Fire sector perspectives on the Building Safety Bill

FIRE asked five organisations with an interest in the Building Safety Bill to share their early thoughts on what it means before parliament gets to work on the legislation in the autumn. Here’s what they said

In the last issue, FIRE Correspondent Tony Prosser reported on the Building Safety Bill, providing helpful explanation of a complex but significant piece of legislation that will have long lasting impacts on the construction industry as well as fire and rescue services in England. In these exclusive comments, the National Fire Chiefs Council, Fire Brigades Union, National Housing Federation, Association of British Insurers and the Construction Industry Council give their perspectives.

National Fire Chiefs Council
Nick Coombe, NFCC Protection Vice Chair and Building Safety Programme Lead

While we are pleased the critical milestone of the publication of this draft Bill has been reached, and marks important progress to help address failings seen at Grenfell Tower, we feel that there are areas which need strengthening. The pre-legislative scrutiny will ensure we can input into the process and raise areas where we feel more needs to be done.

The public has a right to feel safe in their own homes and this can only be achieved through changes in legislation and regulation. NFCC is fully committed to playing a key role in this to ensure our concerns are not only considered but taken on board and implemented by government. Ultimately, the final Bill must be robust.

Fire disasters such as Kings Cross, Bradford and the Henderson’s store have led to changes to legislation which have made a difference. However, they have only fixed the issue in those specific premises.

NFCC believes that the tragedy at Grenfell should go beyond fixing tower blocks. Several major fires post-Grenfell have proved that there is an issue in the built environment; we believe the new regime outlined by Dame Judith Hackitt should be applied to all high-risk premises.

Fire and rescue services use a risk-based inspection programme to target the premises they believe are the more likely – if they have a fire – to result in the highest risk to persons. These would include premises that house the most vulnerable; including hospitals, care homes and specialised housing.

One of the other key findings from Dame Judith Hackitt’s independent report was that non-worsening provisions under Section 4(3) of the Building Regulations seriously limit the scope of the law to improve fire safety in existing buildings. The purpose of the recommendations in the 2017 interim report were to ensure failings could be addressed quickly. More than three years on from Grenfell Tower, non-worsening provisions are not being properly tackled.

We understand concerns about the feasibility of improved retrospective implementation on existing building stock, however these arguments fail to recognise or examine available examples of how to manage this, which are already basic standards of fire safety in the regulations of other countries.

The draft Bill must ensure that conditions placed on safety case reports are given the footing in primary legislation to override section 4(3) of the Building Regulations. If safety cases do not have the power to improve situations like the one at Lakanal House, then we are not clear what powers they will give the Building Safety Regulator over and above the existing system.

We believe that during a change of use, or major refurbishment, a cost benefit analysis should be undertaken towards reasonable safety improvements. This could be balanced against the overall value of any project, as is already the legal test in other jurisdictions, which we believe was the intent of safety cases. However as drafted, we are concerned the Bill may not achieve this, in which case safety cases would provide little more than what we already have.

Fire Brigades Union
Matt Wrack, General Secretary,
Fire Brigades Union

The Grenfell Tower fire exposed the shocking state of building safety in the UK. Decades of deregulation, privatisation and austerity have gutted the UK’s fire safety infrastructure. Warnings from previous fires at Lakanal House, Shirley Towers, and Garnock Court were ignored. And 72 people lost their lives as a result.

Immediately after the fire, the government should have overhauled the UK’s building safety system to make sure residents and firefighters were safe. But it’s only now, three years on from the fire, that we have any idea of how the government will respond.

Two major Bills have finally been published in Westminster to help the government comply with the recommendations from phase one of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. The legislative changes could shake up firefighters’ prevention work, after decades of austerity-fuelled neglect of the vital role, which has left just 951 fire safety officers in England.

The Fire Safety Bill will extend responsibility for fire services to inspect and enforce fire safety in the common parts of all of England’s multi-occupancy buildings. The Bill is sparse on detail, but FBU analysis of an impact assessment from the Home Office revealed a complete underestimate of the job entailed.

The government estimated that just £700,000 extra a year will be required for the inspections, which would pay for just 12 full-time fire safety inspectors. The maximum estimated spend is £2.1m, which would pay for just 35 inspectors, less than one per brigade in England.

Half a million people are estimated to be trapped in unsafe homes and the government still doesn’t know the full scale of the crisis. We should be talking about immediately doubling inspector numbers to even make a dent in the task ahead.

The Building Safety Bill creates a Building Safety Regulator to oversee fire safety and enforcement in higher risk buildings. The regulator will establish “gateways” at points in a building’s design and construction, requiring sign off on the safety of the project.

It isn’t yet clear how much input fire authorities will have at each gateway, nor how fire safety will be managed within the regulator or who will pay for it. But the regulator will have the authority to direct fire authorities to assist its operations, which the government estimates could cost brigades between £9m and £15.4m per year.

The regulator will be able to provide fire authorities with the appropriate funding to cover the costs of this activity. But it will sit within the Health and Safety Executive, which has had its real-terms funding cut in half since 2010.

The Bill explicitly permits the regulator to bring in private sector support when fire authorities are unable to assist, which could allow private firms to sign off fire compliance on higher risk buildings.

In 1984, the FBU campaigned against the part-privatisation of building control. The creeping privatisation of our Service is one of the many factors that led to the disaster at Grenfell in the first place – and we will fight against any attempt to expand it.

There is much to consider in the Bill, and the FBU will be responding in full. But any changes must be properly funded and publicly provided, if the Bills are to finally ensure residents and firefighters are safe.

National Housing Federation
Victoria Moffett, Head of Building and Fire Safety Programmes


The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower revealed that the regulatory system for building safety was not fit for purpose. Dame Judith Hackitt’s Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety recommended a wholesale change to the regulatory environment that keeps people safe in their homes. This was based on clear lines of responsibility at every stage of a building’s lifecycle, establishing a golden thread of information about a building and ensuring that residents in higher-risk buildings can access the information they need to stay safe.

As social landlords responsible for a number of higher-risk buildings, housing associations have already been working to trial many of Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations since the publication of the Independent Review’s interim report more than two years ago.

Resident safety is our sector’s top priority, and so our members have been piloting new ways of working, whether as part of the government’s Early Adopters scheme or independently. The much-anticipated draft Building Safety Bill brings us a step closer to a welcome and necessary overhaul of the building safety regulatory system. It lays the groundwork for a number of measures that will rightly change how the entire built environment operates. The work needed to implement the new system cannot be underestimated, but as responsible landlords, housing associations are already changing their businesses to start delivering the new measures for higher-risk buildings.

There are ways that the government can help us until secondary legislation provides further detail on how the new system will work. We are calling for interim guidance, for example on further development of the building case, to support our sector to continue implementing the preliminary work it’s already been doing, so we can be confident it’s heading in the right direction.

We are also calling on government to ensure a managed transition to the new system for higher-risk buildings in scope of the more stringent regime. Alongside adopting the measures in the Building Safety Bill, housing associations will be coordinating a complex programme of building safety remedial work in line with the government’s advice notes while also adopting planned changes to the Fire Safety Order. In order to do this efficiently, we want to work with government to boost capacity among the construction and building safety sectors and ensure that limited resources are directed in a way that best addresses building safety risks.

Our members frequently tell us about the importance of ensuring they can gain access to individual properties quickly, in the small minority of cases where this access isn’t permitted by residents, but is important to ensure the safety of everyone in the building. We’d like to see the Bill provide measures that would enable a duty holder to gain access where it’s necessary, though only in relation to their duties.

Finally, we support the government’s view that the costs of new additional safety measures should remain affordable for residents who will pay the new ‘building safety charge.’ We will contribute to these discussions so that the new system is successful in ensuring resident safety, while remaining affordable for leaseholders and charitable housing associations.

Association of British Insurers
Sarah Brodie, Policy Adviser, General Insurance

The insurance industry has long been calling for the fundamental reform of the building regulation framework and welcomes the publication of the draft Building Safety Bill. The Bill is a crucial opportunity to deliver long lasting change, embedding property safety, as well as life safety, as a key priority at all levels of the system.

A key part of the legislation for the industry is the ambition to fulfil Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendation for a ‘Golden Thread’ of information on a building’s design, operation and fire safety to be available at all stages of a building’s life. The more information available to insurers, the more accurately premiums can be based on fire risk and this will significantly enhance insurers understanding of a building’s safety and improve their confidence in the management of fire risks.

The industry welcomed plans for a new Building Safety Regulator, to be established within the Health and Safety Executive, and we want to see the roles and responsibilities of building owners, and those responsible for maintaining building safety, clearly set out in legislation. The introduction of the Fire Safety Bill was an important step in providing clarity on the responsibilities of building owners and the draft Building Safety Bill sets out the need for a ‘safety case’ to continuously prove building safety.

While overall, the draft Bill is welcome, insurers believe that considerations around fire risk and the use of combustible materials should not be driven by a specific trigger height of a building but the risk and vulnerability of those occupying or using it. We have long argued that the use of any combustible material on a building of any height will increase fire risk and combustible cladding should not be used on care homes, hospitals, schools, hotels and student accommodation of any height. Therefore, we would like to see the scope of the Bill extended to cover buildings below 18m in height.

Very few people have ever died from a fire in a fully sprinklered building in the UK and the industry is also calling for the draft legislation to extend the requirement for mandatory sprinkler installation in newly built, high risk buildings such as warehouses, care homes and schools.

Another priority is to ensure that modern methods of construction are rigorously tested to ensure the long-term resilience and durability of the materials being used to ensure they are safe. Insurers are calling for a publicly accessible database of materials used on buildings, to benefit both insurers and the fire services when they are responding to fires.

Buildings insurance is based on risk-reflective pricing and the Hackitt Review’s conclusion that the current regulatory system is ‘not fit for purpose’ has led to a loss of confidence on the part of insurers in the safety of our built environment. The vital reforms announced by government must re-establish confidence in building safety for insurers, residents, fire services and the wider construction industry. We look forward to working with government, parliament and the wider fire sector to ensure the reforms deliver the change and improvements that are required.

Construction Industry Council
Graham Watts, Chairman

I have heard some commentators say that the government’s 331-page draft Building Safety Bill is insufficiently detailed (because it awaits secondary legislation) while others have argued that there is too much detail proposed for the primary legislation, which will then be difficult to amend once enacted. The balance between primary and secondary legislation needs to be carefully considered to ensure that there are no delays with these much-needed reforms.

The draft Bill expands upon the scope proposed by Dame Judith Hackitt in Building A Safer Future by bringing the height of the multi-occupied buildings to be covered by the new Building Safety Regulator down from 30m to 18m (or six storeys, whichever height is reached first). It seems clear that the intention is for this to be an achievable beginning. Once embedded, we can expect the new regulatory regime to be extended to multi-occupied dwellings, perhaps down to 11m; and possibly to other buildings, lower in height, in which vulnerable people sleep.

As Dame Judith argued – and as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has shown – improved competence is essential to the achievement of buildings that are safe and in which residents feel safe. It has been my privilege to chair the Competence Steering Group, an alliance of more than 150 organisations across all sectors concerned with fire and structural safety and the ownership and management of higher-risk residential buildings. The group published recently its final report, Setting the Bar, establishing an overarching competence framework underpinned by detailed competence specifications across 12 occupational sectors (such as fire engineers, installers, fire risk assessors) accompanied by a detailed implementation plan and around 60 recommendations to achieve change.

The framework is a benchmark for the new committee on competence, to be established by the Building Safety Regulator, which is to hold the industry to account. The legislation must lead to the ‘best getting better’ and see the end of the age-old culture of the ‘race to the bottom’. There must be no backdoor ways into persuading duty holders of the competence of those that they engage.

The draft Bill’s proposal to establish six duty holders is a big step forward to counteract a ‘pass the buck’ mentality but the devil will be in the detail and this will need to be carefully monitored in the primary and secondary legislation. Although not intended as a duty holder (since that role will be occupied by the ‘Accountable Person’), the new regulated role of Building Safety Manager creates an entirely new profession.

The CSG has published a second report, alongside Setting the Bar, entitled Safer People, Safer Homes: Building Safety Management, this is an essential blueprint for the context, role and responsibilities of building safety management. There are several factors that will need to be addressed in order to transition to the new regime; key to this will be the availability of sufficient competent people to fulfil the necessary role of the building safety management for every building in scope for the new legislation.

Three years after the Grenfell tragedy, people are right to continually question what is being done to make sure such a dreadful conflagration never reoccurs. It has been a long and difficult journey and many decisions have been arrived at too late (not least in government support to remediate ACM and similar cladding on existing buildings) but the beginning of a new safer regime for buildings is now before us and it has to be grasped and pursued with vigour by everyone who can make a difference.

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