Dame Judith Hackitt has launched a scathing attack on the industry, telling Construction News she was “shocked and appalled at an industry that doesn’t recognise its moral responsibility to deliver safe buildings”.
Dame Hackitt was speaking to CN following the publication of her review into Building Regulations and fire safety post-Grenfell, in which she called for a “radical overhaul” of how high-rise blocks are designed, constructed and refurbished, but stopped short of proposing a ban on the use of combustible cladding.
The former chair of the Health and Safety Executive attacked the industry for what she viewed as a lack of discipline, highlighting design-and-build contracts as an area of concern.
She said: “I’m shocked at lack of discipline in this sector, coming from an engineering background having worked where I had to deliver safe outcomes in everything I did, I am shocked and appalled at an industry that doesn’t recognise its moral responsibility to deliver safe buildings.”
Dame Hackitt said design-and-build contracts were a “great example” of where she felt the industry lacked discipline.
She said: “Design-and-build contracts usually mean [firms] come up with a sketchy design and then extrapolate as you go along without recording things; these practices have got to stop.”
Dame Hackitt did concede that a lack of discipline was not present in all of the industry, but warned that if leadership was not forthcoming further regulation would be required.
“There are safe buildings out there, a lot of safe buildings,” she told CN.
“My review is aimed at catching those who through indifference or ignorance chose to flout the rules and game the system, and ensure there are proper penalties and sanctions in place to stop them doing that.”
Speaking at a press briefing earlier in the day, Dame Hackitt said contractors could face jail or unlimited fines if they are found to breach Building Regulations and fire safety rules in the future.
When asked whether she believed design-and-build contracts should be completely scrapped, she said this was for the industry to decide.
“[It’s] up to the industry to get [its] act together and decide how it can ensure it designs and builds safe buildings; it is for them to decide on whether a more robust design-and-build process is appropriate, or whether it has to be stopped entirely.
“I think industry should lead on this, but if that leadership is not forthcoming then it can’t disappear into the long grass; it needs to be overseen by the new regulatory body.”
She added: “My point is this: until people recognise they are under an obligation to deliver safe buildings, and we have a system in place that holds them to account for that, then that’s what we have to work towards.”
When asked if the construction industry was aware of its moral obligation to build safe buildings, she said: “I think their attitude to that needs to change, and I liken it to 20 years ago when we said that, ‘This is a dangerous industry, people will get killed working in construction’; [the industry] has moved away from that and have changed their culture once.
“What we need to see is a similar journey towards delivering safe buildings for the public to live in, as well as safe workplaces for their employees to work in.”
A number of leading industry figures have hit back at Dame Hackitt’s comments on the lack of moral responsibility in the construction industry.
“I can see why Dame Judith would reach that conclusion,” said Building Engineering Services Association chief executive David Frise. “Of course, there are some bad eggs, but most people in the building engineering sector do not set out to do a bad job.”
“I would argue that we do recognise our moral responsibility.
“The creation of competent person schemes is evidence that our sector has tried to address compliance. However, if the building regulations are not enforced properly and those who play fast and loose with safety evade justice, then any number of competence schemes will not help.”
SEC Group chief executive Rudi Klein said there were many businesses in the industry that looked to do their best by clients and the public and argued it was the “dysfunctionality” of the construction industry’s business models which could lead to bad practice.
“Morals can sometimes get lost in the dysfunctionality of the industry,” Mr Klein said. “With subcontractors getting beat up on price, others not getting paid, and risk being transferred down the chain at every level it is sometimes hard to maintain good practice when in that process.”
The reaction to Dame Hackitt’s report was dominated by a backlash to her decision not to recommend a ban on combustible cladding, a move that led Labour MP David Lammy to brandish the review “a betrayal and a whitewash”.
Just hours after the publication of the report, housing minister James Brokenshire announced in parliament that there would be a consultation on banning combustible cladding.
Mr Brokenshire told MPs: “Having listened carefully to concerns, the government will consult on banning the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings.”
Among the other recommendations in the report was a proposal that would see contractors face jail time if they were found to be in breach of Building Regulations and fire safety rules.