Building Regulations

Order of the Day – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9 March 1970.

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10.19 p.m.

Photo of Sir Austen Albu Sir Austen Albu , Edmonton

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Building (Fifth Amendment) Regulations 1970 (S.I., 1970, No. 109), dated 28th January, 1970, a copy of which was laid before this House on 5th February, be annulled. I raise this matter, not on behalf of any commercial interests which may be interested in high rise building, prefabricated building, system building, and so on, but on behalf of a number of members of professional engineering institutions who are concerned with the advancement of their art in aid of improvement in design and economy in the use of resources.

This Statutory Instrument and the Amendment to the Building Regulations contained in it arise directly out of the report of the inquiry into the Ronan Point disaster. This is a matter of considerable complexity both technical and legal, as is illustrated by the fact that it is now two years since the disaster took place, and in that time the profession and the industry have been left in a state of considerable confusion. I hope, therefore, that if I stray inadvertently, from the strict rules of order you, Mr. Speaker, will be lenient.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I cannot promise to be lenient at all.

Photo of Sir Austen Albu Sir Austen Albu , Edmonton

There is no doubt that this delay is due to the conflict of technical responsibility between the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which has legal responsibility under the Public Health Acts, and the Ministry of Public Building and Works which has engineering expertise, for example the Building Research Station. Until recently the Ministry of Housing and Local Government had no engineer.

I have no doubt that the right body for these Regulations is the Ministry of Public Building and Works, and in particular that the National Building Agency, which was considerably criticised in the Ronan Point Report, should be returned to the Ministry of Public Building and Works and given a much wider technical responsibility for dealing with new types of design.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. We cannot amend the Regulations. This Statutory Instrument is executed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

Photo of Sir Austen Albu Sir Austen Albu , Edmonton

I am coming directly to the Statutory Instrument which contains an Amendment to the Building Regulations. The intention of the Amendment is to deal not only with safety from the risk of gas explosion which was the immediate cause of the disaster at Ronan Point, but also with the other possibilities of collapse, for instance from wind pressure, a matter which is still imperfectly understood and which is unsuitable for mandatory requirements.

As I understand it, the public interest in health and safety is protected by Building Regulations in one of two possible ways, either by functional requirements and agreed standards and codes of practice which are, in a term of art, "deemed to satisfy" these requirements, or by rigid design parameters. The former, the "deemed to satisfy" functional requirement, puts responsibility for safe design on the owner of a building, who vests it in a professional engineer. The latter, the rigid design parameters, gives a building inspector the ultimate authority, but he does not have the legal responsibility for damages in case of collapse or failure.

The report of the inquiry into Ronan Point made it clear that it was the engineer who designed the building who was at fault. As a matter of fact, his name was never mentioned. It is important to know whether he was a professionally qualified engineer, and on this matter the views of the Council for Engineering Institutions, which emphasises the professional status of engineers, would be very interesting.

The report supported the view that the correct approach to building regulations is by the method of having functional requirements, coupled with provisions "deemed to satisfy" them in the standards and codes of practice on, for instance, such matters as wind pressures, of the British Standards Institution. This gives the engineer freedom in the use of new techniques, designs, and materials. The trouble is that these codes of practice have not been kept up to date in the light of recent research, no doubt because of the muddle which exists about where the responsibility for them lies.

The amendment in this Statutory Instrument seeks to impose a rigid design specification not only over high-rise flats but also over buildings where the risks of gas explosion are negligible. This will particularly handicap large span structures such as office blocks, warehouses, hospitals, and similar buildings. Moreover, the requirements are ambiguous. For example, some local authorities could require that all columns, even internal ones, must be designed to have panels attached to them. The amended Regulations, if passed, could also be construed to demand that all columns and long beam spans are designed on the assumption that at least one floor is subjected to a load of 5 lb. per sq. in. This is over 20 times the normal domestic load or 15 times the office loading. Moreover, they will apply to all kinds of building over five storeys In height, even if such buildings are in situ concrete framed structures.

In the case of Ronan Point, if it is argued that the codes of practice did not cover this type of building, I should point out that the Codes of Practice Committee for precast concrete has formally expressed the view that the design did not comply with such codes as did exist, and there was, therefore, negligence in the design. But I agree that the inquiry also expressed the view that not all British Standards and codes of practice are up to date, especially in regard to wind loading, large concrete panel systems, and the possibility of progressive collapse.

I suggest, therefore, that the Government should withdraw the Regulations and set up an inquiry immediately into the whole procedure for Building Regulations and responsibility for them. If interim measures are required, a limited point load should be specified which places a limit on the equivalent area to which the figure of 5 lb. per square inch should apply, and there should be exemption for special load requirements for buildings with adequate means of ventilation to prevent the build-up of explosive mixture.

If these Regulations are withdrawn, one way of dealing with the problem could be to replace them by Regulations providing, for instance, a simple set of rules, suitable for interpretation by nonspecialists, deemed to satisfy the functional requirements and suitable for simple structures of limited height and traditionally understood construction and conditions. In that case, factors of safety would be large. Second, there could be codes of practice suitable for interpretation by qualified specialists, deemed to satisfy, and kept up to date to present the current knowledge of materials and the loads or forces commensurate with different types of uses and wind conditions. In this case, factors of safety would be smaller. Finally, there could be a special application procedure to allow for cases where the owner, through his designer, takes responsibility for novel types of construction, analysis, or use of new materials. Incidentally, these would be very suitable matters for any inquiry.

It is an illusion to believe that there can ever be absolute safety in building design or, for that matter, anything else. If regulations such as these were applied to the motor industry, there would be hardly a car on the road. Moreover, the cost of achieving safety rises exponentially, which means that every further increment of safety costs more than the previous one. It has been estimated that these Amendments will cost the nation between £18 million and £20 million. I am sure that any cost benefit analysis would show that such a sum of money could be used to save far more lives if spent in other ways, for instance, on the Health Service, than would ever be saved by these new Regulations.

I ask my hon. Friend, therefore, to withdraw the Regulations and to ask his right hon. Friend to begin the urgent process of rationalising the present dangerously confused system of building controls.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I remind the House that five hon. Members wish to join in the debate on this Prayer, and speeches should be reasonably brief.

10.29 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I support what has been said by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu), and I do so as, I think, one of the two qualified civil engineers in the House. Indeed, it is a curious reflection on the current desire to have more specialists in the House that this is the first time in 10 years that I have been able to say a word on a subject within my own professional knowledge.

I agree with the hon. Member that it is wrong to treat Building Regulations in the way in which the Regulations attempt to do. The purpose of Building Regulations is to specify the conventional requirements, such as that there must be adequate drainage, or adequate strength against gale force winds, or adequate areas of light. In this case the building must be adequate to withstand the shock of an explosion due to gas in an upper storey in a block of flats. The Regulations derive from the gas explosion at Ronan Point.

To state the conventional requirement like that is a proper and right duty of the law, but the law, having stated that the building must be able to withstand these various forces, does not have to state how the design shall cater for these requirements. In our society we have codes of practice which are not mandatory or statutory but are worked out by the profession to give the sort of loading calculations necessary to ensure that the conventional requirement is met. Throughout civil engineering there is a Building Regulation about the conventional requirement, accompanied by large numbers of codes of practice, coming down to detailed figures and methods of calculation as to how these functions are to be achieved.

These are the "deemed to satisfy" proposals to which the hon. Member referred. This is a sensible way of proceeding, because in the construction industry—as in any industry—there is always change, including technological change, innovations, new ideas and new materials, and if we had a statutory or mandatory way of designing buildings or structures, within a few months, let alone years, we should be overtaken by change in methodology and technology. The system of working with a mandatory Regulation together with a non-mandatory code of practice is the right one.

There is a further sanction, namely, that if a building is unsatisfactory, or collapses or falls down, it is normal for the engineer responsible for the building to find it difficult to get many more employments and to construct further building. That is the ultimate sanction—a professional sanction against bad design in our construction industry.

In these Regulations none of these things have happened. They do not seek to specify the function; they specify a code of practice. They are in strict opposition to the report on Ronan Point, which said—and I quote from page 58—that the building regulations should be amended to include a requirement that buildings should be so designed that they are not susceptible to progressive collapse. Progressive collapse is what happened at Ronan Point—a "house of cards" phenomenon in which, because all the panels, floors, and roofs of the flats were not properly joined together, each intermediate failure produced a progressive collapse.

That has not been done. There is no mention in the Regulations of that requirement. Instead, they contain a series of detailed specifications as to how future blocks of flats are to be designed. I do not intend to go over the detailed points which the hon. Member so rightly put; he has covered all the ground. But the rules in the Regulations are ambiguous. They could be interpreted in many different ways. They mention the specific loading of 5 lbs. per sq. in., as the maximum likely pressure from an explosion in a block of flats. But that figure has no justification from research, experience or theory.

It has been plucked out of the air by the civil servants. It is not related either to experience or theory. I ask the Minister to justify it. It seems incomprehensible that we should write this figure into our law when nobody has any knowledge of what the pressures resulting from a gas explosion are likely to be.

Thirdly it ignores the technological possibilities which are certainly present, due to improved ventilation techniques in blocks of flats. If we can have a series of ventilation ducts it is possible that the force of an explosion can be taken away through them and therefore the pressure of force on the walls and spans of the building will be nothing like as great as hitherto. Even if a building were designed with adequate ventilation, to take the force of the explosion, according to this Intrument it would be impossible to weaken the structure and make corresponding economies. This is merely an example of the folly of trying to write what should be codes of practice into Building Regulations.

As the hon. Member for Edmonton said, it makes large span buildings much more expensive. A loading of this sort placed on a wide span causes the strength of the upper supporting span to have to be increased out of proportion to the likelihood of the pressures coming from any explosion. The result of all this will be to cause the cost of building tower blocks of flats to escalate by a high degree. I would be the last to be against making every building as safe as possible. It is clear that out of this isolated incident at Ronan Point we will make a set of rules which will cause the technological improvement, design improvement, knowledge and technique to be frustrated by the insistence upon standards through the Building Regulations which would be far better done by means of altering the codes of practice.

It is becoming a favourite British habit, every time we have a disaster or a collapse of any sort, that we automatically make all future construction of that type of structure much more expensive than we need to, indeed we greatly over-insure out of a sort of bureaucratic mania for making quite certain that no accident of that sort can happen again. All the professional institutions concerned have reacted unfavourably. I quote from a letter to the Minister, written by the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which I am a member, which says: There should be a clear distinction between building regulations, which should lay down minimum acceptable standards, and codes of practice, which are compendiums of good practice and a guide to designers and may be incorporated as 'deemed to satisfy' provisions. The same is true of all the professional engineers that the Ministry has consulted. They have all made this point. This is the wrong way to go about it.

It can be said that the Government have not accepted the report on the Ronan Point collapse. This was a highly technical matter on which their own expertise was nothing like as great as that of the professional people who wrote the report. Instead of accepting the recom- mendations of the report, they launched out on their own with a series of building regulations which are far too technical and far too expensive and which will do great harm to the advancement of building techniques. I agree that the time has come when the whole matter should be examined again. This Instrument should be withdrawn and the Minister should take note of the points which have been made and set up an inquiry to see how to deal with this problem.

In a profession such as mine, if there is a collapse it is the responsibility of the engineer who designed the building. The curious thing about the report on the Ronan Point disaster is that there is no mention of the name of the person or persons responsible for designing it. It is an essential sanction in professional practice of this sort that those who make bad designs which lead to failure should be identified is that they can be refused further contracts by employing authorities.

The responsibility is that of the owner, the person who orders, commissions or builds the building, but in the event of failure it is right that the name of the professional engineer involved should be made public so that he is not employed again. It is much better to rely on sanctions of that sort than to try to specify every little calculation, assumption and factor of safety which go into the design, because if we were to do that our whole attitude to design in a fast-moving and fast-changing industry would become atrophied.

I hope that the Minister will accept his hon. Friend's suggestion that the Regulations be withdrawn so that these points may be closely considered with the institutions concerned in order that a better approach can be made to the problem in future.

10.41 p.m.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

Like the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), I have considerable reservations about the Amendment which we are being asked to accept. We ought to be quite clear what the Fifth Amendment does not do. It is not an absolute safeguard against another Ronan Point disaster—what the Tribunal called "progressive collapse". Indeed, there can be no such safeguard, because there is an appreciable statistical probability that a structure based on human design and subject to human error may collapse, never mind what Regulations are introduced. It might have been built according to the requirements but still collapse. We ought to be quite clear that it is possible for a designer to accept the Fifth Amendment and yet for the structure to be unsafe and, in unforeseen circumstances, for the building to collapse.

The Regulations presume that a portion of the structure will be removed as a result of unforeseen and undesigned loading and that the building shall be so constructed that the failure is limited to a floor area of 750 sq. ft. and not more than three storeys or alternatively where this damage is exceeded the portion concerned must be capable of resisting an additional force of 720 lb. per sq. ft. This is not apparently intended to represent any particular explosive force but merely intended to provide some measure of structural stability based on very limited experience—that is, on the Ronan Point affair—and on subsequent design studies which took place after that.

In the design of a building, normally a structural engineer designer determines the load that a building is expected to carry—the size of the load, the frequency of the occurrence of that particular load and other characteristics—and then designs the building to meet such a loading plus an additional margin of safety against collapse, deterioration or excessive deformation. But we have no measure of the loadings and their properties which would give rise to progressive collapse. Far too little is known about the whole problem and far too little research has been done into the whole question of progressive collapse.

But we know that the greatest danger comes from internal gas explosions—and that was the position in the case of Ronan Point. I do not understand why my right hon. Friend has not excluded a major portion of the risk by banning all types of gas appliance from tall buildings, and—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The hon. Lady cannot amend these Regulations.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

It is a pity that we do not do as the French do and ban them, making the introduction of gas appliances a criminal offence, thereby having less risk of a danger of this kind. But more research is needed on the incidence of internal explosions, the risks they represent, the forces set up and the best methods of guarding against them. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take this to heart and do something about it. I have serious reservations about the way in which my right hon. Friend has dealt with this whole problem in these amending Regulations. He could have laid down a simple functional requirement demanding that buildings should have a reasonably adequate resistance to progressive collapse, and then could have referred to the need to satisfy provisions to show how these could be met.

This need to satisfy provisions could have taken the form of a British standard code of practice or a special schedule to the Regulations. Instead, my right hon. Friend has decided to lay down detailed requirements in the substantive Regulations. These are detailed, in that they say how to design a structure, but they are not detailed in the way in which they say what can go wrong, although, in some respects, for immediate practical use, great detail is needed. I hope that my hon. Friend will soon lay an additional Instrument adopting the addendum to the British Standard Code of Practice CP.116, of which, contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) has said, a draft has been available for a year, but has been held up by my hon. Friend's Department. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to this suggestion tonight—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. He will not be able to.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

The whole history of the Ronan Point affair and the subsequent turmoil, particularly in professional circles, raised important matters of principle, and it is a convention of the constitution that, when something like this happens, the appropriate Minister sets up a tribunal of inquiry. This may often be a perfectly adequate way of finding out the facts and deciding what action should be taken for which the Minister takes responsibility, but the collapse of a major civil engineering structure attracts a great deal of public attention, partly because it happens so rarely. We should be very thankful that it does: this, of course, is proof of the competence and conscientiousness of the British structural engineers, whether they are consultants or contractors. After all, they are responsible for many thousands of millions of pounds worth of work a year, both at home and abroad.

But I wonder if this procedure is absolutely satisfactory. Was the Minister right to appoint a tribunal of this kind—three men, none of whom had ever been responsible for the design or construction of a building in his life, and whose conclusions were almost universally condemned by the engineering profession as a whole in vital respects as being unfair and harmful to the construction industry? The consequences, therefore, of the tribunal have placed on my hon. Friend responsibilities which, in all fairness, I do not think that he should have to bear.

Instead of setting up a tribunal of this kind, he should have asked the professional body mainly concerned, that is, the Institution of Structural Engineers, to carry out a professional inquiry. If a disaster comparable to Ronan Point had occurred, say, in the medical profession, or in some parts of the Health Service, obviously a qualified technical committee would have carried out an inquiry and reported. If a collapse of this kind had happened in practically any other European country, this is how it would have been dealt with. If necessary, then, the Director of Public Prosecutions steps in. I do not understand why we keep to this amateurish approach, which is not fair to the engineering profession. Also, my hon. Friend's Building Regulations Advisory Committee has not served him well here. This, too, needs a shake up.

However, we should keep this affair in perspective. The Ronan Point disaster, considered from this point of time and putting aside all the television-inspired mass hysteria immediately afterwards, was an unfortunate occurrence. It caused five deaths and several million pounds worth of damage, a massive inquiry was held, expensive remedial measures have had to be taken to buildings, many column inches were taken up in the Press and much television and Parliamentary time too, but we should remember that, since Ronan Point, about 12,000 people have died on the roads and many hundreds of millions pounds worth of structural damage has been done by fire, but this hardly gets into the newspapers—

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The hon. Lady will not be out of order if she talks about the Regulations.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

—and we do not have inquiries into those.

I am not sure that I follow my hon. Friend when he says that the Regulations ought to be withdrawn. I have got very mixed feelings about that. There are many shortcomings, and many difficulties will be ahead for my hon. Friend if he accepts responsibility as laid down in these amending Regulations. Possibly, all things considered, we ought to accept them, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be prepared to lay an additional Instrument based on C.P. 116.

10.50 p.m.

Photo of Mr Wallace Lawler Mr Wallace Lawler , Birmingham, Ladywood

I, too, take a somewhat cautious approach to the terms of the Regulations. I am not a civil engineer and I look at the Regulations through the eyes of a layman and as a member of a leading housing committee—one of many who will have to see that the additional requirements are met if the Regulations are passed and who will have to face up to any additional financial obligations which may be entailed.

I submit that if the Ronan Point flats had never been built, as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) said, these Regulations would not be before us. There are many authorities in the country which are satisfied about the present safety regulations without these amending Regulations, but who will have to take the additional requirements into account if the Regulations are passed.

I was concerned to hear the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) refer to a sum of from £18 million to £20 million additional expenditure that could arise directly from these amending Regulations. I was equally perturbed to hear another hon. Member suggest that the cost could escalate considerably. The Minister ought to deal with the question of finance. If we are expected to accept these Regulations, we ought to know what is involved in terms of additional cost of high buildings which are already the most costly of residential dwellings and already carry an exceeding heavy Exchequer subsidy. I say this with every desire to join in any move to ensure 100 per cent, safety to the residents of high storey buildings which may be built in the future.

I speak as one who has always opposed the erection of high storey buildings for residential use, even in high density areas. If more and more money has to be found by local authorities for high residential buildings, we might well start to think in terms of ceasing to build high storey flats at all.

I appreciate that these amending Regulations spsecifically exclude any of the buildings which are at present in course of erection and buildings for which plans have been laid before the Ministry before 1st April. But it seems to me to be important that the Minister in his reply should deal with the financial effect of these Regulations upon provincial local authorities which at the moment are engaged on building high storey flats on a fairly large scale in some of our larger cities.

10.54 p.m.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I humbly congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) on having initiated this debate, because it raises some important matters—important not only to professional men like civil engineers and structural engineers, but also to the public because of the cost that may be involved. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us something about that side of the Regulations.

Before large panel structures became the fashion, high-rise buildings had steel frames or reinforced concrete. During the war a bomb could blow out a floor in a high building and cause no other damage. In those days there was no question of the building collapsing like a pack of cards. Then large panel structures became popular, particularly in the public sector of building.

Then there was the Ronan Point disaster. That, as the hon. Lady the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) said, was followed by something of a public panic, with a gentleman saying on television that all these buildings could fall down like packs of cards. The Ministry—as all of us, I suppose—became a little panicky. There were many consultations for a few days, with the Ministry taking advice everywhere it could. The result was Circular 62/68, which required local authorities to carry out an investigation of their high-rise properties and ensure that any primary structure could take a load of 5 lbs. per sq. in. It was necessary for the Ministry to fix some figure, because a grant to local authorities was to be based on a figure. I agree that at that time some figures as a direction to local authorities had to be given and they had to be told, "If you improve buildings to this extent, you will get a 40 per cent. grant", now increased to 50 per cent.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. We cannot discuss the grants for Ronan Point or similar buildings. The hon. Gentleman knows what these Regulations are about.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I will not develop that point.

I was pointing out that this was the origin of the 5 lb. per sq. in. which is in the Regulations. It has been carried into these Regulations without real consideration of how it will affect general building. It is not, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) said, the way in which we have come to recognise building regulations. Normally, building regulations set out the functions required of any part of a building—what sort of function it should perform—and that is followed by the provision which we know as the "deem to satisfy" provision—that, if it is of such-and-such a strength or if it is of such-and-such a load-bearing, it is deemed to satisfy the general functional provision.

That has not been carried out in this case—or, at least, only partially. We are left in some doubt as to the real meaning of paragraphs (4) and (5) of D19. As I understand those paragraphs, there are alternatives. Under paragraph (4), it would have to be shown that the structural failure consequent on removal of one structural member would not occur within any storey other than the storey of which that portion forms part.and (b) any structural failure would be localised within each such storey. The exception to that is in the brackets in the paragraph where it says (other than a portion which satisfies the conditions specified in paragraph (5) of this regulation)". It seems, if I read these paragraphs correctly, that they are alternatives. Either one has to build in accordance with paragraph (4), or show that the conditions of paragraph (5) apply. It is ambiguous and it is not in a form in which we have come to know building regulations—the setting-out functions followed by a "deemed to satisfy" paragraph stating what strengths will satisfy that functional requirement.

As these Regulations stand, they will apply to buildings other than those of the Ronan Point type, the large panel structures, and to that extent they do not follow out the Ronan Point inquiry report. That report said that there should be some Building Regulation of a functional character, saying what the function should be, but it did not say that any specific loading should be laid down as mandatory in the Regulations. These Regulations are to apply to buildings other than large panel structures, but safety can be achieved in other ways. It is inappropriate, I maintain, to apply these Regulations to steel frame structures. They will apply to any building having five or more storeys.

Another way of achieving safety, for example, is to have three primary structure bearing walls and one wall which will blow out. This is a form of safety protection supported by some structural and civil engineers. My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury mentioned ventilation ducts which, properly placed, may give some safety. To mention 5 lb. per sq. in. in the Regulations gives a false sense of security that if one does have that strength of structure, one will be safe. This is not so, because explosive force does not act evenly in all directions. It may act in a most peculiar manner, as in the Ronan Point disaster.

These Regulations may not produce safety and yet they may cost the building industry, and therefore the public, a great sum of money. I do not know the amount involved. Various figures have been mentioned in the debate, but the House should be told what sort of esti- mates the Government have of the cost of this coming into operation.

The House would be only too prepared to meet this expense if we could ensure that these Regulations produced safety, but my feeling at the moment—and I have taken professional advice and advice from practical builders—

Photo of Mr Wallace Lawler Mr Wallace Lawler , Birmingham, Ladywood

Is the hon. Member suggesting that the House might meet this expense by additional Government subsidy, rather than that local authorities should carry it on housing accounts?

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

I was using the expression in a rather wide way. Let me say that the public would be prepared to meet the expense as it is passed on to them, whether in rates, taxes or the cost of buildings, if they felt that safety was being achieved in this way.

I am not convinced that this is so, and that is why it is right that the matter should have been raised in debate and the Parliamentary Secretary should be given the opportunity to reply to that sort of criticism of the Regulation.

11.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Willesden East

I share in the congratulations expressed to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) on initiating the debate. I welcome the decision of hon. Members decision to debate the matter, which has arisen from such an important experience in building in recent years as to warrant the kind of examination and probing we have had this evening.

Like the majority of hon. Members, I speak by no means as a professional. We have only one here tonight, and I was interested in what the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) said. It would be a mistake to suggest, as I think he did a little unfairly now and again, that those who have prepared the amendment and are reviewing the Regulations generally—this is a matter that will come up at a later date—are bureaucrats or people just sitting behind desks. The advisory committee on this matter is comprised wholly of professional people and the amount of consultation that took place before the submission of the amendment surprises even me.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

But the result of the consultation was very unfavourable to the Regulations. It is no good saying that we have had consultation if everyone consulted is against the principle behind them, as is the case in this instance.

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Willesden East

I do not think that that is putting the position quite as we have experienced it. I would not say that everybody has been against them. A considerable number of those consulted disagreed with one another as well as having queries on the proposals the Ministry was considering. That is a rather fairer way of putting the position.

There has not been a kind of battle between the professional people in industry and elsewhere and the Government. There have been differences of view expressed between the various interests we have consulted. That consultation has been immense. There seem to have been hundreds of organisations called in by the Ministry to express views through the Building Advisory Committee. So whatever has emerged has done so on the basis of professional consideration and not laymen's consideration.

Perhaps it would be as well if I state briefly the purpose of the amending Regulations. They have been made in pursuance of one of the main recommendations of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Ronan Point collapse, which called for provisions dealing with progressive collapse to be included in the Building Regulations, 1965. The amending Regulations provide that in addition to safety against normal calculated loads on a structure, as already required in the Building Regulations, new buildings of five storeys or over must have inbuilt precautions against accidental load or damage.

This may be achieved by the provision of alternative paths to carry the load if a structural member is removed, so that the damage from the removal does not exceed certain defined limits. However, where the removal of a structural member would lead to damage exceeding these limits that member must be constructed to be capable of supporting the specified additional load—the 5 lb. per sq. in. questioned by several hon. Members. I will return to this in a few moments.

In practice, it may be desirable to devise the plan form and design of buildings to meet the requirements of the regulations rather than to try to fit these requirements into a preconceived plan form or design. This refers to the question about cost. The 5 lb. per sq. in. criterion is intended to be applied when the alternative path principle is impossible in respect of an individual structural member, or members. There is no reason why an individual building should not be designed using a combination of the two principles.

Having stated that in summary form, perhaps I should now consider some of the points which have been raised rather more individually. The amending Regulations provide that in addition to the requirements for structural safety against normal loads, to which all buildings must conform, buildings of five storeys and above must meet certain requirements designed to guard against progressive collapse in the event of accidental damage, not necessarily the experience of an explosion.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Can the hon. Gentleman say why it should not be a four-storey building? Progressive collapse is just as likely with a four-storey building as with a building of five storeys or more.

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Willesden East

I shall deal with that later. Several of the points which have emerged are a balance of professional judgment about which one cannot be absolutely categorical. However, I shall return to that.

The additional requirements are set out in the new Regulation D19. They may be satisfied in either of two ways, by the provision of alternative paths to carry the load if part of a structure member is removed or becomes unserviceable, or, where for a particular structural member or members that is not practicable, by the special strengthening of that member or those members. That is Regulation D19(5). In an individual building, the requirements may be satisfied by a combination of these two approaches, as I have already said.

The Ronan Point Tribunal recommended appraisal and strengthening of buildings of seven storeys and above. The Building Regulations Advisory Committee considered that it would be reasonable for new buildings to fix a slightly lower limit for the application of precautions against progressive collapse. It recommended the limit at five storeys and above. It was not a recommendation without query. The comments received showed a wide variation. Some wanted the limit kept at seven storeys and some pressed for a limit even lower than the five storeys which emerged. This is what I meant when I referred to a balanced judgment which had to emerge. If we had taken the advice of certain of the people consulted, it could have come out at a level lower than five storeys.

The application to all types of building and all forms of construction has been questioned. The tribunal of inquiry's report said that the vast majority of tall buildings in this country had either steel or reinforced concrete frames. Such buildings are not liable to progressive collapse … After considering the matter further, the advisory committee rejected this argument and recommended that the new requirement should be applied generally. Among the reasons for this view were the following four summarised arguments.

First, it was fair that a new mandatory requirement should not be selective in its application and so not be thought to penalise a particular form of construction. Secondly, while it might be true that most framed and brick buildings were not susceptible to progressive collapse, some were. Thirdly, the new requirements were not unreasonable if they were applied to these other kinds of buildings and in so far as such buildings complied anyway, no additional burden was being placed on the designers of these buildings. Fourthly, the new requirements have been deliberately drawn up in fairly functional terms—several hon. Members have urged that sufficient account was not taken of this need—to facilitate their application to varying forms of construction and to permit of the flexibility of design which hon. Members have urged as a basis for policy in this matter.

The 5 lb. per sq. in. requirement has been queried. This figure, quoted in the Ministry's Circular 62/68 in connection with the post-Ronan Point situation and appraisals, was taken as the only available basis upon which there could be any firm decision since there has not been the research to follow on from the Ronan Point experience to provide an alternative measure to write in. In saying this, however, I should stress that if the evidence of research produces a different basis for consideration in the future, it will be open to the Ministry and, of course, to the House to consider further changes.

In the meantime, pending further knowledge and research on the subject, the advisory committee considered that the figure which emerged from the Ronan Point tribunal's report should be adhered to in the amendment to the Regulations which are before us.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

Will my hon. Friend see that such research is carried out?

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Willesden East

I understand that that is in the hands of the Building Research Station, as are other aspects touched on by my hon. Friend and to which I referred earlier, especially concerning the use of gas equipment in buildings, explosions and the like. Research is constantly being undertaken and the experience of the Ronan Point affair has led to even further research in this way.

It has been stated and repeated this evening that the proposed amendment is aimed solely at protection against explosions. As I have said briefly, this is not so, or, if it is so, it is only indirectly the case. The amendment proposals are primarily aimed at protection against the effects of damage, however it is caused, or against progressive collapse experience, however it might be caused, in the future.

Those are some of the main points which have been raised, but considerable reference was made to cost. Some commentators have criticised the amendments on the grounds that they would increase—some have said greatly increase—the cost of building. No commentator has given any figure, although a figure was quoted tonight. No commentator who has been brought in on the consultations or who has reacted to the amendment since it was published has given any calculated figure for the amount of the increase, either in general or in relation to any individual scheme. I suspect that the reference to £18 million is based broadly on the experience that we have already had with rectification and strengthening processes in the public sector following the Ronan Point disaster. I do not see any other basis for such a figure being quoted.

The Ministry's professional officers have done some examination of typical constructions. Their advice is that provided the new requirements are taken into account in the settlement of the planform and design of new buildings at scratch, and not fitted into a preconceived planform or design, there should be little or no extra cost involved, whether for large concrete panel buildings, frame buildings or brick buildings.

We have an impression—it has been reflected in some of the remarks tonight—that some engineers may still be apprehensive of the cost implications. The answer must be that such evidence as is available suggest that, with the proviso I have just given, the cost implications will be negligible. It is not possible, for obvious reasons, to do a calculation. We can only take individual examinations by our professional staff and draw conclusions from them. This is the basis for my remarks at this stage.

I think that I have dealt with most of the points that have been raised. If there are other points on which hon. Members would like further consideration in detail, whether or not they have been raised tonight I shall be happy to arrange to reply to them.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

I should like to press my hon. Friend on the point about adoption of the addendum to the British Standard Code of Practice, CP.116. Is he aware that this is very important to him and to his Department?

Photo of Mr Reginald Freeson Mr Reginald Freeson , Willesden East

I shall certainly take note of the point that my hon. Friend has raised and examine it further in the Department to see when we may expect this to be brought forward for adoption.

Photo of Sir Austen Albu Sir Austen Albu , Edmonton

With the leave of the House. My hon. Friend's reply has been invaluable in the debate. I agree that the matter is too complicated to pursue further. I am sure that the professional bodies involved will want to consider my hon. Friend's reply and raise further matters. I hope my hon. Friend will take note of my more wider and perhaps sadly out of order remarks on the whole procedure in the Building Regulations and draw them to the attention of his right hon. Friend.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.