Political Editor Catherine Levin listens to the scrutiny of the Building Safety Bill and asks, is there enough diversity of thought when it comes to improving building fire safety in the long-term?
MPs started scrutinising the Building Safety Bill during September. The Bill Committee spent two days questioning witnesses who told them what they thought about the Bill. Little did any of them know at this point that the Minister responsible for the Bill, Robert Jenrick MP, would be out of a job the day after and be replaced by Michael Gove MP.
Knowing nothing about the proceedings, it is likely that anyone involved in the world of fire safety could have predicted who would be present at the committee.
Kicking off with London Fire Brigade alumni Sir Ken Knight and Dan Daly (representing the NFCC), they politely agreed to disagree about whether the Bill should be restricted in scope to buildings over 18 metres.
The issue of height comes up time and time again over the two days, and it is frustrating to hear that people think that it is too restrictive but concede that it is a good starting point. If everyone is saying it is too restrictive and does not properly consider risk, then surely it is not a good place to start.
Restricting the Bill to consideration of buildings over a certain height suits the government because it restricts the costs of implementing change. It pairs the parliamentary response with the publicly known tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire and once the Bill becomes an Act, the narrative about responding to the need to change is complete.
Prior to the start of committee hearings on September 9, Newsnight dedicated an entire programme to the building safety crisis. Many of those who appeared in front of the Bill Committee also featured in the BBC2 programme.
Trapped: The UK’s Building Safety Crisis aired on September 2. Lewis Goodall is the programme’s policy editor and he was blunt in his conclusions: “This is perhaps the biggest public policy and commercial failure that we have in Britain today.”
The programme heard from those affected by fire safety defects found in their buildings and provided a very human view on the problem. One of the issues for parliamentarians charged with scrutinising the Building Safety Bill is that the impact on peoples’ lives can be forgotten in the fog of arcane legislation and debates about new regulators, new roles for those who manage buildings and talk of golden threads.
The Bill is a response to Grenfell. The response to Grenfell means making sure that buildings in the future are not wrapped up in flammable materials that end up killing people.
It is not a response to the discovery – since Grenfell and because of Grenfell – of fire safety defects on thousands of buildings across the country and in that sense, the Bill is not doing the right job. As campaigners, who put their case on the Newsnight programme and in front of the Bill Committee, try to find a way of getting the Building Safety Bill to be the vehicle for change, they are finding it difficult to get the government to change direction.
It is not just about the policy problem the Bill is trying to solve, it is about money. When the Housing Select Committee tells the government that the solution to the cladding crisis – which is really the building fire safety crisis – will cost £15 million to sort out, it is no wonder they want to keep the scope of this Bill tight. It is very helpful when those being asked about height then say, ‘it’s a good start’.
It comes as no surprise when there were no representatives from companies that develop these high-rise residential building that are in scope of the Bill on the Newsnight programme or sitting in front of the Bill Committee. Where are the chief executives of housing developers? Why are they not compelled to give evidence to the committee?
There is no point in having all the people who know about the problem telling the parliamentarians about the problem if those who are responsible for it in the first place are not putting their case as well. Graham Watts, chief of the Construction Industry Council, spoke on the Newsnight programme and gave evidence to the committee, but he cannot compel the industry to do anything.
Luckily no one was slated to appear from RICS as they have had a torrid time with the publication of the Levitt Report, damning the governance and leadership which led to both the Chief Executive and the President resigning in early September. Remember that RICS is at the centre of the external wall system assessments that are controversial and causing huge problems, particularly for leaseholders in low-rise buildings with fire safety defects.
The now ex-Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick MP, told the House of Commons just before the summer recess that the EWS1 process should not apply to buildings under 18 metres. He based this on advice from a group of advisers who said that the fire risk was much lower in these types of buildings. The members of this expert panel? Sir Ken Knight, Roy Wilsher, Dame Judith Hackitt and ex London Fire Commissioner, Ron Dobson.
Lenders are still insisting on EWS1 forms until the guidance issued by RICS is formally withdrawn, so leaseholders of flats in low-rise blocks still cannot sell and are no better off.
“We need to listen to the needs of residents and be responsive to them”
Sarah Albon, HSE Chief Executive
Select Committee Scrutiny
After too many months of virtual working and Zoom calls, it was a relief to see the Bill Committee meet in person in the Palace of Westminster. It is not quite the same when they hear from people remotely, as they did with two representatives from the End our Cladding Scandal and the UK Cladding Action Group.
Leasehold campaigners Liam Spender and Giles Grover are firmly on top of their brief, personally involved in the issues and articulate the case for changing much of the Bill in a way that is compelling. In a joint submission to the committee, the campaign groups argued over 15 pages what was wrong with the Bill and how to make it right.
Having heard from the campaign groups, in the second session the Bill Committee heard from Martin Boyd who is the Chair at the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership. He is also the Secretary to the APPG on Leasehold and Commonhold Reform. He was also on the Newsnight programme, sitting next to the Chief Executive of an organisation that represents freeholders. They were clearly not friends.
The committee asked Martin and Dr Nigel Glen from the Association of Residential Managing Agents (ARMA) about the ‘polluter pays’ principle where government funds remediation up front and recoups it from those responsible for creating the problem.
Dr Glen agreed it was the right approach: “Let’s get people safe first by providing that funding and then figure out who should pay.” Martin Boyd added: “What we need is a solution to get us out of this mess. If we don’t, the housing market will stay in crisis for years.”
Steve Day is a leaseholder affected by the building safety crisis. He spoke at the end of the second day of evidence and provided more clarity on the two elements of the ‘polluter pays’ principle: “One part is to get the responsible parties to pay in full if we can. If we cannot find anyone, we go to the levies that we have on the construction industry and the ancillary bodies such as cladding manufacturers and so on, who have all been part of the problem.”
Martin Boyd also discussed how to embed the residents voice into the building safety system. “In my view the residents’ voice section of the Bill is the weakest part.” He said that government needs to take a different approach, it should start from the residents and not be top down.
Earlier in the day, the Chief Executive of the HSE, Sarah Albon, concluded her testimony responding to a question about how residents will feature in the new building safety regime. Recognising that not listening to residents was a failing in the past, she added that they now need to be at the heart of the new regime.
“There is not just the business-to-business relationship of us talking to duty holders. We need to listen to the needs of residents and be responsive to them. Crucially, we need to take on board their feedback on their day-to-day experience of their duty holders, the way that their buildings are managed, and how they are kept safe in their homes.”
“There has been a complete lack of joined-up thinking for more than two decades on fire safety, and I appeal to people to think about how that could be put right”
Matt Wrack, FBU General Secretary
Having heard from the NFCC on day one, the committee then heard from the Fire Brigades Union. Sitting by himself, FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack gave MPs a very different perspective on the Bill as he talked about the impact on fire and rescue services.
He was asked if the Bill would significantly improve the building safety regime in the UK. He said it would but it does not go far enough. He welcomed it as a turning point after decades of deregulation and said that the FBU was “a voice crying in the wilderness.”
Turning to the Building Safety Regulator, Matt was concerned about resources and how this runs throughout the debate on building safety. Discussing how fire and rescue services will co-operate with the regulator, Matt raised questions about how services will be able to resource work relating to responsibilities arising from the Bill. “I don’t see how you can cut the number of fire safety inspectors and not think there won’t be an impact on public safety.”
He added: “I have lived through a decade in which the endless mantra from senior civil servants and government ministers of both parties has been that fire is a declining risk, and we can therefore afford to reduce our emphasis on fire safety. That was very clearly a theme that we heard for more than a decade. I think it fed through into the Fire Service itself, and senior managers and chief officers accepted that mantra.”
Matt mourned the loss of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Committee (again) and said that something like that would provide a forum for discussion about risk and issues that arise from learning based on experience and allow for more effective horizon scanning about future risk. He concluded: “There has been a complete lack of joined-up thinking for more than two decades on fire safety, and I appeal to people to think about how that could be put right.”
Cladding Scandal Goes On
In an ironic twist or mere coincidence, on the day when the committee started its line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill, thousands of protesters gathered outside on Parliament Square to highlight the cladding crisis and its impact on leaseholders.
During the passage of the Fire Safety Bill through parliament earlier this year, the government told campaigners who supported the McPartland-Smith amendment that the Fire Safety Bill was not the place to deal with the problem of who would foot the bill for fire safety defects in residential buildings. And yet, now that the Building Safety Bill is making its way through parliament, it seems that it is not the place either.
Finding a solution to the biggest scandal to affect UK housing for a generation deserves its own legislation, its own solution because those affected are not just Labour voters, they are across the political spectrum and they are in crucial blue (previously red) wall constituencies that are vulnerable in the next election. MPs’ post bags are full of complaints from leaseholders and that will continue.
Getting the Building Safety Bill across the line will help with improving a building sector that Grenfell showed is broken, but that broken system does not start at 18 metres. If the people who provide evidence to the parliamentarians continue to compromise and say it is a good place to start, then there is no hope for those in buildings under the threshold. There needs to be stronger, joined-up and more diverse thinking, but it may just be too late.