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Déjà vu all over again …. or is it?

This month Martyn Jones focuses on just one of the key drivers of change we will see this year – the Building Safety Act (BSA) – and muses on its impact and whether we’ve been here before.

Let’s face it, we’ve had a stream of initiatives over many years aimed at transforming our industry and, either explicitly or implicitly, exhorting us to change our culture and behaviours. There are far too many such initiatives and reports to list all of them here, but most notably they include the Simon Report way back in the 1940s, and more recently the Latham, Egan, and Farmer reports in the 1990s and 2000s.

We are once again being exhorted to embrace fundamental reform but this time in atonement for past mistakes, brought into stark light by the Grenfell tragedy, and in response to the passing of ensuing legislation, the BSA. Its key provisions came into force on 1 October 2023 and this year we will see the new rules for duty holders fully take effect, making it what many people are saying is the biggest change in building safety for a generation.

Under the BSA we now have a Building Safety Regulator (BSR), part of the Health & Safety Executive, as the new building control authority for all higher-risk buildings (HRBs) in England. Building work cannot start until they approve a building control approval application. They must be satisfied that the design meets the functional requirements of the building regulations.

The Regulator’s three-year strategic plan spans 2023 to 2026 and details a focus on: delivering consistent standards within the building control profession; overseeing improvements across the built environment; regulating planning, design, and construction of new HRBs; and ensuring those responsible for HRBs manage risk.

But beyond regulating HRBs and raising the safety standards of all buildings, they also intend (as attempted with some success by previous reports into the state of our industry and their prescriptions for improvement) to inspire and lead a much-needed change in our culture and behaviours right across the industry and the whole built environment.

The Regulator’s vision is of an industry where everyone is competent and takes responsibility to ensure buildings are of high quality and safe. They will introduce a new approach to building control in England by creating a regulated building control profession that is more accountable to all citizens and will see buildings consistently meeting building standards.

And there’s more. They intend to increase our knowledge of the built environment and will use this to drive improvements and support those working in the built environment to take responsibility for

driving a sustained and meaningful culture change, incentivising continuous improvement and, when necessary, addressing non-compliance.

The case for reform has been well rehearsed in previous improvement initiatives and reports into the state of the industry and repeated in part by the BSR in the foreword to their strategic plan. They identify a sector in need of fundamental reform having “a regulatory system that allowed egregious behaviour to go unchecked; homes clad in combustible materials that should never have been used; building owners failing to take responsibility; and regulators without the power or the capacity to enforce vital standards. These failures put at risk the lives of far too many.”

And this is just the initial phase of the legislation’s implementation. Further changes, including the reform of the building control system, are set to be implemented later this year. For example, on 6 April 2024, approved inspectors will need to apply to register with the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) to continue working as a Registered Building Control Approver (RBCA).

This date is also a critical month for in-scope buildings whose construction began before 1 October 2023. In cases like these, transitional agreements apply to individual construction projects to be completed under the current procedural rules and the existing approved inspector, provided they meet certain conditions, such as that work must be “sufficiently progressed” before 6 April 2024.

The BSR’s recipe for change is to create an environment where everyone – industry, residents, freeholders, leaseholders and more – is active in their responsibility for ensuring not only the safety, but also the quality of our buildings. Will we miss this opportunity to reform? Déjà vu all over again? Not really as we now have a Regulator whose task is to provide the clarion call for transformation and insist that we change our culture and behaviour.

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