Fire Safety Bill: Consideration of the Lords amendments, House of Commons, 24 February 2021

We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill and hope it will be an important step in the right direction. We are concerned about some of the practicalities of the Bill, how it aligns with the building safety proposals the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is preparing, and the costs it may impose on councils and other building owners.


Key messages

  • The LGA has been calling for councils and fire services to be given effective powers and meaningful sanctions to ensure residents are safe – and feel safe – in their homes.
  • We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill and hope it will be an important step in the right direction. We are concerned about some of the practicalities of the Bill, how it aligns with the building safety proposals the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) is preparing, and the costs it may impose on councils and other building owners.
  • To ensure the legislation is successful in protecting lives, national government must ensure that local government is reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated by this Bill. The Fire Safety Bill makes duty-holders responsible for fire doors, even if they are owned by leaseholders. Requiring councils to inspect fire doors is likely to prove difficult in practice and extremely costly.
  • The Bill will require duty-holders to review their fire risk assessments. While this should not be too onerous for buildings with no cladding system, there is likely to be insufficient expert resource to update the fire risk assessments of all buildings that have external wall cladding systems.
  • It is welcome that Lord Greenhalgh’s amendments 1 and 5, which passed in the House of Lords, recognise and address this. Guidance to manage the commencement of the Bill is now being devised but the impact of the Bill will require careful monitoring.
  • The chronic shortage of fire engineering and similar expertise in the UK needs to be addressed. The Government should set up degree, conversion and apprenticeship schemes to address this shortfall, as without greater expert capacity the Fire Safety Bill may fail.
  • The current building safety crisis – which goes beyond problems with cladding systems - is the consequence of decades of regulatory failure under Governments of different political compositions.
  • The building industry and the Government must take responsibility for the consequences of their failings and protect leaseholders. No leaseholder should have to pay the costs of making their homes safe. Developers and product manufacturers must meet the costs they have imposed on the country through decades of failure on an industrial scale.
  • The Government needs to pay the upfront costs of remediation and to set a clear and realistic timetable for owners to act. It should then seek to recover as much as possible of that cost later from those responsible.

Amendment Statements

Assessors

  • Amendments 1 and 5, tabled by Lord Greenhalgh, passed in the House of Lords. These amendments provide that where the Secretary of State issues risk-based guidance under the existing duty to ensure the availability of appropriate guidance, proof of compliance or a lack of compliance with that guidance can be used in legal proceedings. It also requires the Secretary of State to consult before revising or withdrawing risk-based guidance.

LGA view:

We support these amendments as they reflect our concern that there are too few fire risk assessors who are both competent and insured to review the fire risk assessments of buildings with external wall cladding systems, as will be required when the Fire Safety Bill becomes law.

One consequence of this could be that responsible persons find themselves required to review their fire risk assessments by law but are unable to do so, due to a lack of assessors. Another possible consequence is that competition for the services of the small number of assessors drives up the cost of assessment, with negative implications for council finances. This competition could also leave higher risk premises at the back of a long queue for updated fire risk assessments, while lower-risk properties with wealthier owners are assessed first.

The LGA wants to ensure two outcomes. First, to protect responsible persons in law, where they are genuinely unable to review their fire risk assessments. Second, to – as far as is possible – ensure that higher risk premises are assessed before lower risk premises.

In relation to the second objective, the task and finish group set up by the Government is devising a risk prioritisation tool, to be contained in the approved code of practice. This would enable judgements to be made based on the various factors that determine the risk a building poses, such as height, number of staircases, vulnerability of residents and provision of sprinklers. The LGA has not been involved in devising this tool as it does not have the expertise to do so. Instead, the work has been carried out by a group including the National Fire Chiefs Council and Fire Sector Federation experts. The tool will enable buildings to be placed into one of a number of risk-prioritised categories.

We have accepted the Government’s approach because we recognise the need to get these powers on the statute book and not delay. Nevertheless, without a more detailed awareness of the number of buildings likely to be affected or the number of assessors available to do the work, it will be difficult to frame guidance that will guarantee an effective outcome.  Guidance to manage the commencement of the Bill is now being devised but the impact of the Bill will require careful monitoring.

Leaseholders

Assessors

  • Several amendments have been tabled to the Bill designed to protect leaseholders from being passed the costs of remediating building safety failures.

LGA view:

  • The LGA is clear that no leaseholder should have to pay the costs of making their homes safe. Everything should be done to force developers and product manufacturers to meet the costs they have imposed on the country through decades of failure on an industrial scale.
  • Not only is it unjust to leave leaseholders, who bought their property in good faith, to bear the cost of remediation, it is economically damaging. The cost of major safety works such as the replacement of cladding systems is likely to be beyond the means of most leaseholders. This means that attempts to make leaseholders pay are likely to make them default on their mortgage and become homeless, with all the social cost that this entails, leaving still-dangerous, now empty, blocks behind them. Even if only a few leaseholders are bankrupted by the cost of remediating a block, this will still either prevent the work from taking place or increase the burden on other leaseholders, potentially creating a chain-reaction of mortgage default. The scale of the cladding crisis could well be large enough to seriously damage the housing market and pile yet more pressure on the post-COVID economy.
  • We believe that the Government needs to pay the upfront costs of remediation and to set a clear and realistic timetable for owners to act. It should then seek to recover as much as possible of that cost later from those responsible.
  • We recently published a position statement on leaseholder costs. This calls on the Government to:
    • Re-commit without delay to protecting leaseholders, not just those in blocks over 18 meters
    • Commit to begin assessing high priority buildings under 18 meters no later than the end of 2021, as a continuation of the current review of residential buildings over 18 meters (the Building Risk Review under the Fire Protection Board)
    • Instruct owners of all buildings with cladding that they must establish the materials used in their systems as soon as possible. We know there is a shortage of assessors who are insured to conduct fire risk assessments for buildings over 11 meters, but this must not become an excuse for owners to do nothing to establish the basic make-up of their cladding systems.
    • Set owners clear deadlines for remediation work. We suggest the need for a target time limit between:
      a) the identification of a problem and the commencement of work; and
      b) the identification of a problem and the completion of work.
    • Continue monitoring the capacity of the relevant professions to identify barriers to this timetable and quickly institute the training and recruitment necessary to resolve them (and resolve any professional insurance issues).
    • Establish a task force to take forward legal action against those responsible for the cladding crisis and/or commit to a levy on the relevant parts of the building industry in the next Budget.
    • Commit to establishing a residential building safety equivalent to Flood Re by the end of 2021.
    • Push forward with the establishment of the Building Safety Regulator and the system proposed in the Building Safety Bill to ensure we cease to build bad buildings.