It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow John McDonnell. All the speakers today have been very clear in their request for improvement and for things to be done better. I know that the Minister will respond to that in a positive fashion; that is in his nature, and no doubt it is his intention too.
This is an important debate because we have all, undoubtedly, been watching the events unfolding in Miami, where there was a terrible tragedy last week when a high-rise apartment block collapsed. That brings home to us all how fickle life is. I understand that the death toll has risen to nine and that 150 people are still missing. What has happened in Florida is a human tragedy in what should be unthinkable circumstances, but as we here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland all know only too well, such tragedies are real. The memory of Grenfell and its impact is still fresh.
We have a duty to ensure that the Building Safety Bill meets not only current but future requirements and that there are no conflicts between its provisions, particularly regarding the gateways, and the proposals in the Government’s planning White Paper. The Local Government Association has expressed deep concerns arising from the draft Bill’s publication on the retention of the benefits of gateway 1. I support the LGA in urging the Government to ensure that those benefits also apply to developments under permitted development rights. The building safety system is broken, and it has been for a long time, so that legislation is long overdue. I believe that debating the move to reform this process presents opportunities to enhance the safety of the buildings that we live and work in.
The LGA has also expressed concern that there is a lack of expert capacity to address safety issues. Any reform and new legislation must call for risk-based assessments to be more robust than just “suitable and sufficient”. The problem with that is that it can be open to a level of interpretation. We need to set down the parameters and the criteria very strictly, because what might be suitable for one property may not be suitable for another. Assessments must be tailored to each specific premises, and resources must be proportional to the risk to life and limb.
I am particularly concerned by the LGA’s report of a lack of fire engineers, and there has been a chronic shortage of surveyors and assessors with sufficient knowledge of both high-rise structural safety and cladding systems. Fire risk assessments are easy enough to do, but they are hard to do properly. Almost anyone with a background in the fire industry can set themselves up as a professional fire risk assessor and visit premises around the country, giving out advice to building owners. Even though there has been an increase in the training and prevalence of certified fire risk assessors in recent years, there is still a need for this country—the UK—to invest in addressing that skills shortage as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister can give us an assurance that certified risk assessors will be recruited and that the dearth that there is at present will be addressed.
It is important that while we learn from past mistakes, any reform of the legislation is as relevant in the future as it is intended to be today, because it is the future of building safety that we are considering. I am my party’s health spokesperson, and I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on respiratory health and on healthy homes and buildings. I see a need to address the way that buildings are ventilated through air-conditioning and in general; I would like to see not only better ventilation, but measures for houses that are riddled with damp. Again, perhaps the Minister can give us some assurance that landlords of properties that are not up to standard will be required to do the upgrading that is necessary. I would like to see living standards raised.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in America has made numerous recommendations for improving the ventilation of buildings during covid-19. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to look at those recommendations. We should also consider the risks from other airborne contagions, such as Legionnaires’ disease, as we look to reform the building regulations and make buildings safer for residents and workers. I believe that there is scope for making buildings not only structurally sound but healthier places to be.
Remember that we are looking at building safety for the future. Buildings must be safer in all respects. We know how strong the message was that fresh air was a key factor in fighting covid-19. Eventually, workers will move back into office buildings. I suggest that, as part of improving the structural safety of buildings, we should also consider investigating the link between ventilation and the spread of contagions via air-conditioning. I believe that we should be looking at that seriously, and that we should include it as part of any new risk assessment framework.