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NFCC responds to second reading of Building Safety Bill in Parliament

27 July 2021

RESPONDING TO the second reading of the Building Safety Bill in Parliament on Wednesday 21 July, Mark Hardingham (chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council) said: “This legislation is an important milestone that will contribute to essential developments in building safety.”

The Building Safety Bill requires new levels of scrutiny, provides for changes to be made to planning and building control functions, introduces oversight from a new regulator (ie the Building Safety Regulator at the Health and Safety Executive), places new duties on ‘Responsible Persons’ and provides a new focus on the needs of residents.

Hardingham continued: “Crucially, the Building Safety Bill removes the ability for clients to choose their own regulator for buildings within scope, which we believe is key to creating the right incentives for people to follow the rules. This change in law is critical to fixing the broken culture within the industry.”

In terms of scope, the NFCC welcomes the response to its own calls for buildings such as care homes and hospitals to be encompassed within the new build process. “We will continue to push to see this expand further to include care home and hospital buildings at all heights,” added Hardingham. “We believe that more vulnerable groups and higher risk premises could be recognised within the Gateways process from the outset.”

The original work carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt identified an environment that was overly complex and not fit for purpose. There was a strong focus on the need to simplify and reduce the number of overlapping regulations. “The enabling nature of the Bill means that a lot of the detail is yet to be seen,” observed Hardingham. “We want Government to continue to engage with the NFCC and other partners in a timely and constructive way in order to ensure that the legislation is sufficiently robust and fit for purpose.”

Remediation costs

The NFCC continues to hold concerns about the costs of historic remediation being passed on to leaseholders. “While we welcome the funding announced so far,” stated Hardingham, “we do not believe that the costs of serious building defects should end with leaseholders and support the action for costs to be recovered from those who design and construct buildings. The amendments to expand the limitation period for the Defective Premises Act are very welcome.”

Responding to the advice on building safety in medium and lower-rise blocks of flats, Hardingham noted: “We recognise the huge financial and emotional impact on people who are living in blocks of flats, especially so lower-rise buildings. We fully support the new advice and welcome the challenge to those who are applying an overly risk averse approach in many buildings below 18 metres, in particular surveyors, insurers and fire risk assessors. For our part, we will work closely with Fire and Rescue Services to best apply the advice for the buildings in their area.”

Continuing this theme, Hardingham outlined: “We expect this will start to redress the balance where disproportionate mitigation measures have been put in place to manage fire risks. We trust that this will reduce the financial burden on leaseholders who are, far too often and also wrongly, bearing the financial consequences for interim measures and other disproportionate changes as a result of historic building defects.”

The delays in remediation work mean that residents and leaseholders are experiencing significant and long-term consequences. These include the ongoing high costs of ‘Waking Watches’ and insurance products, an inability to sell or re-mortgage their properties, financial stress and unacceptable life-changing impacts on their mental health and well-being.”

Hardingham stressed: “These very real and damaging impacts on leaseholders have to be considered against the potential risk posed by the building defects. For example, we’ve been clear that a ‘Waking Watch’ should only ever be considered for use on a short term temporary basis as a measure which can be put in place immediately when a significant risk to life is identified.”

‘Responsible Persons’

The NFCC is of the view that ‘Responsible Persons’ for affected buildings must ensure the fire safety arrangements, including the interim measures in place, are both appropriate and proportionate. “We want to ensure,” added Hardingham, “that buildings are safe and Fire and Rescue Services, where informed, have worked to ensure that any interim arrangements put in place are sufficient and proportionate to the risk.”

Hardingham is clear that the NFCC doesn’t support the ongoing and prolonged use of a ‘Waking Watch’. “We expect the Government’s new advice to further inform assessments and re-assessments in buildings below 18 metres with a ‘Waking Watch’. We have repeatedly called on building owners to install common fire alarms to reduce or remove the dependence on ‘Waking Watches’. This is the clear expectation for buildings where sustainable mitigation or remediation cannot be undertaken in the short term.”