Construction industry ‘riven with conflicts of interest at every turn’

Key Commons committee calls for government action to tackle conflicts of interest in construction.

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A construction industry “riven with conflicts of interest at every turn” needs urgent and wide-ranging action from government to ensure high-rise safety post-Grenfell, a key Commons committee says.

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee recommends extensive changes to building regulations, following the publication of the final report of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety set up after the Grenfell disaster.

“The industry is riven with conflicts of interest at every turn, with manufacturers choosing the most lenient testing bodies for their products.

“It just cannot be right that builders get to choose who marks their homework and urgent action is needed to make sure this does not continue,” said committee chair Clive Betts MP.

“The current complicated web of building regulations is compromising safety and putting people at risk in their own homes – it desperately needs both simplifying and strengthening and the government must act now before more lives are lost,” he added.

Specific criticism is reserved for conflicts of interest across the industry, specifically where fire and rescue authorities inspect the work of their own commercial trading arms, builders appoint their own inspectors and private sector companies influence fire safety guidance.

Overall, the report calls for a ‘robust system’ of oversight and meaningful sanctions but underpinned by a strong, prescriptive approach – arguing that the two should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

While acknowledging the government’s intention to ban the use of materials which are not of limited combustibility in the cladding of new high-rise buildings, the report says the ban must also apply to existing buildings and residential homes, hospitals, student accommodation and hotels.

Other conclusions include:

  • Where feasible, sprinklers should be fitted to all high-rise residential buildings to provide an extra layer of safety and that the government should make funding available for installation in council and housing association-owned buildings
  • Reforms should be rolled out to the whole of the construction industry
  • Government to conduct an urgent review into responsibility and liability of building ownership to ensure necessary work can be carried out for the safety of residents, with government subsequently providing further guidance for owners
  • Government to introduce a low-interest loan scheme for private sector building owners, to ensure that remedial work is carried out as quickly as possible and that costs are not passed on to leaseholders.

“We are now more than a year on from the catastrophic events at Grenfell Tower, yet despite an independent review of building regulations, we are still no closer to having a system that inspires confidence that residents can be safe and secure in their home.

“There is a need for a fundamental change of culture in the construction industry, but there are also measures that can and should be introduced now,” said Betts.

LGA chairman Lord Porter accepted it would “take time” to implement the recommendations of the Hackitt report – particularly culture change in construction.

“However, building owners, the construction industry and regulators need clarity now about what they can and cannot put on the side of the buildings.

“The safest and most unambiguous way of providing that clarity is to ban the use of combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise and high-risk buildings without delay,” he said.

To the LGA there is increasing evidence that the BS8414 test – which tests the fire performance of external cladding and insulation systems – cannot be relied upon with flaws with the testing process exposed post Grenfell.

Lord Porter added: “The evidence from real fires in real tower blocks shows that using combustible materials on the external walls of high-rise buildings kills people.

“We continue to strongly urge the Government to ban the use of any combustible materials – including cladding panels, insulation and other materials – on the external walls of high-rise and high-risk buildings.

“It is wrong for anyone to argue that it might be more appropriate for the ban on combustible materials to focus on banning some combustible cladding panels while allowing the continued use of other combustible materials in cladding systems.”

David Smith, Residential Landlords Association (RLA) policy director, said the report’s pragmatic approach to the financing of the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding would ensure vital improvements are made quickly – even amid legal debate as to who should be responsible.

With the RLA having argued that the Hackitt review represented a missed opportunity to focus on fire safety improvements across all types of property, and not just high-rise flats, the committee, said Smith, urges the Government to “take as wide an approach as possible” to the applicability and implementation of the recommendations in the Final Report.

“We urge also the Government to take seriously the committee’s call to take a more holistic approach to fire safety.

“For all the focus on high rise buildings, we need to ensure the right safety regime is in place whatever size or shape of housing people live in,” Smith said.

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