The Fire Safety Bill, which returned to the House of Commons today, is a critically important Bill that clarifies that fire risk assessments are to be updated to take account of external walls and flat entrance doors. The Bill intends to make sure that residents of high-rise buildings feel safe in their homes by significantly reducing fire risks and ensuring their proper management. It was specifically put together as a response to the Grenfell tragedy to keep such an event from ever happening again.
In mid-February, the Government announced an additional £3.5 billion in grant funding for the remediation of unsafe cladding from buildings. The funding is on top of the £1 billion Building Safety Fund for non-ACM cladding, and £400 million for ‘Grenfell-style’ ACM cladding.
As I said in response to this announcement at the time, the £3.5 billion is indeed welcome and will alleviate many of the concerns of residents and leaseholders. However, there is more work to be done to address those issues that fall outside the scope of the bill. Following the announcement, I met with the housing minister to discuss the way forward and raise the importance of considering other building safety issues recent reviews have highlighted.
It is also important that residents feel confident in homes, and the Government is introducing a new regulatory regime which will cover how all high-rise buildings are designed, built and managed. There are also plans for a levy and a tax on construction firms to make sure they pay towards making homes safe again - homes were bought in good faith and it is right that the industry be held to account for poor past practice.
On several occasions the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, of which I am a member, have heard from Dame Judith Hackett, who led the independent review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety which was triggered by the Grenfell tragedy. In the wake of the Government’s announcement of further funding, she confirmed that it meant that remediation works to the highest risk properties will now be able to move on swiftly.
Dame Judith also points out that it remains the case that the likelihood of a major fire in any building remains low; and for buildings below 18 metres the data indicates that people are able to get out and to safety even when a fire does occur. She has said that the Government’s approach is sensible, based upon addressing buildings where there is the highest potential for loss of life in the unlikely event of a major fire.
Not all high-rise buildings have cladding and not all cladding systems are unsafe, and the assessment of some buildings may conclude that no remediation is required. The training programme funded and put in place by the Government to provide more skilled people to carry out this work is already well underway, with 400 people enrolled. These highly trained professionals will be able to ascertain if people face risk in their homes.
I agree that current provisions to protect leaseholders from such costs can, and should, go further – everyone should be able to live in a home without fear of fire.
Several amendments were put forward to the bill, and whilst I fully support the intentions behind amendments to legislate for remediation costs the Fire Safety Bill is not the appropriate place to deal with these issues. The amendments would not have the desired practical effect and would significantly set back the progress of urgent fire safety reform. The amendments would also unfortunately not protect leaseholders from all costs associated with building remediation and are not the comprehensive solution we want to see. Further, it would only affect remediation works from the date of the Bill passing, and nothing prior.
The Fire Safety Bill, being a short, focused bill, does not have the necessary legislative detail needed to underpin the amendments in Regulations. It would require extensive drafting of primary legislation to make the amendments legally workable.
This would result in significantly delaying the implementation of the Fire Safety Bill and the crucial measures it puts forward to improve the fire safety regulatory system. Without redrafting, the Government and taxpayer could be exposed to protracted action by building owners in the courts, and Fire and Rescue services undertaking inspections and assessment of buildings would lack clarity of their powers to look at essential parts of a building safety system.
It would be wrong to delay the implementation of the recommendations in the first phase of the Grenfell report.
I recognise that we have further to go to ensure that leaseholders are protected from the costs of remediation. I will urge the Government to examine ways that the loan scheme can be refined and improved to work for leaseholders. I have already made this case to the Secretary of State, and will continue to do so.
As a member of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, I am currently engaged in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill. We must ensure that the legislation fully reflects the need to protect leaseholders from costs and I will continue to advocate for this and work with the Government to ensure building safety.