Hackitt Report points to disappointing trajectory for UK housing

06 June 2018, William Hatchett, EHN Editor

Tower block from a distance

The Hackitt Report dodges critical issues in the wake of Grenfell

It’s been a summer of soul-searching on housing. Last month, the Hackitt report into building regulations and fire safety was published and the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, began. The inquiry’s findings into the UK’s single greatest fire tragedy since World War II won’t be known until well into next year – a similar time frame to the police investigation, which will be probably be followed by civil litigation.

It is correct that a disaster of this magnitude, which resulted from multiple failures of systems, jurisdictions, laws and standards, leads to a considered and – if necessary – lengthy evaluation. The Hackitt report lambastes England’s privatised building control system as a search for whatever is the cheapest, and a “race to the bottom”: it correctly focuses on higher risk, multi-occupied property (not just tower blocks) and proposes “gateway points” – similar to the critical control points of food safety – to provide a safer navigation from building site to occupied building.Its main proposal, a Joint Competent Authority, is supposed to coordinate the triumvirate of the national Health and Safety Executive; local, but not coterminous, local authority building control services (rebadged as building standards); and fire and rescue authorities. It’s a recipe for a mess, potentially making the current arrangements even more complicated.

The report pulled off an amazing trick by disappointing nearly everybody, including the Local Government Association, the Royal Institute of British Architects and even the Grenfell survivors. Ultimately, this was due to it not recommending the obvious – a ban on combustible cladding. This was quickly outflanked by the Government, who confirmed there would be such a ban.

Two firefighters at work

"The report pulled off an amazing trick by disappointing nearly everybody."

It could be argued that the report has ducked another vital issue. Instead of sticking together our current ropey laws with gaffer tape – including the Housing Act 2004 (enforced by EHOs) and the Regulatory Reform or Fire Safety Order (enforced by fire and rescue services) – why not replace them with modern fit-for purpose legislation that sorts out the current mess of who does what and where?

The need for such a thorough re-evaluation was a theme at CIEH’s recent Housing and Health Conference, which devoted a thoughtful session to the Grenfell fire. Could it be *whispers*that the time has come for a new, consolidatory Housing Act? Experts from Professor David Ormandy to the Residential Landlords Association’s Policy Director, David Smith, argued that there are now far too many overlapping laws and means of redress covering security and standards in rented accommodation. Another well-intentioned statute may even soon join them – the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill. 

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 grafted a parallel enforcement system onto the previous one merely because magistrates were deciding, in their wisdom, not to impose realistic penalties on erring landlords under the existing law. We have now also acquired, in England, three different landlord licensing regimes. The Welsh have sensibly adopted universal registration and licensing for landlords who manage their own properties. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has an entirely different system.