It has been councils’ priority to ensure that every tenant has access to a safe and high-quality home and that swift action is taken to address risks presented by technologies such as lithium-ion batteries.
- The LGA welcomed the Building Safety Act, which introduces a new building safety regime designed to prevent the tragedy of Grenfell Tower being repeated. However, stock-owning councils are still waiting for clarity on how some elements of the new regime will work when it commences in April 2024.
- With the Government estimating there are around 12,000 higher-risk residential buildings over 18 metres in height that will need to be registered with the Building Safety Regulator (BSR), it is not clear how buildings will be prioritised within the BSR’s five-year programme for reviewing the safety cases for all of these buildings, and therefore where limited council resources should be focused.
- It is also unclear what measures building owners may need to implement to reassure the BSR that the fire safety risks are being appropriately managed in their buildings. If the BSR were to decide that installing sprinkler systems and second staircases were needed in some buildings this would have significant cost implications for councils, and for other programmes to improve the quality of social housing.
- Councils are also having to supply duplicate information to various regulators around fire and structural safety. As part of the registration process under the Building Safety Act, councils supplied the BSR with key building information about the higher-risk buildings for the 1 October 2023 deadline. At the same time, they have had to supply similar information to the Regulator of Social Housing about the fire and structural safety issues in their residential blocks over 11 metres in height.
- Effective delivery of the new building safety regime is dependent on adequate resourcing of councils’ building control teams and the fire service. Although resources have been provided to expand the capacity of both building control and the fire service to work alongside the BSR, the new registration and competency requirements for building control inspectors could leave councils without enough building control staff to support the BSR and fulfil their wider responsibilities.
- The regulations that implement the new building safety regime have also resulted in fire safety enforcement in mixed-use buildings where there is a higher-risk residential element being split between the Building Safety Act and Fire Safety Order. Where for example there is a high-rise residential block combined with a commercial development the BSR and the local fire and rescue service will be jointly responsible for fire safety, when the intention of the Hackett Review was that all of a mixed-use building should be regulated as a high-risk building.
- While councils and other social landlords were able to apply to the Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) remediation fund to remove ACM cladding (where only 1 social housing block out of the 161 with ACM cladding has yet to finish removing its ACM cladding), they have not been able to access funding through the Building Safety Fund and Cladding Safety Scheme as easily. As a result, remediation of unsafe cladding systems on council owned residential buildings above 11 metres in height has to predominantly be met through the Housing Revenue Account.
- Research for the LGA estimates that the sector-wide requirement to achieve building safety standards for high-rise residential buildings and buildings housing vulnerable residents in council housing is £7.7 billion. The Government has provided a small proportion of the funding required for this work. We remain concerned that the costs of fixing social housing blocks will fall on councils, already overstretched HRAs and housing associations. The LGA agrees with the Government that the construction industry must be made to fix the fire safety defects it has built into blocks owned by councils and housing associations. Councils should also have full access to national funding for remediation works in social housing.
- As we outlined in our submission to the Levelling Up, Housing and Committee, HRAs are facing wider unsustainable income and expenditure pressures, while having to deliver on increasing number of priorities including maintaining and improving housing quality, improving energy efficiency, fire and building safety works, decarbonisation, regeneration and building new social homes. We continue to highlight concerns that cumulative pressures are increasingly impacting on councils’ ability to deliver their responsibilities as local housing authorities, as well as their ambition to build new homes. The self-financing settlement for social housing is no longer fit for purpose and it is vital that the Government provides a new long-term sustainable funding framework for social housing.
- With are over 1.2 million people on housing waiting lists and almost 100,000 in temporary accommodation, delivering a step-change in social housing building will be fundamental to tackling the housing emergency. The LGA is calling on the Government to implement a six-point plan to enable councils to resume their historic role as a major builder of homes and deliver an ambitious build programme of 100,000 high-quality, climate-friendly social homes a year. Research by the LGA found that building 100,000 social homes a year would save the public finances by £24.5 billion over 30 years.
Building Safety Act
The Building Safety Act brought in several important reforms to strengthen building safety, including:
- Establishing a BSR within the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to oversee a new safety regime for residential buildings over 18m (HRRBs).
- Requiring new buildings to pass through three regulatory Gateways in relation to safety – at the planning stage, at the final design stage (before construction can begin) and immediately before occupation when construction is complete.
- Strengthening the regulation of construction product safety.
However, we were disappointed that the Government ignored our calls and only made buildings over 18 metres accountable to the new Building Safety Regulator and the new building safety regime.
The LGA has always maintained that building height is a poor indicator of risk. The development of the Cladding Safety Scheme to fund the remediation of fire safety risks associated with external wall systems in medium rise residential buildings (those 11 to 18 metres in height) is a positive step forward. However, there are the same restrictions in place on councils applying for funding under this scheme as there are in relation to the Building Safety Fund, which means that remediation of council buildings with unsafe cladding is predominantly funded through the HRA.
Implementation of the new building safety regime
With building owners having completed the registration of high-rise residential buildings with the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) in October 2023 and the new building safety regime coming into place in April 2024, stock-owning councils need to understand what is required of them. With the Government estimating there are around 12,000 higher-risk residential buildings over 18 metres in height that will need to be registered with the Building Safety Regulator (BSR), it is not clear how buildings will be prioritised within the BSR’s five-year programme for reviewing the safety cases for all of these buildings, and therefore where limited council resources should be focused.
It is also unclear what measures building owners may need to implement to reassure the BSR that the fire safety risks are being appropriately managed in their buildings. If the BSR were to decide that installing sprinkler systems and second staircases were needed in some buildings this would have significant costs implications for councils, and for other programmes to improve the quality of social housing.
Clarity is also needed on how joint inspections of buildings which are mixed use, with only part falling under the scope of the Building Safety Act are coordinated between the BSR and other regulators, principally Fire and Rescue Services. There is a risk that Fire and Rescue Services will have to take enforcement action under the Fire Safety Order in support of the BSR, but not be able to recover the costs of doing so as they would have been able to do under the Building Safety Act.
Funding building and fire safety works
Research for the LGA estimates that the sector-wide requirement to achieve building safety standards for tall buildings and buildings housing vulnerable residents in council housing is £7.7 billion. This is based on 3,300 tall buildings with approximately 228,000 units affected, and up to 290,000 homes housing vulnerable residents. Of this £7.7 billion, an estimated £1.8 billion relates to re-cladding, some of which is covered by Government support. Other costs include compartmentation, fire door replacement, sprinklers and ongoing building safety case costs.
The Government has only provided a small proportion of the funding required for this work. We remain concerned that the costs of fixing social housing blocks will fall on councils already overstretched housing revenue accounts (HRA) and housing associations.
In May 2018, the Government provided £400 million for councils and housing associations to cover the cost of removing and replacing unsafe ACM cladding (compared £1.8 billion of costs relating to remediating all unsafe cladding in council homes.) Councils have also been prevented from accessing funding from the Building Safety Fund for remediation of unsafe non-ACM cladding of 18 metres or over, unless they can demonstrate that they are ‘unable to pay’ for remediation works or that paying would be a threat to their financial viability.
We have consistently raised with the Government that, as HRA income is primarily funded by social tenants’ rents, social tenants have unfairly had to pick up the tab for remediation works within the social housing sector. Social housing providers have also reported that in prioritising essential building and fire safety works, funding has in some cases had to be redirected from planned upgrade and maintenance works to social housing and programmes to build new homes.
The LGA agrees with the Government that the construction industry must be made to fix the fire safety defects it has built into blocks owned by councils and housing associations. Alongside this, we have consistently called for social landlords to have full access to funds for building safety remediation.
E-bikes and e-scooters
The fire risks presented by technologies such as lithium-ion batteries are a key issue for the fire sector and the LGA. The National Fire Chiefs Council also have significant concerns regarding lithium-ion batteries and have backed the call of Electrical Safety First for a new bill to address these issues.
- Safety assessments for all e-bikes, e-scooters and their batteries before they enter the UK market.
- Regulations for the safe disposal of batteries.
- A comprehensive fire safety system addressing fire related concerns with these devices.
The Office for Product Safety and Standards has also highlighted the important safety steps people should take when owning or considering buying an e-bike or e-scooter, including researching, reading manufacturer’s instructions, checking compatibility of chargers, charging in a safe place and never modifying or tampering with the battery. The Fire England website also holds further information on charging e-bikes or e-scooters.
Disposable vapes are behind a dramatic rise in fires at recycling plants over the last year, raising the risk of a major blaze releasing toxic fumes and risk to life. Research conducted by Material Focus amongst UK councils has identified that over 700 fires in waste trucks and sites are caused by batteries that haven’t been removed from electricals. This includes lithium-ion batteries commonly used in disposable vapes.
Recycling firms are now dealing with so many vapes that they are struggling to insure their facilities. Some are now using artificial intelligence to detect vapes and their lithium-ion batteries, as well as installing thermal imaging cameras and automatic foam jets. All of this is a cost to the local taxpayer and/or the waste sector.
Research from Material Focus found that 5 million single use vapes are thrown away every week, totalling up to 21 million per month and 260 million per year, and as a result were taken to landfill or incinerated. That equated to 65 per cent of the 7.7 million single use vapes purchased per week. The technology for recycling lithium-ion batteries is not yet a universally well-established practice ready to cope with the colossal volume of vapes produced, let alone coping with battery waste from other streams.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority (the largest joint waste disposal authority in the country) has supported the LGA’s call to ban disposable vapes. The authority is experiencing an increasing number of fires in its waste management trucks (with 37 fires reported to the end of June alone) due to lithium batteries. As a result, GMCA has had to spend an additional £100,000 on thermal cameras to monitor fires in its facilities.