How to assess building safety competence

Following the Hackitt Review's proposals, the Industry Response Group recommends competence requirements and a supporting framework to ensure fire and life safety on higher-risk buildings


  • David McCullogh

12 January 2021

Following the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017, the UK government asked Dame Judith Hackitt to look into the industry's approach to building safety compliance.

The subsequent report was damning in many respects. Shortcomings in competence were a key issue that she identified, especially in relation to buildings with a higher than normal risk.

In a previous article, I discussed the interim report on competence issues, Raising the Bar, which was prepared by the Industry Response Group (IRG)'s working group the Competence Steering Group (CSG).

This report identified 11 industry roles that have some part to play in compliance, and made recommendations for changes in their competency regimes. It also considered product supply, and looked at the way a national building safety competence programme might be run.

The report was presented to government and industry for comment. The document received comprehensive support, and has been finalised and published as Setting the Bar.

Implementing a new building safety competence regime is a huge task, and specific details still require work. But Setting the Bar provides a foundation for this.

The draft Building safety Bill proposes the formation of a committee on industry competence, under a building safety regulator that will be part of the Health and Safety Executive, and this committee will be able to develop on the work done in the report. RICS will support such ongoing work with the Construction Industry Council and the CSG.

Additional qualifications

Chartered surveyors are constantly asking whether they will need additional qualifications to ensure they are competent to work on higher-risk buildings. The answer is almost certainly yes.

However, if they are currently working successfully on higher-risk buildings and have acquired the relevant competence through years of experience, this should be a relatively easy task; although it will also depend on their original qualifications.

In the future, RICS APC candidates will also have the option of developing the relevant competencies, either as a standard part of their chosen pathway or as an additional module should they later want to become involved in work on higher-risk buildings.

The particular roles whose competence is considered in Setting the Bar are:
  • building designers
  • building safety managers
  • building standards professionals
  • engineers
  • fire engineers
  • fire risk assessors
  • fire safety enforcement officers
  • installers
  • procurement professionals
  • project managers
  • site supervisors.

Keeping up with developments

One key development since Raising the Bar was published has been the progress on an overarching competence framework for the built environment, setting out principles and core requirements for safety-critical professions and trades working on higher-risk buildings.

The framework was a recommendation in the interim report, and is being developed through industry collaboration to ensure there is consistency over competence on leading and managing safety, communicating safety, implementing safety, risk management, and ethics and behaviours, among other issues.

To this end, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) has commissioned the British Standards Institution to prepare a suite of national standards. This work will be directed by a newly established Built Environment Competence Standards Strategy Group, made up of government, industry and consumer interest bodies.

The subsequent national standards will include an overarching competence framework and guidance. There will also be 3 publicly available specification documents, on which the competence requirements for 3 new regulated roles – principal designer, principal contractor, and building safety manager – will be based. Since the interim report, the CSG has also established from scratch the role, responsibilities and competences for building safety manager, a crucial function once a building is occupied.

“One key development since Raising the Bar was published has been the progress on an overarching competence framework for the built environment”

Assessment and oversight

The Hackitt Review clearly indicated the need for improvements in the way that the competence of professions and trades involved with higher-risk buildings is assessed and verified. This has therefore been another important focus for the CSG since the publication of Raising the Bar.

In the interim report, the CSG recognised that the relevant sectors use a wide variety of methods for assessing competence, and it accepted the need for more consistency. The group agreed that the introduction of a greater degree of independent scrutiny in the assessment process and a requirement for regular reassessment in all sectors would significantly increase confidence in industry competence.

All the CSG working groups have considered how assessment and reassessment should operate in their particular sectors. In addition, the UK Accreditation Service (UKAS) and the Engineering Council were asked to consider how they and other relevant organisations can together provide a framework to oversee the assessment of competence under the system proposed in the final report.

Setting the Bar suggests that existing arrangements for third-party assessment, in the main being certification and professional registration, should be improved by requiring all assessments and reassessments to include – as a minimum – the competences needed for working on higher-risk buildings. The development of national standards, also proposed in the report, will provide a benchmark for assessing competence.

It is further recommended that all organisations carrying out assessments and reassessments should themselves be subject to a rigorous system of oversight, as suggested in the Hackitt Review.

Bodies such as RICS that certify or register members against the higher-risk buildings competence frameworks are expected to:
  • maintain a register of those individuals certified under their scheme
  • be accredited or licensed by a suitable publicly recognised body such as UKAS or the Engineering Council, or be able to demonstrate equivalent standards of robust accreditation or licensing approved by the proposed building safety competence committee.
The system of assessment and oversight is still a work in progress, however.

Third-party assessments

In developing proposals for competence assessment, the CSG has agreed a principles-based approach to determine how far third-party assessment should be required of those working on higher-risk buildings in future.

There is absolute agreement that everyone working on such buildings must do so under a system of assessment and management to guarantee they are competent to ensure safe outcomes.

In most instances, the expectation is that competence will be demonstrated through third-party assessment. This will entail independent organisations such as certification, professional or licensed bodies assessing an individual's work, rather than employers or contractors.

However, it is also recognised that it may not always be practical or necessary to require every person to be assessed by a third party, as for instance in the following circumstances.
  • As competence requires experience, people need to be able to work on higher-risk buildings before they are assessed until they are able to fulfil the appropriate criteria. Such work will be supervised.
  • Some work on higher-risk buildings does not have implications for building safety – particularly that undertaken by tradespeople such as decorators or fitters – because it does not affect design, specification, performance or maintenance. It may therefore be disproportionate to require such roles to be assessed by a third party.
  • There are potentially significant difficulties in continuing works when project personnel change at short notice, due to ill health, promotion or resignation for example. Therefore, there should be some flexibility for unassessed personnel to work under suitably competent supervision.
  • The way in which third-party assessment is applied will need to vary to reflect the significant differences across sectors and roles, ranging from professionals working individually or in teams through to installers working on their own or for businesses, including overseas companies that may have distinctive approval systems.

This suggests that there is a need for flexibility in any requirements being set, so that, where appropriate, competence can be managed by approaches other than third-party assessment. These may include competence management and assessment systems run within businesses, or other formally certified approaches.

Where persons working on higher-risk buildings have not been assessed by a third party, they will need to be properly supervised.
  • The supervisor must themselves have been assessed by a third party as competent to undertake the work being supervised and to act as a supervisor.
  • Those persons who are supervised must be subject to ongoing audit of their competence by their supervisor or employer, as the duty-holder.

Third-party assessment should be required of all persons whose work is likely to have a material effect on safety outcomes, and must be required for those who work unsupervised.

Sectoral competence frameworks must clearly set out at what level or in what roles third-party assessment is and is not required, and the requirements for supervision where applicable. These arrangements should be subject to approval by the building safety competence committee, to provide confidence that safety is not compromised.

The CSG suggests that the building safety regulator, in particular its competence committee, and MHCLG need to develop a detailed framework for third-party assessment and competence management. This should result in statutory and other guidance for assessing the adequacy of sectoral competence frameworks

Further work needed

Setting the Bar highlights particular areas that need special attention, and others that may need to be brought into the work but are not currently in scope.

The competence of building control professionals and organisations was considered by CSG working group 6, but it is now being treated as a separate workstream because it is proposed that this area be subject to the building safety regulator's oversight and licensing. A new working group has therefore been established on the future of building control, including RICS representation.

Meanwhile, although there has been some consideration of maintenance by the working groups of procurement professionals, installers, engineers and building safety managers, the complex area of facilities management needs more detailed attention. This will of course be overseen by the building safety manager.

Another issue is that those providing certain legal advice to clients – on lease preparation or construction services contract preparation, for instance – also need a clear understanding of its implications for the procurement strategy chosen for a specific project, and the resultant contractual framework. This also applies to the management of an existing higher-risk building.

Furthermore, although its fire officer and building control working groups have undertaken work for some regulators the CSG has not addressed the competence of those working in the legal profession, town planning, environmental health, or trading standards. All of these may have a role to play in the new regulatory system and should therefore also have their level of competence subjected to scrutiny, particularly in relation to fire and building safety.

The next steps

The CSG will continue to develop more detail for the framework established in Setting the Bar to support the building safety regulator on any future work in this area.

RICS global building standards director Gary Strong comments: "RICS is committed to implementing the changes in competence assessment set out by Dame Judith Hackitt, and further details will be announced in due course."


Related competencies include: Ethics, Rules of Conduct and professionalism, Fire safety

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