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Building Regulations and Fire Safety: Government Response

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 17 May 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement on the publication of Dame Judith Hackitt’s final report following her Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Honourable and right honourable Members will be aware that my predecessor and the then Home Secretary asked Dame Judith to carry out this review following the Grenfell Tower fire. We are approaching one year on from that tragic event, and those affected are firmly in our minds. I met some of the bereaved and survivors as soon as I could after I was appointed. This strengthened my determination to ensure that they continue to receive the support they need and to ensure that we learn from this tragedy so nothing like this can ever happen again. With this in mind, Dame Judith was asked to undertake her review of the existing system as part of a comprehensive response to the fire. I want to pay tribute to Dame Judith and all those who contributed to this important report.

The report’s publication is a watershed for everyone who has a stake in ensuring that the people living in buildings like Grenfell Tower are safe—and feel safe. Dame Judith is clear that the current system—developed over many years and successive Governments—is not fit for purpose. She is calling for major reform and a change of culture, with the onus more clearly on everyone involved to manage the risks they create at every stage, and government doing more to set and enforce high standards. This Government agree with that assessment and support the principles behind the report’s recommendations for a new system. We agree with the call for greater clarity and accountability over who is responsible for building safety during the construction, refurbishment and ongoing management of high-rise homes.

The Hackitt review has shown that in too many cases, people who should be accountable for fire safety have failed in their duties. In future, the Government will ensure that those responsible for a building must demonstrate that they have taken decisive action to reduce building safety risks and will be held to account. We agree that the system should be overseen by a more effective regulatory framework, including stronger powers to inspect high-rise buildings and sanctions to tackle irresponsible behaviour. We agree that there should be no buck-passing between different parts of the industry and that everyone needs to work together to change the system and, crucially—given the concerns raised following the Grenfell tragedy—we agree that residents must be empowered with relevant information. They must be able to act to make their homes safer.

This review has implications for government as a whole. I am committing today to bring forward legislation that delivers meaningful and lasting change and gives residents a much stronger voice in an improved system of fire safety. Changing the law will take time. But, as Dame Judith acknowledges, we can—and must—start changing the culture and practice right now. As a first step, we are asking everyone involved to have their say on how we can achieve this by contacting us by the end of July. Their response will inform a more detailed Statement to the House in the autumn on how we intend to implement the new regulatory system. I will also update the House on progress before the Summer Recess.

We all have a role to play. For our part, this Government have accepted and have been implementing the recommendations that relate to us since Dame Judith published her interim report in December. First, we are consulting on significantly restricting or banning the use of “desktop studies” to assess cladding systems. Inappropriate use of desktop studies is unacceptable and I will not hesitate to ban them if the consultation—which closes on 25 May—does not demonstrate that they can be used safely.

Secondly, we are working with industry to clarify building regulations fire safety guidance, and I will publish this for consultation in July. Let me be clear: the cladding believed to be on Grenfell Tower was unlawful under existing building regulations. It should not have been used. But I will ensure that there is no room for doubt over what materials can be used safely in the cladding of high-rise residential buildings. Having listened carefully to concerns, the Government will consult on banning the use of combustible materials in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings. Thirdly, we will work with the industry to make the wider suite of building regulations guidance more user friendly. All of this continues our work to ensure that people are safe.

Since the Grenfell tragedy, my department has worked with fire and rescue services, local authorities and landlords to identify high-rise buildings with unsafe cladding, ensure that interim measures are in place to reduce risks, and give building owners clear advice about what they need to do, over the longer term, to make buildings safe. In addition, I am issuing a direction today to all local housing authorities to pay particular regard to cladding-related issues when reviewing housing in their areas.

Remediation work has started on two-thirds of buildings in the social housing sector, and we have called on building owners in the private sector to follow the example set by the social sector and not pass costs on to leaseholders. I find it outrageous that some private sector landlords have been slow to co-operate with us on this vital work. I am calling on them to do the right thing. If they do not, I am not ruling anything out at this stage.

As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, the Government will fully fund the removal and replacement of potentially dangerous cladding by social landlords, with costs estimated at £400 million. This will ensure that they can focus their efforts on making ACM cladding systems safe for the buildings they own. We want to allocate this funding for remediation as soon as possible and will announce more details shortly, including how we will encourage landlords to continue to pursue other parties for costs where they are responsible or at fault. We will also continue to offer financial flexibilities for local authorities which need to undertake essential fire safety work.

We must create a culture that truly puts people and their safety first, inspires confidence and, yes, rebuilds public trust. Dame Judith’s review and the significant changes that will flow from it are important first steps, helping us ensure that when we say ‘never again’, we mean it. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, it is customary to thank Ministers for repeating in this House Statements made in another place. There is no one in your Lordships’ House, or indeed in the House of Commons, who is not saddened by the necessity for this Statement to be made. The tragedy of Grenfell, the dreadful loss of life, and the shock and terror generated by the events that have led to Dame Judith’s report will resonate for years.

Nobody who has read this week’s Guardian with its moving description of so many of those who perished in the conflagration will fail to welcome—indeed, to insist upon—stringent measures being taken to avoid any repetition of this catastrophe.

Noble Lords will welcome many of the proposals in the report, based, as it is, upon its clear findings of failings in the present system of building control and the need to secure more effective regulation and enforcement. It also stresses the need for clarity as to where responsibility will lie. It is, however, disappointing that the report does not appear to accept the need to ban the use of combustible material in cladding systems on high-rise residential buildings. The Government are to consult on this issue. I believe that most Members of this House would join the plea by survivors of the disaster, the RIBA and others in calling for a ban on combustible construction materials, certainly in high-rise developments but perhaps more generally.

The Secretary of State agrees that,

“residents must be empowered with relevant information. They must be able to act to make their homes safer”.

With due respect to the Secretary of State, I find that a curious formulation. What, beyond expressing concerns, can residents do about issues such as those which led to the disaster?

There are some issues not mentioned in the Statement which I would like to raise. The first is to ask the Minister for an update on the progress of rehousing the survivors of this tragedy in housing which meets their needs. Too many tenants and their families continue to live in accommodation which fails to meet their needs.

The second is to ask for clarification in relation to the funding of the essential work necessary to ensure the safety, and alleviate the fear, of residents of high-rise accommodation. Will this be met by the Government?

The third is to ask about the position of residents in blocks of flats where the freeholder is not the local authority. Some will be leaseholders; others will be renting. In the former case, do the Government expect the leaseholder to finance the necessarily expensive work? If not, what steps will they take to ensure that the freeholder does so and that the cost is not borne by the resident? Will local authorities have a role in enforcing any requirements in such cases and, if so, will the cost be treated as being within the new burdens doctrine, under which they can look to the Government for the necessary funding?

Finally, the Statement, perfectly properly, deals with high-rise housing. What consideration is being given to other high-rise buildings—offices, shopping centres, hotels, hospitals and the like—which may also present problems, in relation to both existing buildings and those which might be built in future? The tragedy of Grenfell must never be repeated.

My Lords, I associate myself with the remarks of both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, in relation to this terrible tragedy and the need to make sure that it never occurs again.

I should start by declaring that between 2010 and 2012 I was the Minister with responsibility for building regulations.

I very much welcome the report and I welcome the Government’s endorsement of its recommendations. We share the Secretary of State’s commitment to making sure that they are brought into force as quickly as possible. In that respect, my first point is to raise with the Minister the following phrase in the Statement:

“Changing the law will take time”.

When will the primary legislation that the Secretary of State has promised be introduced? We know that there is a legislative logjam further in the system. Can the Minister give us an assurance that this legislation will vault over that logjam and reach this House and the other place in good time for an early introduction and passage through the parliamentary system?

Secondly, does the Minister recognise that in fact the Secretary of State already has powers to start the process? The Building Act 1984 was amended by the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004 to provide a power requiring a nominated person to be appointed for each building project to sign off on building regulation compliance. That power is not yet in force but it would produce what the Hackitt report calls a “dutyholder”. That can be introduced now by statutory instrument and could be in force by October this year. Changing the law does not always have to take time, and I hope that the Minister will undertake to press his colleagues in the department to get on and make sure that this simple, straightforward introduction of a duty holder takes priority and does not get stuck in the legislative logjam.

The Hackitt review rightly outlined the dysfunctional and fragmented nature of the construction industry and identified a culture of cost-cutting and corner-cutting at the expense of good quality, good safety and common sense. I want the Minister to recognise that it is not just fire regulations in high-rise buildings that have been the victim of, or bypassed by, that cost-cutting, corner-cutting approach. Buying a new house in 2018 is like buying a new car was in the 1960s, with complaints very high and quality standards very low. Will the Government learn from this review and make sure not only that compliance with the right fire regulations is automatic in future but compliance with the full range of measures in building regulations, all of which are aimed at saving life, promoting the health and well-being of the buildings’ occupants, and delivering a long-term, sustainable environment?

Finally, I welcome the Government’s £400 million allocation for social housing repairs to cladding. I want to press the Minister on this, as I did the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, last week: is it not time to give a similar “pay now, recover costs later” pledge to tenants and leaseholders living in privately owned high-rise flats? Surely they are just as deserving of living in safe homes as anybody living in social housing.

My Lords, I endorse the moving words of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, at the beginning of his remarks. Like him, I listened to a survivor on the “Today” programme emphasising his very strong view that we should ban the use of combustible materials. I know that, as we consult on that option, a number of professional bodies, as well as survivors, will strongly endorse that suggestion.

The noble Lord may not have had time to read the whole of the Hackitt review but there is an interesting section on resident empowerment, regular safety reviews, improved communication with residents and a duty holder —as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell. It recommends that, where there is an unsatisfactory response from the freeholder, there should be an opportunity to leapfrog over the freeholder to an independent body with powers to intervene.

The noble Lord will know that £400 million has been allocated to local authorities to compensate them for the costs of remediation. Both noble Lords raised the issue of leaseholders. In many cases, the leaseholders are also the freeholders because they have used the legislation to enfranchise themselves, so it is no good telling them to get the money from the freeholder because it is a circular discussion. I was interested in the noble Lord’s suggestion that local authorities might intervene to underwrite in some way the costs of remediation. Discussions are continuing at a ministerial level about the problems facing private sector leaseholders. We hope that, where it is possible, freeholders will follow the example of Barratt, which has, I think, undertaken in one case to pay for remediation itself and not pass the cost on to leaseholders. Where practical, we would encourage other freeholders to do the same.

The noble Lord asked whether the recommendations could apply beyond high-rise buildings. Many recommendations—on changing the culture and on ownership of risk, for example—apply to the wider construction industry and not just to high rise. There is read-across there.

The Government place a high priority on public safety, and the legislation involved is quite extensive. Dame Judith suggests establishing a new body—the joint competent authority or JCA—combining powers from the Health and Safety Executive and building standards departments. There are other legislative changes also. We want to consult and we want to get it right. The Secretary of State will make a progress report before the Summer Recess and again in the autumn on how we are taking forward the legislative consequences from this report.

I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, said towards the end of his remarks. The culture should filter through not just to fire safety but to the whole range of building regulations. Dame Judith wants what she calls an outcomes-based strategy—where people assume responsibility for risks and do not shield themselves behind prescriptive solutions and try to game them, to use her words.

Finally, to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, we are considering whether any of the current powers could be used to take forward Dame Judith’s vision. I think I put the Building Act 1984 on the statute book in an earlier capacity, and I am delighted to learn that those powers are still relevant. We are inviting people to contact us with views on how we implement the review, which will include using existing powers where they are available.

My Lords, we are all deeply concerned that this should not happen again and I welcome what the Minister has read out. In particular, I hope the Government will give a clear indication that the banning of combustible materials is something they would like to do. We have to have a consultation, but, given our debate yesterday on why it is important to make clear in any consultation where the Government believe the future should be, it is important that the Government are very clear about this.

Does my noble friend accept that Dame Judith’s report clearly highlights that inspection and enforcement have a big role to play, and failed in this case? Therefore, I hope I am not extending it too far to say that there is a fundamental problem with the building regulations in general. We have to recognise that building regulations are not being met by new housebuilders, for example, because they are not inspected and the regulations are not enforced. In my view, this is a clarion call to review the way in which inspection and enforcement take place. I hope the Government will say that this is not just about fire safety but about all the other regulations we have passed, which should be enforced. I suppose I ought to declare my interest as chairman of the climate change committee. This is a real issue for us, because we cannot get the enforcement we need for new buildings.

I am grateful to my noble friend, himself a former Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment with responsibility for building regulations. The Hackitt review has recommended what she calls “gateways”—steps that must be fulfilled before the next stage in the construction process can happen, from design, to planning, to completion. On inspection, there is an interesting section in the report about approved inspectors, where Dame Judith sees a perceived conflict of interest and recommends some changes. On regular inspection, there is a recommendation that high-rise buildings should be inspected rigorously at least every five years for safety. On resources for the planning regime, my noble friend will know that we have recently increased the fees that planning authorities may charge with the increase being ring-fenced for actions such as enforcement.

I should have said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, that I have the latest figures from the royal borough on the rehousing of the Grenfell survivors. As of 14 May, of the 210 households that needed to be rehoused, 201—95%—have accepted offers of temporary or permanent accommodation. Of those, 138 have moved into temporary or permanent accommodation of which 64 are currently living in temporary accommodation and 74 have moved into permanent accommodation. Kensington and Chelsea Council is spending £235 million on providing the homes needed and we know that the council plans to spend an additional £83 million on top of the £152 million it has already reported spending. It has reported that it has now made over 300 permanent homes available to survivors to give people as much choice as possible.

On the building regulations, Dame Judith’s point was that the problem was not so much the regulations but a failure of the system that supervises and enforces them.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Fire Safety and Rescue APPG. I welcome the report from Dame Judith. It is time that the principle of a golden thread ran right through the entire planning, delivery and maintenance of buildings. I know that many others agree with that. I endorse the comments made by my noble friend Lord Stunell about the timing of legislation coming through, and I hope that those things that can be done swiftly will start to give confidence to the various parts of the industry that changes need to happen.

Wearing my fire safety hat, I am slightly concerned that in the Statement the Minister referred to working with industry to clarify the building regulations fire safety guidance. I hope that does not just mean with the private industry side but includes the public sector, whether fire services or local government—or indeed those people who act as approved inspectors going in to have a look.

Five years ago, the Secretary of State promised a full review of the approved document B regulations after the Lakanal House fire inquest. We need an urgent review of those. My concern is that Dame Judith Hackitt’s review is not explicit about what will happen to them. If they are to be made part and parcel of a general regulations review, please will the Government assure us that the reasons behind the review proposed five years ago remain and will be addressed as a matter of urgency? Everybody agreed five years ago that we should never let something like the Lakanal House tragedy happen again, yet here we are.

Finally, I also endorse the comments made by my noble friend Lord Stunell. Please can we not just have guarantees and hopes that private freeholders will not pass on the costs? I completely accept the Minister’s point that many leaseholders are also freeholders, but I am afraid there are too many examples already of leaseholders being faced with massive charges by freeholders who are taking none of the risk and none of the liability. That is unacceptable.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. On legislation, I can only repeat what I said: the Government place a high priority on public safety. I know that the Bill managers will take on board the points made by a number of noble Lords.

On consultation, it will not just be a review of the industry. The noble Baroness is quite right. It will involve the fire and rescue service, local authority building standards people, approved inspectors and others.

On the building regulations, we agree that the building regulations fire safety guidance needs clarification. Work actually began before the Grenfell fire last year. When the interim report was published, we promised to complete it. A clarified version of the guidance will be published for consultation in July. We want to ensure that there is no room for doubt about compliance of materials with the building regs. We will consult on Dame Judith’s recommendations, as I said, including the proposal that only non-combustible cladding can be used on high-rise buildings. Also in the report are proposals for much more stringent testing of materials, and other recommendations along those lines.

My Lords, I refer to the joint competent authority that the Minister has already mentioned and the implication that that would require primary legislation. This recommendation is extremely important and will help to build the infrastructure around a new and higher-standard regime. Is there any chance at all that a shadow authority could be established that might make the whole thing a little speedier than primary legislation?

I have had the pleasure of working with Dame Judith. She refers in her report to the construction design and management regulations because she chaired the Health and Safety Commission. She reports that those regulations produced good outcomes. She is wedded to these approaches being repeated in relation to the safety and quality of complex buildings and to the safety of those who live in them. The Statement implies that there will be another set of consultations, perhaps by the end of July, a Statement before the Recess and another in the autumn. There will be legislation. Can the Minister elaborate a little on the Government’s thinking on precisely how quickly some of Dame Judith’s really urgent and effective recommendations could be implemented, short of primary legislation?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. Some of the recommendations can be done without legislation, and we should start on those now—changing the culture within the industry, for example. The joint competent authority proposed by Dame Judith is quite a radical proposal. The powers are set out in more detail on page 23. We agree that we need an improved regulatory system with sharp teeth. It would make sense to bring together the three disparate bodies—the HSE, the fire and rescue service and local authority building standards—together in one overarching body with these teeth. The new body would process the applications for high-rise buildings. We need to consult on that model, as I said. We have a lot of support for her vision of an improved regulatory system. We want to consult and then set out our plans for implementation in the autumn. I note with interest the suggestion of the noble Baroness that if we go down the JCA route a shadow body should be set up to take over responsibility; she asks whether that could be done without legislation. We want to make progress and we recognise the need for reform and the need for some overarching body to make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again.

My Lords, this is a good report and I am pleased that the Government have welcomed it in the way that they have. In order to give confidence to the many thousands of people who have great anxiety about the future—the residents who live in these buildings—I wonder whether the Government would be prepared, for instance, to take immediate action to implement some of the uncontroversial recommendations in this excellent report. For instance, the residents’ voice recommendations could be implemented almost without delay and would give confidence to people out there that the Government are taking seriously not just the report but the actions from the report.

Secondly, I completely agree with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Deben, about transparency and independence within building control, and about giving it some teeth. That is something I have been concerned with in my role as a councillor for a number of years. I look forward to that new system being independent of current construction companies and completely transparent in how it operates, and having the necessary teeth to implement action that it currently does not. That will require funding and I notice in the report a reference to that. I hope that the Government will be able to commit to properly funding local authorities in order to undertake new, strong measures to implement building control standards.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. She is quite right about residents’ voices, and in many cases that is already happening. In both the social and the private sectors there are residents’ associations—or rather, tenant forums—whereby there is a good dialogue between the freeholder, the owner and those who live in the building, and Dame Judith’s report has some suggestions as to how to take that forward. I agree that we should do that without waiting for legislation: I entirely endorse the point.

The JCA proposed by Dame Judith would indeed be independent. It would not be dominated by the industry but would be composed of the three components that I mentioned. On the residents’ voice—there is some in-flight refuelling here—the Government agree with the assessment and support the principles behind the report’s recommendations. We will work with partners to consider Dame Judith’s detailed recommendations and, again, we will set out our implementation plan in the autumn.

On resources for local authorities, some local authorities have found it quite difficult to trace the owners of some privately owned high-rise blocks. People are either not answering or they are based overseas. We have therefore made £1 million available to local authorities in order to help them enforce their duties to identify and, where necessary, take action against the owners of buildings with unsuitable cladding. As I mentioned earlier, the increased fees for planning applications should provide more resources for planning departments.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned an outcome-based safety regime. My understanding of that process is that, rather than enforce point-by-point compliance with regulations A, B and C, while there has to be compliance, overall the system—the building, that is—has to be safe. The person who is accountable for the building has to underwrite its safety. This is remarkably similar to the outcome of the inquiry conducted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, into the Piper Alpha disaster, which talked about the safety case. As noble Lords will remember, it was an appalling tragedy, and the report wisely changed the philosophical approach to safety. The Hackitt review makes the same philosophical proposal.

As someone who worked in and commented on the oil industry, I recognise this as being a positive suggestion. It means that there are lessons that the Government can learn about the rapid implementation of such a philosophical shift. So, as well as consulting the industry, I suggest that the Government should also consult the oil and gas industry, in particular the people who were around when that change was made, because it was a retrospective and ongoing change. Existing facilities had to be brought up to the new standard and new facilities had to be built in the new way. Can the Minister take that advice and talk to some of the people who have already made this philosophical shift?

The noble Lord is quite right: what Dame Judith is basically saying is that we should rely less on looking in isolation at individual elements within the construction industry, which she argues leads to fragmentation, silo thinking and gaming the system, and move towards an outcome-based approach, which means standing back and making sure that the system as a whole has integrity. She is worried that at the moment what she describes as a prescriptive approach means relying on people meeting minimum standards and not taking a broader view of what is going on. In a quote that makes the point, Dame Judith says:

“This is most definitely not just a question of the specification of cladding systems but of an industry that has not reflected and learned for itself, nor looked to other sectors”.

She wants to promote what she calls a proactive and holistic view of the system as a whole. So not only should we look at the oil and gas industries, we should look at what is happening overseas where other countries are also moving towards an outcome-based system. I shall certainly take on board his point about a dialogue with other industries which have moved in this direction.

My Lords, perhaps I may remind the House that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I will raise two issues which I do not think have come out fully in our discussions so far. One relates to the fact that in the future, and depending on the consultation, it might be possible for combustible materials to be used on buildings. The Government’s Statement says that people living in buildings such as Grenfell Tower should be safe and should feel safe. But no one who knows that their accommodation is made of combustible materials is going to feel safe, and I suspect that they will also face substantial increases in their insurance premiums. So I hope that we will pay close attention to what the ABI and RIBA are saying about the need to make the use of combustible materials illegal.

My second question concerns the £400 million, because this issue has not yet been made clear. Is this a fixed sum of money which local authorities are to bid into or is it a flexible sum that may actually be higher than £400 million when all the costs of replacing the cladding are known? Further, does it include payment to local housing authorities for the fire watching that is currently being undertaken in a large number of high-rise blocks? It goes on for 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the costs are likely to have substantial implications for the rents paid by those who are in that accommodation. I hope very much that the £400 million is a flexible sum that will include the amount that might be loaded on to people’s rents.

I take the noble Lord’s point about the views of the ABI. Under the recommendations made by Dame Judith, those living in blocks of flats will have much more information about how safe their building is. She talks about a “golden thread”, which is a database relating to the building. It would be kept up to date and would be accessible to residents.

On the £400 million, we want to allocate this funding for remediation as soon as possible and we will announce more details shortly, including how we will encourage landlords to continue to pursue other parties for costs where they are responsible or at fault. He asked whether it is a flexible sum. As someone who was once a Minister in that department and had negotiations with the Treasury, I suspect that it is not a flexible sum: it is £400 million that is available for local authorities to bid for to help them with the costs that they have faced. We are trying to do all we can to ensure that in the social housing sector, the costs of implementing the recommendations do not fall on tenants’ rents. We have made that position clear.