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Fire Safety: Retirement Communities

Volume 703: debated on Tuesday 9 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mrs Wheeler.)

I am pleased that I have been able to secure this debate tonight. The impact of fire on any property can be devastating, but the risks are increased when it comes to fires in retirement communities, due to the vulnerability and dependency of the residents who reside in them. While “retirement communities” can refer to a variety of types of housing, it is crucial that any building housing vulnerable and dependent residents has the very highest levels of fire protection arrangements in place.

Many residents who live in retirement communities may be unable to evacuate themselves or may have evacuation plans in place that move them from one part of a building to another part that is safer. There is therefore increased importance on ensuring that the ability of fire to spread in these buildings is contained. Despite that, much of the focus recently, following the tragedy at Grenfell, has been on the height of buildings and not necessarily the protection or lay-out of individual buildings.

I will talk about a specific retirement community in my North Durham constituency, but many of the issues I raise will affect other hon. and right hon. Members’ constituencies throughout the country. Cestrian Court was constructed and opened in 2008 by McCarthy & Stone, a developer and management company for retirement communities. The individual flats were sold to residents, and the lease was sold on. The building is currently managed by FirstPort, which also owns the lease. The issues relating to fire safety at Cestrian Court were first brought to my office in February when a resident passed me a copy of a compliance report stating that certain fire-stopping features were

“not considered to have met the guidance at the time of construction.”

Having looked at the report in more detail, I must say that I was alarmed at the litany of defects at Cestrian Court from the time of its construction. Most notably, a 1.5 metre part of a compartment wall between two flats was missing—in effect, a chunk of a corner of a cavity wall was missing—and cavity barriers on doors were not fire-stopped. Moreover, and as I will come to later, the attic space had numerous fire structures dislodged. That may have been as a result of residents moving structures in the loft or, as the report outlines, due to expansion and contraction of the roof and cavity barriers not being mechanically fixed at the time of construction. Finally, and most importantly, these defects did not meet building regulations at the time of construction: plasterboard joints were not sealed; plasterboard compartment walls were not extended to barge boarding areas; cables penetrated brick dwarf walls; roof voids were not fire-stopped; pipes penetrated cavity barriers; service penetration was not adequately fire-stopped; and communal venting discharged through the roof without fire dampening. All of those defects were serious and weakened the protections for Cestrian Court’s elderly residents. In the event of a fire, they would have had serious consequences.

I commend the right hon. Member on initiating this important debate. Does he agree that the travesty of building regulations that have allowed unsafe building to take place without challenge increases the importance of the duty of care to local residents, which must be addressed not simply for his constituents but for those in every one of the 650 constituencies represented in the House, including my constituency of Strangford?

I very much agree and will come to some of what the Government must do. Local fire boards and fire brigades will need extra enforcement powers.

I expected McCarthy & Stone, as the builder of the retirement community, to show an interest in rectifying its possible mistakes. I believed—foolishly—that it would be horrified at the risks that it might have inflicted on the residents through a litany of fire safety defects and that it would contact FirstPort, the new operator, to co-ordinate ways in which to rectify the situation. I was therefore disappointed when it simply said that the operation of the building had been passed to a new provider and that the warranty period on its construction work was up—it basically washed its hands of the situation.

It is unclear why the new operator, FirstPort, did not discover some of the structural building defects earlier as part of its due diligence when it took over Cestrian Court from McCarthy & Stone. It is also unclear why, given that Cestrian Court had five inspections during its construction, the National House Building Council failed to identify these issues.

On receiving the compliance report, I immediately contacted the chief fire officer at County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service, who did an audit of the building. Of most concern was the “stay put” policy in place for residents in the event of a fire, which effectively said, “In the event of a fire, do not worry. Stay in your flats. Your flats are fireproof.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. Since construction 11 years ago, residents have been under the impression that “stay put” was the best policy to save them in the event of a fire. That was on the misguided assumption that the fire would be contained. With no fire-proof doors, gaps in cavity walls and loft spaces with missing or dislodged fire safety structures, that advice might have had fatal consequences. Residents were not protected, and we have been lucky that we have not had a national tragedy at this building.

The chief fire officer also found that the fire alarm system did not work, which again calls into question the “stay put” policy for residents in the event of a fire. He therefore escalated the advice from “stay put” to “full evacuation” in the event of a fire at the premises. Unsurprisingly, he also confirmed that the problems had to be treated with such urgency to mitigate the risk that the work would have to be done within three months. In the meantime, the fire risk was so bad that residents would have to pay for someone to stay on the premises 24 hours a day to alert them to possible fires, costing each two-bedroom flat £1,000. I want to formally thank Stuart Errington, our chief fire officer, and his team for the speedy way in which they dealt with this matter.

There have been cases throughout the country, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, of fires in retirement communities. There is evidence to suggest that if those fires had taken place at different times of day, they could have had fatal consequences. One fire took place at the Beechmere retirement complex—a four-storey complex of 132 extra-care sheltered flats in Cheshire—in August 2019. The fire rapidly spread through the cavities in the walls and the roof space. The fire service was unable to prevent total loss of the flats, but it was able to prevent any deaths. However, there is evidence that if the fire had taken place during the night, the consequences would have been completely different.

In 2017, a fire took place at the Newgrange care home—a two-storey care home in Herefordshire—resulting in two fatalities. The fire service had to rescue 30 people. Finally, in June 2020 in Sunderland, a fire started in the roof of the Croft care home and quickly spread. Some 27 residents had to be evacuated—some from upper storeys. Again, if the fire had occurred at night, we would have had a large number of fatalities.

Turning back to Cestrian Court, I was told in April this year that full remedial work would cost residents £87,000—around £3,000 per resident. Let me say very clearly that it is plainly wrong that residents are having to pay for remedial work that was the responsibility of McCarthy & Stone, which built the properties in the first place.

I have the same issue at Guardian Court in my constituency, which is owned by Anchor Hanover. Just putting a new fire alarm system in these rented properties would cost £114,000. Along with the residents, I lobbied to reduce the cost and the labour costs to £98,500, but this is extortionate for people who have no additional means.

I agree. These people are on fixed incomes and cannot just lay their hands on this type of money.

Let’s get this in perspective. Before its £647 million buy-out by private equity in February, McCarthy & Stone was listed on the FTSE 250. It handed out multimillion-pound bonuses in 2019. The chief executive officer earns £658,000, and the company has an annual turnover of £725 million—FirstPort has a turnover of £88 million. I have to say that £87,000 is small beer compared with the amounts being paid to the executives of McCarthy & Stone.

The remedial works at Cestrian Court have now been done, but the cost has fallen on the residents, and that cannot be right. It is also causing a huge amount of distress to those individuals, knowing that for the past 11 years they have been living in a building that could have been a tinderbox. I urge the National House Building Council and the two companies I have mentioned to put in place a scheme to compensate my constituents.

Interestingly, I have had one letter from McCarthy and Stone, but I think I have had five phone calls in the past few days, with it suddenly wondering why it is going to be raised in this debate. In the correspondence, McCarthy and Stone and the NHBC clearly have a dangerous misunderstanding of each other’s roles. I urge McCarthy and Stone and FirstPort to look, along with the NHBC, at who is responsible for this. Again, McCarthy and Stone’s attitude is, “It’s not our problem. It’s gone away”, but I think it is.

In conclusion, the Minister needs to consider new clause 1 to the Building Safety Bill, which calls on the Government to establish a review of construction industry payment practices. The current legislation contains no protections for residents such as those at Cestrian Court, given the height of the building. I understand well why the emphasis to date has been on the height of a building, but I urge the Minister to consider some of these buildings, and look at how we can better co-ordinate fire safety at a local level, and ensure that the inspection of new properties does not leave residents vulnerable.

I urge the Minister to take Cestrian Court as a case study that demonstrates the disjointed system for leasehold arrangements in this country, and the impact of that on fire safety. Residents of Cestrian Court have been fortunate that there was no fire, but one wonders what would have been done without their persistence in raising this issue and arguing that things should be done. Companies such as McCarthy and Stone portray the dream of a retirement for the elderly through glossy brochures and TV adverts, but all they have sold in my constituency is a potential nightmare. If a fire had taken place in that building, there would have been a need for some prosecutions.

Importantly, anyone living in a McCarthy and Stone property today should ask what fire certificates and regulations have been put in place. Indeed, I urge every fire authority to go into McCarthy and Stone properties to check that we do not have the horror story that we have at Cestrian Court. I thank the residents of Cestrian Court for their doggedness and determination in raising this issue. I feel heartily sorry for them as they have been left in this position through no fault of their own. It is another example of where people make money out of developments, but those individuals who have often put their life savings into wanting a happy retirement are left out of pocket. I am sorry, but that cannot be right.

I commend and congratulate the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this debate, and on bringing this important topic before the House. It is a matter that we all believe to be of grave concern.

Let me begin by saying how important I and the Government believe it is that we further develop the later living and retirement housing sector. Many people in our country live in very large homes. That is fine for the many people who are happy to live in those homes, but we know full well that many people would like to downsize. It is economically sensible for them to do so, as well as good for their health and welfare. Unfortunately, however, there are not enough retirement and later living properties in our country in the right places, and with the right quality, care levels and social networks to provide that opportunity. We want to do more to help with that, but it is disappointing and concerning to hear the story that the right hon. Gentleman has presented to the House, so I am very happy to look at the specifics that he has raised and work with him to ensure that the challenges that he has brought to our attention are addressed.

We have, however, introduced substantial reforms through the Building Safety Bill, which, with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, will strengthen our building safety regime. We have also taken action to ensure that care homes and residential places are safe, because we all want those living and working in retirement communities to feel safe. We have listened to concerns about fire safety in care homes and specialised housing, and we are currently exploring the evidence surrounding risks that may exist in buildings occupied by vulnerable individuals. We are also conducting a full technical review of Approved Document B, which is the statutory guidance to building regulations, where we will look at the fire safety provisions in care homes and specialised housing. As I say, I will also consider the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised about Cestrian Court and other places.

While we have already made important changes, we fundamentally need to change the culture so that residents’ concerns are listened to and, where problems arise, they are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. The Building Safety Bill is bringing forward the biggest reforms in nearly 40 years and will establish a building safety regulator. That means that in the future, later-living homes and specialised housing that are in scope will be covered by the new, more stringent building control regulatory regime during design and construction. This will ensure that corners are not being cut and buildings are built to a high standard. The new regime will strengthen regulatory oversight before building work commences; throughout construction, including before major changes are made; and when building work is complete.

Importantly, the Bill also paves the way for a national regulator for construction products to oversee a stronger and clearer construction products regulatory regime, which will apply to all four nations—both Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That national regulator, which will be established in the Office for Product Safety and Standards, will have robust market surveillance enforcement capability to take action against companies found to be breaking the rules, including removing unsafe construction products from the market.

I welcome what the Minister is saying about the future. I just wonder what can be done to ensure that not just Cestrian Court but other properties are safe. If Cestrian Court was built by McCarthy and Stone to the shoddy standards that left my constituents in peril, is there any way that McCarthy and Stone could be made to check—or that the Government could perhaps check, through the fire authorities—that the other facilities that it has built meet standards? I would hate to think that one of its other homes might go up in smoke, leading to the tragedy that we have, I think, very narrowly avoided at Cestrian Court.

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We certainly want, through the changes that we are making, to improve the building control regime in local authorities around the country, and that is what we will achieve through the Building Safety Bill. I also draw his attention to the changes that we are making in the Bill to amend the Defective Premises Act 1972 to extend the period of retrospective action that people can take if they find their property to be defective. We are also including in that Bill a clause that will ensure that building owners or freeholders must take all reasonable steps to find ways of dealing with remediation, and exhaust those steps, before they pass on costs to the residents and leaseholders. I think those are two important steps in the Bill, which I hope will find support across the House.

Our package of reforms will help to make sure that construction products placed on the market are safe and that the public can be confident that products, including those used in the construction of care homes, will perform as they are intended to. The safety of retirement homes under 18 metres will be overseen by the building safety regulator, as part of its responsibility to oversee the safety and performance of all buildings. The regulator will work with the construction industry and technical experts, commissioning research and conducting consultations where necessary to make recommendations to the Government for improving building regulations. By doing so, it will drive both a culture change in the sector, and improve the safety and performance of all buildings. It will also drive improvements in building safety by overseeing the performance of building control bodies, as I said to the right hon. Gentleman, through a robust professional and regulatory regime for both registered building control approvers and local authority building control departments.

It is vital that the fire safety regime for these buildings is comprehensive and is working as it should. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 requires those responsible to ensure that they regularly assess risks from fire to ensure they can take mitigating action to reduce the risk, so it is as low as reasonably practicable. This is not a one-off process or tick-box exercise, but one that requires the ongoing, day-to-day consideration and management of fire risks. That is especially important for the safety and wellbeing of residents of care homes, and other later life and specialised premises. The duties placed on building owners and responsible persons under the fire safety order will be further strengthened by clause 136 of the Building Safety Bill, which takes forward proposals to place a small number of additional duties on them. They include improving co-operation and information sharing, providing residents with relevant fire safety information and enforcing compliance through strengthening the standing of guidance. That will help with compliance and more effective enforcement action in the future—the sort of thing the right hon. Gentleman was talking about.

The Home Office also intends to bring forward new regulations that will implement the majority of the recommendations made by the Grenfell Tower inquiry in the phase 1 report, which require changes in the law. The measures will help to make all residential buildings safer by placing new duties on responsible persons, which will improve fire safety for their residents and assist fire and rescue services in planning for, and responding to, a fire.

We want to support people to stay safe in their homes. Fire and rescue services visit homes and offer person-centred fire safety advice, providing smoke alarms and other fire safety equipment where necessary. To support those physical visits, the National Fire Chiefs Council has created an online tool to allow residents to make informed self-assessment choices and be guided on any other steps they can take to improve their fire safety. The Government are also playing their part, working closely with the National Fire Chiefs Council and local fire and rescue services to deliver the long-running “Fire Kills” campaign. Through a mix of media advertising, partnership working and promotional activity, the campaign has helped to drive down the number of fires and fire- related fatalities to its current historic low levels.

I know that there is a united desire across the House to ensure that those living in retirement communities feel safe in their homes, and I am genuinely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing these issues to our attention tonight. Debates such as this are incredibly important as we work together to protect all residents. I assure him and Members across the House that the Government remain committed to helping residents in what we know is a most challenging situation, because in doing so, we will ensure that there is public confidence in the sector—a sector that we are determined to grow, and we have a mutual interest in doing so—and bring about lasting change in an industry that will put its residents’ welfare first. I am grateful to him and I thank him for his attention.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.