Earlier this week the Government announced a package of proposals designed to ensure building owners address fire safety risks. Part of what has been dubbed “the biggest change in building safety for a generation” Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick MP hopes the changes will ensure that, “everyone is safe, and feels safe, in their own home.”
So what has the Government announced this week?
A new Building Safety Regulator
Grabbing the headlines is the immediate establishment of a new Building Safety Regulator (BSR) within the HSE to raise building safety and performance standards and to have oversight of a stringent new regime for higher-risk buildings.
The BSR will be established initially in shadow form ahead of its formal creation on a statutory basis. Dame Judith Hackitt, former Chair of the HSE and author of ‘Building a Safer Future,’ the independent review into building regulations and fire safety commissioned following Grenfell, will chair a board overseeing transition to the new regime.
Previous plans for the BSR incorporated representatives of the Fire Service and Local Authorities in a joint competent authority arrangement. However, the Government has, instead, chosen the HSE to run the BSR exclusively.
Details as to the nature, scope and powers of the BSR are yet to be confirmed, as is the basis and source of its funding.
Consolidated building safety guidance
The Government also issued simplified consolidated guidance to building owners on the actions they should take to ensure their buildings are safe (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/building-safety-advice-for-building-owners-including-fire-doors).
Covering a range of topics from smoke control to fire doors, the document requires immediate action from owners of buildings of any height to assess and manage the risk of external fire spread. It also reflects the view that cladding material comprised of ACM with an unmodified polythene core should not be used on buildings of any height and should be removed.
To speed up remediation efforts in the private sector, the Government will appoint a construction expert to identify ways to speed up the pace of ACM removal. As an added incentive, Mr Jenrick has announced that from February 2020 he will name and shame those responsible for buildings where remediation works have not started.
With the second phase of the Grenfell Inquiry starting next week, we can expect further announcements in the coming months, including:-
- Sprinklers: the Government’s consultation closed in November and Mr Jenrick has already indicated a will to lower the height threshold for sprinkler requirements from 18 to 11 metres. More detail is to follow in February.
- Combustible cladding: already banned for high rise buildings (those over 18m), a consultation will be launched that could see a height reduction to 11m.
- Fire Safety Bill: designed to clarifying the scope of the current Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, the Bill will require residential building owners to fully consider and mitigate the risks of any external wall systems and front doors to individual flats. The changes also aim to make enforcement against building owners easier.
There has been widespread frustration and concern at the slow pace of change post-Grenfell and this injection of renewed momentum is welcome. However, the lack of detail in this week’s announcement makes it tough to determine how effective this package of measures might be.
And whilst there is widespread support for the HSE’s newly expanded role, the BSR must be properly resourced if it is to make the impact sought. Mike Robinson, Chief Executive of the British Safety Council agrees; “between 2010 and 2017 the HSE had a real terms cut of over 50%, losing nearly a third of their staff…the Secretary of State has promised that the [BSR] will get the funds it needs. I’d like to see that funding ring-fenced so that it doesn’t disappear to plug the existing funding gap at HSE”.
It seems clear that we can expect a change of approach when it comes to the assessment and prioritisation of building risks, which Robert Jenrick says have relied on, “crude height limits with binary consequences [which] does not reflect the complexity of the challenge at hand.” Whilst height will remain a significant factor, going forwards it seems it will be just one of a number of risk factors to be considered.
Further updates will follow as additional measures are announced. In the meantime, if you have any queries regarding these developments, please contact Rhian Greaves (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Bill Dunkerley (email@example.com).