing their buildings, as well as providing effective routes for escalation and redress when things go wrong. 

Building owners will need to reassure residents by providing them with better information about the protection measures in place in their buildings.

Building developers will need to be explicit about how safety is incorporated in their buildings, provide a clear set of gateway points to engage with the regulators and offer transparent recording and handover of safety information.

Further consultation on the implementation plan is due in spring, informed by ongoing research and input from the Joint Regulators Group. Importantly the Government will be consulting on the scope of the new regime and whether it should go further to include other multi-occupied residential buildings where a significant fire or structural failure could put many people’s lives at risk. 

It will also be seeking views on proposals for creating duty holder responsibilities that will set out, in law, who owns and needs to manage building safety risks at different stages of a building’s lifecycle. This will create a stronger and more effective enforcement and sanctions regime, as well as making fire and rescue authorities statutory consultees in the planning process for multi-occupied residential buildings of 30 metres or more (10 storeys or more).

This scrutiny of safety - not just in residential high-rises but in all multi-storey buildings - is very timely and has the potential to protect occupants of existing, new and refurbished buildings throughout the UK, whatever their use. 

Ambitious developments

According to Deloitte’s Regional Crane Surveys 20193: Cities on the Rise, 2019 is set to be a record-breaking year for office completions in Birmingham, with ambitious levels of residential units under construction, preparation for HS2 underway and the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in 2022. 

The same studies reveal that Leeds has also had a record-breaking year in 2018 with construction projects spanning health, education and purpose-built student accommodation among the projects underway. 

In the meantime, Manchester, as one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities, is creating entire new neighbourhoods. This is helping to drive record levels of construction, with Deloitte predicting that Manchester’s level of residential development over the next three years is likely to exceed that of the previous decade. 

Not all development is new-build. Many inner-city developments are seeing heritage buildings, old factories and warehouses repurposed into office, retail and residential accommodation. In some cities, former large high street shops and banks are finding new lives as restaurants, gyms, offices and apartment blocks. 

Another trend - impacting on building occupancy in our towns and cities - is the transition of commercial lettings from long-term leases to short-term leases. Co-working spaces where you can rent a desk with allied meeting rooms and facilities, by the week or month, are increasingly popular for start-ups and afford flexible and mobile workplaces for thousands of people. 

In its Co-working Megatrend Predictions (and a bombshell) for 20194, the GCUC UK co-working and flexible working conference highlights that the real estate industry is partnering with landlords to build brands and offers in the co-working space. This comes as the market continues to grow with the longer-term prediction that co-working spaces will eventually replace offices. 

For health and safety, this means the stakeholder landscape in future commercial buildings is becoming increasingly complex. Roles and responsibilities need to be clarified and must adapt quickly to the changing reality of how buildings and spaces are being used. 

Plans to tighten up safety regimes and consult widely on future implementation should help bring clarity to evacuation processes and procedures that are long overdue. This will also provide a more robust oversight regime to help protect vulnerable users in buildings. 

While the focus to date has often been on providing stylish facilities, high speed wi-fi, access to leisure and high-quality digital services, the safety of building occupants too often still remains an afterthought.

Following the introduction of the Equalities Act (2010), all buildings - whether they are old or new, high rise or low-rise - have been adapted to be accessible to all, including those who are mobility-impaired. 

When you visit a building – whether you’re there as a guest, temporary worker, permanent resident or full-time employee, the safety systems should be visible in reception. As soon as you enter the building, the fire safety procedures should be clear. If you have mobility problems which may prevent you from exiting the building down the stairs in the event of a fire, you should be given information on what you should do if the fire alarm sounds. 

At the moment, this isn’t always the case. 

One of the main barriers to improving this situation is that it is often unclear who is responsible for creating and actively managing fire and emergency safety processes and procedures in a building. Is it the building owner, the facilities manager, the landlord, the leaseholder or the employer?

It is certainly not the responsibility of the emergency services to ensure that everyone is safely evacuated from a building. Up to now, the guidance has been that every building should have a designated ‘responsible person’ who develops and communicates clear plans and procedures to ensure the safe evacuation of a building in the case of an emergency.

But it is neither always clear exactly who that responsible person should be nor who holds them to account. This is an area where further consultation is necessary because the current situation creates confusion about roles and responsibilities which puts lives at risk. 

Beyond residential and fire

As the building landscape rapidly evolves, the focus on this key area of managing people and protecting lives in the event of a fire (or another emergency) is very timely. However, this should go beyond residential buildings and consider the increasingly transient nature of building users in multi-storey buildings of all types - from schools and colleges to hotels, hospitals and office blocks. 

Emergency evacuation plans should also consider building risks beyond fire, such as flooding, climate change, contamination, terrorist attack and persistent loss of utilities such as power for lifts and lighting. 

These plans now have a significantly stronger focus on introducing rigour and accountability into the safety of buildings throughout their lifecycle: from design and build through to all the uses a building may have throughout its lifetime. It represents an exciting and meaningful opportunity to have robust guidance and legislation in place to protect vulnerable building users in the event of an evacuation – not just in the case of a fire but in a much wider range of scenarios. 

This also echoes the recommendations that emerged in Evac+Chair’s White Paper: The Changing Nature of Risk. This called for a more systematic approach, not just to planning for emergencies but also to communicating those plans, implementing training and undertaking regular rehearsals to minimise risks to mobility-impaired people in the event of an emergency. 

For more information, visit www.evacchair.co.uk


1Building a Safer Future: An implementation planhttps://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766002/BSP_-_implementation_programme.pdf