Lawmakers hear from the Building Safety Regulator

Peter Baker, Chief Inspector of Buildings, appeared in front of the Building Safety Bill Committee but shed little new light on the practicality of the new regime.

He appeared alongside HSE chief executive, Sarah Albon and Graham Russell, chief of the Office for Product Safety and Standards, and fielded questions from the parliamentary Committee that is scrutinising the Building Safety Bill.

This second day of hearing from a range of witnesses – including the head of the ABI, the Association of Residential Managing Agents, and the head of the Fire Brigades Union – provided a chance to hear from the man whose role is at the heart of the Bill.

The Building Safety Regulator exists in shadow form in the Health and Safety Executive, and is waiting for the Building Safety Bill to go through its parliamentary stages and put the Regulator on a statutory footing.

He started off by saying: I am fairly confident that the Bill, as currently structured, addresses all the key points that Dame Judith raised in her report.”

Committee members were interested in how the Building Safety Manager would work. This is a new role, one of three duty holders set out in the Bill. He stressed that while the Building Safety Manager has an important day-to-day role, the accountable person bears the risk. He explained: That should be firmly with the accountable person, because they are the individual or the company that has the resources and the capability to really manage the risk.”

Moving on to talk about competence and training, Mr Baker said that the Building Safety Manager role, while new in its statutory sense, was an evolution of what already exists. “I do not necessarily see the Building Safety Manager role as something very new and necessarily too daunting. It can be part of a transition from what currently happens. If organisations are managing the risks in their buildings well through their existing arrangements, it could be quite an easy transition to the building safety manager role.”

The topic of competence was raised again later in this evidence session, as Ruth Cadbury MP asked about the role of the Building Safety Regulator in making sure that those who take on the role of accountable person or Building Safety Manager have the appropriate skills and training. Mr Baker responded:

“We as the Building Safety Regulator will have an important role in holding the ring on all of the competence development work that the industry has been leading since Grenfell and making sure that that is all absolutely proportionate—that it is targeted at the right activity and at the right people. We will have quite a key role in making sure that that whole system of competency across the built environment is appropriate.

In her independent report into building safety, Dame Judith Hackitt stressed the importance of cultural change in the building sector. Mr Baker responded to questions from the Committee about how problems with culture would be tackled by the Building Safety Regulator. He responded:

“It is important to remember that the Building Safety Regulator will not just regulate high-rise buildings but will have other functions of stimulating and encouraging competence right across the built environment, which is one element of improving the culture of the construction industry and the landlord and housing provider industry.”

Mr Russell also responded to this question, reinforcing Mr Baker’s point about the need for a cultural shift in the sector, as well as a regulatory framework and a set of expectations about the behaviours that must change.

Understandably, when asked if the HSE was the right place to locate the Building Safety Regulator, Sarah Albon agreed. In her response she cited the experience of the HSE in dealing with hazards and risk, and the onus on the owners of risk to manage it.

She explained: “In the HSE, we have a lot of competence in dealing with that and with holding duty holders to account, as well as many years of working closely with the building industry through our role as a workplace regulator and thinking about the risky environment for people who work in the construction trades.” 

Ms Albon expressed confidence in the Housing Ministry to provide the resources the Regulator will need to do its work. She also acknowledged that the HSE doesn’t currently have enough expertise in fire risk assessment and is actively seeking to recruit and train staff to work in this area.

The HSE recently published new advice on how the safety case system will work. Committee members were interested in how it would work in practice. In a brief answer, Mr Baker didn’t add much of substance, as he said that he would not know for certain until the Bill has "emerged from the parliamentary process." He said that it leans very heavily on other safety case regimes found in high hazard industries and referred to the responsibility of the accountable person to demonstrate they have considered fire risk in a building and will have the management systems in place to manage those risks.

Asked what success would look like for the Building Safety Regulator, Mr Baker responded that it would include engagement with both the duty holders and residents that results in confidence with the new regime.

Daisy Cooper MP has a strong interest in the Bill, and recently introduced a Private Members Bill that called for a public inquiry into the building safety crisis. She said that the evidence provided to the Building Safety Bill Committee revealed a ‘spaghetti bowl of governance,’ referring to the accountable person and the Building Safety Manager roles.

Ms Cooper was unhappy with the response from Ms Albon, who said that it may seem that way to those less familiar with the Bill. Mr Baker defended the Housing Ministry and said that it had done what it could to make the roles clear. He added: “The challenge is making sure, through guidance, support, and engagement with all the stakeholders who will be touched by the Bill, that they understand the intention behind it all and the outcomes that we are trying to achieve.”

The issue of height was raised once again by the Committee. Ms Albon said it was a reasonable proxy for risk, and that the regime had to start somewhere. She described it as a “well understood and clean starting point.” Mr Baker made no comment on the issue of risk, and instead added that the new regime will extend to care homes and hospitals in the design and construction phase.

As the session reached an end, Kate Osborne MP asked about how the residents’ voice will be hard-wired into the Building Safety Regulator. Ms Albon described a series of actions already in train that included convening a small panel to help them engage with residents. Recognising that not listening to residents was a failing in the past, she added that they now need to be at the heart of the new regime.

She concluded: “There is not just the business-to-business relationship of us talking to duty holders. We need to listen to the needs of residents and be responsive to them. Crucially, we need to take on board their feedback on their day-to-day experience of their duty holders, the way that their buildings are managed, and how they are kept safe in their homes.”

The Committee work continues.