Reducing fire risk in high rise social housing, House of Commons debate, September 2021

We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Bill and hope they will be an important step in the right direction. We are however concerned about some of the practicalities of the implementation of new fire safety legislation for both resident safety and local authorities.


Key messages

  • 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 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, including in social housing.
  • We welcome the introduction of the Fire Safety Act and the Building Safety Bill and hope they will be an important step in the right direction. We are however concerned about some of the practicalities of the implementation of new fire safety legislation for both resident safety and local authorities.
  • The Building Safety Bill, while welcome, needs to be expanded in scope in order to safeguard those, especially the vulnerable, in buildings under 18m. This should be delivered on a risk basis.
  • The imposition of the developer levy on social landlords may undermine the ability of councils to deliver social housing.
  • To ensure new 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 fire safety legislation.
  • The LGA has worked throughout the passage of the Fire Safety Bill (now Act) to brief parliamentarians; provided Oral Evidence to the Public Bill Committee for the Building Safety Bill; is working to provide Written Evidence to the Building Safety Bill; has responded to consultations on fire safety; and continues to work with both the Government and stakeholders to improve legislation on fire safety for both residents and councils.

Building Safety Bill

  • The LGA welcomes the introduction of the Building Safety Bill. We are confident that it will strengthen the building safety system in the UK, especially in relation to new buildings. It is, therefore, an important step in the right direction. There are however concerns.
  • The Bill – together with the reform of fire safety regulation arising from the Grenfell Tower Inquiry recommendations – imposes significant ongoing costs on landlords, which in councils’ case will also fall on the housing revenue account (and leaseholders). The costs imposed on councils, who provide most social housing, as landlords by the Building Safety Bill and by fire safety reform need to be covered by new burdens funding.
  • The scope of the higher-risk regime is too narrow, and height is too crude a basis for it. A better approach would be:
    • For new buildings: The Gateways that will be created under the Bill’s amendments to the Building Act 1984 should apply to all major works, including for buildings under 18m where the local authority remains the building control authority.
    • For existing buildings – adapt the Building Prioritisation Tool that has been developed for the Fire Safety Act to identify the higher risk buildings.
  • The Government has made large sums available to remediate dangerous cladding on buildings over 18m. However, this money is only available to social housing providers in the limited case of ACM cladding, or to alleviate costs that would otherwise be passed on to leaseholders. Social landlords should have their remediation costs covered in the same way as private leaseholders. A significant proportion of the fire safety failures uncovered in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster are not related to cladding and the Government must also fund the remediation of these.
  • Without these changes, social landlords will be forced to divert funds from maintenance and repair and from providing new social housing to cover remediation costs, meaning social housing tenants and those on the housing waiting list will pay for developers' mistakes.
  • The Bill was accompanied by a transition plan. It remains to be seen how realistic its timetable is. An extensive programme of engagement with duty holders will be required to ensure landlords are able to meet their obligations under the new system, which accompanies significant new duties under the Fire Safety Act. While these changes are necessary and the LGA supports them, social housing providers need support in adapting to them. Issues that need to be covered in this process include:
  • Establishing and maintain a ‘Golden thread’ of information about the building.
  • Putting together a safety case for buildings.
  • Defining where accountability sits within social housing provider structures and how clear lines of responsibility for safety are established.
  • Best practice in resident engagement.
  • We are also concerned that councils may be subject to the developer levy (S.57 of the Bill), placing an additional cost on the provision of essential social housing.

The Fire Safety Act

  • We welcomed the introduction of the Fire Safety Bill (now Act) as an important step in the right direction.
  • Throughout the Bill’s parliamentary passage, the LGA worked with the Government and stakeholders to voice concerns around some of the practicalities of the Bill, how it aligns with the Building Safety Bill, and the costs it may impose on councils and other building owners.
  • The LGA continually made the case during the Bill’s passage that in order for the legislation to be successful in protecting lives, national government must ensure that local government is reimbursed for any additional costs arising out of the operational changes mandated.
  • We also made the case during the passage of this Bill, and in relation to the Building Safety Bill, that 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 LGA is still waiting to hear whether the additional costs to social landlords of meeting the new requirements will be funded by Government, if it is not then maintenance and construction budgets will be hit.

Electrical appliances

  • During the passage of the Fire Safety Bill (which reached Royal Assent in 2021) the LGA shared concerns around fire hazards posed by faulty electrical appliances. The LGA maintains that manufacturers should bear the responsibility for the safety of electrical appliances.
  • Requiring Responsible Persons to keep a register of electrical appliances and to check whether they are subject to a recall notice would be impractical, expensive and would present a significant enforcement challenge. It would also leave councils to pay for manufacturers poor performance.
  • We would prefer to see action to require manufacturers to take more responsibility for the safety of their product and the effectiveness of product recalls.

Contact

Jonah Munn, Public Affairs and Campaigns Adviser

jonah.munn@local.gov.uk