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Building Regulations (Amendment) Bill [HL]

Volume 717: debated on Friday 5 March 2010


Clause 1 : Amendment of the Building Regulations 2000

Amendment 1

Moved by

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 2, leave out “, by regulations made by statutory instrument, amend” and insert “undertake a review in consultation with representatives of house-purchasers, tenants, house-builders, housing associations and other interested parties, to ascertain the feasibility of amending”

My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 2. The Bill would make it a requirement to install an automatic fire suppression system in all new buildings. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for bringing forward the Bill. In principle, it is an excellent measure. However, my amendments would require a comprehensive review, in consultation with home buyers, tenants, housing associations, housebuilders and other interested parties, before the Secretary of State could trigger the requirement for all homes to have new sprinkler systems installed.

I declare an interest as chairman of the Hanover Housing Association, which has provided thousands of retirement homes for older people. This housing association and others are keen on finding ways to keep our residents safer in future, and lower the costs of damage if there are fires in our buildings, which sprinklers would achieve. It is also the case that the design of homes is made easier by the installation of sprinkler systems, because you can have an open-plan apartment without the cumbersome internal walls and lobbies that are necessary because of fire regulations. I witnessed many excellent and well designed open-plan apartments for older people when I visited Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and other countries last summer to see how they build their retirement housing. In principle, sprinklers would be better for the residents and owners of a property, and would aid better design. However, the amendments are intended to draw out the reservations to this becoming an instant requirement on all providers of new accommodation.

First, we must recognise that people building new homes are facing another set of new requirements for higher standards: I refer to the requirements for greater sustainability in new buildings. We are gradually cranking up the code for new sustainable homes that will achieve lower carbon emissions. That costs more, and requires adaptations from the building industry. On top of that, and very properly, we are improving the accessibility of new homes—people’s ability to get in and out of them, and to move around inside them. The Lifetime Homes standards are being extended: again, this is a commendable change, but it adds extra costs to new homes.

This is set against a background of a decline in housebuilding to levels that we have not known since the early 1920s. The industry is in a state of collapse, and this is the wrong time to do anything that would deter new investment and home building. The housebuilding industry at the moment produces retirement homes of the kind that my organisation builds for about £150,000 each. The cost of installing a fully fledged sprinkler system might be in the region of £1,500 for each home, which means that for every 100 homes we could have provided with the same amount of money, we would produce 99 homes. It does not sound disastrous but at this time it would be, because housebuilding is at such a low ebb.

The amendments call for an extensive review of the costs and benefits of installing sprinkler systems, against a backdrop of support for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. Only after the results of the review were known would the Secretary of State be in a position to decide whether to proceed with a requirement covering all new housebuilding. I beg to move.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for introducing his amendment and for helping me to describe the nature of the Bill; and also for the constructive conversations that we have had. It is not my intention to rehearse another Second Reading speech here, but perhaps it would be helpful for me to comment on Amendments 1 and 2 and then offer some thoughts of my own.

Second Reading was useful in highlighting a number of issues that have arisen, as rightly pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Best, from consideration of the Bill and some new information. The noble Lord said that a further advantage in the design of residential buildings would be a fire suppression system that he described, and which he has observed on the continent. I hope that we can build on what we have learnt and put down a marker for further work in this Chamber on this important issue. I emphasise that it is designed to save lives and the enormous amount of money that is lost on buildings that are incapacitated by fire.

I accept that further work needs to be done to ensure that we go forward on this issue with confidence because we have the facts before us and a cost-benefit analysis of all that we have found as a result of the research that we and the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, have brought to our attention. I undertake to introduce a portmanteau amendment on Report. I believe that further areas need to be researched. We need to ensure that all research from here in the United Kingdom and abroad is brought to the attention of those who make decisions on these matters. We must be forward-looking and take into account the ageing population that we have now. More people will be living by themselves in such residential properties where sprinklers are often the first aid to ensure that a fire is put out and lives saved. There are changes in social policy, local government policy and service delivery at council level.

There are also important issues such as environmental and climate change, which impact on this issue. Without going into great detail because I outlined the issues on Second Reading, these two should form part of the research and review which will help the Minister on moving forward. There are issues affecting the building industry which are illustrated by the amendments and issues affecting the safety of firefighters who face increasing risks from new building materials and construction methods. We should bear them in mind as well.

I have outlined my own concerns to add to those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Best, and those about to be expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bates. If we reach Report, we can have an analysis of the issues and then pass legislation that will be enormously beneficial. The regulations are in operation for all new build that is more than 30 metres high. This change would require them to operate for buildings under 30 metres.

Noble Lords have been very helpful, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the Minister who came to see us yesterday, to try to make progress. I am hoping to hear more than warm words from him but a positive reaction to the debate to be able to do something constructive for firefighters who face the daily threat of entering buildings on fire and saving property, which ought to be an important consideration. I thank everyone involved who has been so helpful so far.

My Lords, I declare my interest in property and insurance as laid out in the Register. I agree with much, if not all, of what the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, particularly as it relates to the crisis in home construction. The figure that I had for housing new starts showed the lowest number since 1946. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has now pointed out that that is too recent, which is a comment on the state of the economy. It was not that long ago that it was declared from Whitehall that 3 million new homes would be built, but of course that target is nowhere near being met. That is why it behoves us to be extremely careful when legislating and potentially adding costs to the construction of new properties.

As my noble friend Lord Cathcart said at Second Reading, we welcome the goal of reducing deaths caused by household fires. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has set out a not unrealistic aim of changing the building regulations so that new build domestic dwellings incorporate a sprinkler system that is designed to extinguish a fire. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, pointed out, and as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, correctly recognises, the Bill is a step towards that change but it is not a perfect vehicle for doing so.

The value of debating amendments such as these in Committee is that it gives all sides an opportunity to think hard about what the result of the Bill might be. Although we all want to eliminate fire fatalities, noble Lords accept that we must also consider the practicalities of attempting to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Best, has proposed a consultation review. Our Amendment 4 is along very similar lines. We have sought to identify some of the areas that need to be considered closely in detail before any firm conclusion is reached. My noble friend Lord Cathcart developed those at Second Reading. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, will consider amendments that he may wish to bring back on Report, and I hope that our amendments may be of use to him for that purpose.

If we are to impose regulations on housebuilders, we must first consider the costs and benefits of doing so. As we are all too well aware, the construction industry, along with the rest of the economy, remains in a fragile state. Any consultation must consider what imposing new costs and regulations will do to the housing market. The cost of new sprinkler systems will not be simply a capital outlay for installation; there will be ongoing costs of maintenance. Presumably, regular tests must be carried out to ensure that the sprinkler system is still working and attended. One assumes that that would almost certainly take place when a house was sold, meaning that the cost would be borne by the vendor or passed on to the purchaser.

I have suggested in paragraph (b) in Amendment 4 that home information packs might be a route to allow the fitness of a sprinkler system to be certified, but we know that home information packs are unpopular and costly, and that would add to their burden. Who will be qualified to inspect sprinklers? Are there enough such people to meet demand? How would inspections be costed?

Beside the costs that arise at the point of sale, there will be ongoing maintenance costs to householders. I understand that the water used for firefighting will be pumped through different pipes from water used for general domestic purposes, but I assume—I am open to advice on this—that those pipes will be just as susceptible to freezing and bursting as ordinary pipes. They will need to be lagged and insulated at a cost, even if the water inside is free of charge. Any consultation must consider that and how poor households would be able to meet the cost. Will there be a contribution from water companies or a reduction in insurance premiums? As the noble Lord, Lord Best, suggested, talking to stakeholders will be crucial.

I have experience of this. I was involved in the construction of a new school academy a couple of years ago in Blyth in Northumberland. That was before the regulations were introduced. We had a fixed price for the construction of that academy, and we were required, not by law, not by regulation but at the request of the local chief fire officer, to place a sprinkler system in that school. We made the point that having a sprinkler system in the school meant that it could be set off maliciously. Because there was a huge amount of technical equipment and carpets throughout the school, the cost of such an occurrence would be huge. The absolute cost of installing the sprinkler system was £1.2 million, which meant that cost savings had to be made elsewhere in IT and other capital equipment, such as fitness suites, for the academy. So a cost/benefit analysis needs to be undertaken.

A further area to consider suggested in our amendment is how to combat the risk of fraud. With a supply of free water being piped into households alongside the metered supply, is there a temptation for the unscrupulous to tap into firefighting supplies? I realise that that requires a certain amount of plumbing skills, not to say determination, but if we were dramatically to increase the number of buildings with a dual supply of water, we might assume that there will be increased attempts to defraud. Could that lead to higher bills for everyone else? Is the water industry ready with new technology to beat that potential fraud? That question must be answered in consultation.

The final point of my amendment is sustainability. That is a nebulous term, I admit, but here we might ask: how long is the lifespan of a sprinkler system? What work might be required to replace worn out systems and how best can leaks and wastage be prevented?

That is a quick run through some of the problems that occur to us. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is aware of all that, and he has been sensible and reasonable in indicating that consultation will need to take place. I would favour a broad and detailed consultation, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts on the matter. We will need to hear from the Government how long a consultation might be necessary and who and what it should include. That will help the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, to marshal his thoughts ahead of Report.

My Lords, I said on Second Reading that we very much support what the noble Lord is endeavouring to do in and with the Bill—I well understand that it is a tool for taking forward further work to ensure that sprinklers using the best regime are required for all buildings, subject to some of the concerns which have been expressed. I do not think that I need today to plump for one or other, or all or none, of the amendments; I will just make a very few remarks.

I read the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, as being a little less supportive and a little more tentative, but that may be because he has found it irresistible to list some of the political points that he wants to make, such as those about home information packs. I understand that temptation. There will not be an impact on home information packs, although there may be an impact on the regulations covering how home information packs are developed, to take one example. Of course there should be an impact assessment before regulations are made. I do not think that sustainability is a nebulous concept, but I will not develop that further.

The noble Lord, Lord Best, before he gets to the sweep-up phrase, “other interested parties”, lists a number of organisations. I just suggest two that might fall into that sweep-up provision. One is developers who already have experience of installing sprinkler systems—we have heard that this is not a wholly new concept. The other is the insurance industry. It is quite right to raise the economic issues, but one would hope that there would be a benefit which insurers were able to debate, and perhaps even put a price on. One would hope that buildings with sprinkler systems would attract lower insurance premiums because, after all, they should certainly be safer, and perhaps more sustainable.

My Lords, I believe that I made the Government's position on this matter clear at Second Reading. Although we clearly recognise the significant potential benefits that sprinkler systems can offer, and that there is a place for imposing their provision through regulation in some circumstances, we would regulate only where such provision was proportionate to the risk. In this context, it might be helpful if I briefly set out views on the amendments, and outlined the nature of any review which the Government would see as necessary before reaching a conclusion on further amendments to the building regulations.

Of course, we have sympathy with the thrust of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Best, in calling for a review. Such matters can be complex. Although on the face of it, the use of sprinklers would undoubtedly assist with further reducing the terrible effect of fire, there will be technical matters and regulatory burdens that we are obliged fully to consider before any decision on regulatory change.

Similarly, the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and his colleague the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, usefully highlight some of the issues that government would need to consider in revisiting and updating the building regulations on automatic fire suppression systems.

We must recognise that any review would need to be sufficiently broad and comprehensive in its scope and involve not only the matters referred to by noble Lords today but many other issues, such as: undertaking a detailed and robust assessment of the costs and benefits; assessing the environmental impact both of the reduction in the size of fires, and of the environmental costs of the sprinkler systems themselves; future projections of our ageing population and what this could mean to fire risk; the safety of firefighters; and the extra facility of open-plan layouts where sprinklers are installed, to which the noble Lord, Lord Best, referred. Meanwhile, it would need to consider changes in construction practice and technology, and both UK and international experience and evidence.

The collection and assimilation of all the available and relevant data for a review of this complexity will take some time and effort. I suggest that it would necessarily take longer than the six months suggested in the Bill for any changes to the building regulations to be made. The risk of forcing an unrealistic timetable is that decisions would be taken on the current evidence base, which would not move the issue forward. However, this is not an excuse for inertia; we need to move ahead with this as quickly as possible. Having said that, I reiterate—notwithstanding any such review, which we shall undertake whatever the destiny of my noble friend’s Bill—that we will continue to work on the variety of approaches to promoting increased fire safety that I outlined at Second Reading.

I should bring to the attention of my noble friend Lord Harrison the reference in the Bill to British standards. Such a reference can result in problems with European directives on free trade and construction products, and such detailed matters are best left in the approved documents that support the building regulations.

On sustainability, my department has recently issued a consultation on the future of the Code for Sustainable Homes. One of the issues on which we have asked for comment is whether there is a potential for the code to recognise the benefits of providing enhanced fire protection in new homes. Subject to the outcome of that consultation, the code will reward such enhancements and thus provide an inducement to homebuilders to consider sprinklers more favourably.

In conclusion, I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for his continued commitment to the cause of fire safety. The Government share common cause with him in seeking to further reduce fire deaths and injuries, and I hope that we can continue to work together to that end in the manner to which he referred.

My Lords, I am grateful for the support for all the amendments from all around the House, including from the Minister. It would be a very happy outcome of all the efforts made by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, if there were an extensive review into the costs and the benefits of installing sprinkler systems. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendments 2 to 4 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

Clause 2 agreed.

House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.