Amendment 1

Building Safety Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 29th March 2022.

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Lord Foster of Bath:

Moved by Lord Foster of Bath

1: Clause 3, page 2, line 13, at end insert—“(aa) furthering the protection of property, and”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the building safety regulator to exercise its functions with a view to furthering the protection of property, which is intended to promote longer term protections for occupant safety and reducing fire damage and cost.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Rural Economy Committee, Chair, Rural Economy Committee

My Lords, even if no lives are lost, fires in any type of building—home, school, office, factory or other—can often have serious social, economic and environmental consequences. Property and equipment are lost, rebuilding costs are enormous, jobs can be lost and so on. Of course saving lives is the most important consideration, but my Amendments 1 and 16 suggest that we should be going beyond the current arrangements whereby we consider that building legislation and regulations are deemed a success if all occupants are evacuated safely. The amendments propose means by which consideration of property protection can be proportionately applied to the fire safety building regulations, measures that I believe will allow for buildings to be safer, more resilient and more sustainable than now.

At earlier stages of the Bill, I illustrated the need for such measures with reference to a large number of fires that had completely destroyed buildings. Sadly, to that list we can now add the fire just a couple of weeks ago that destroyed a self-storage warehouse in Cheadle along with the possessions of more than 650 people. Conversely, we know the benefits of applying property protection approaches. That was evidenced last week, for example, when a sprinkler system saved a large distribution warehouse in Leicestershire from being destroyed by fire. Over the past two months alone, sprinklers have prevented large, costly and potentially dangerous fires in schools in Ayrshire, in a retirement home in Bedfordshire, in high-rise blocks in Chester, Newport and Irvine and in a furniture warehouse in Sheffield.

In Committee, the Minister avoided addressing the crux of the proposition that I am making. I find that odd, particularly given that the Government have already commissioned research into property protection measures. It is disappointing that we have reached this stage of the passage of the Bill without seeing the results of that research, which would have been enormously helpful to him. It may be that the Government want to use it to determine future considerations for fire safety building regulations, but surely the most appropriate time to be doing that is now, while we have this Bill before us. We know how difficult it is to find legislative time to bring in further measures. It is particularly strange when the Minister has said categorically that the Bill before us is intended to deliver the biggest improvement in building safety in nearly 40 years.

The Government may well also say that they have the opportunity at a later stage to amend guidance in these matters. We must of course accept that there have already been changes to guidance on fire safety over recent years; indeed, there have been changes in relation to high-rise buildings as a result of the Grenfell fire. However, the sad truth is that placing something in guidance does not necessarily ensure that the actions that we want will happen. That was the case back in 2007, some years ago now, when Building Bulletin 100: Design for Fire Safety in Schools was introduced, with the suggestion that sprinklers should be installed. In the first few years that is exactly what happened, but over subsequent years the incidence of the introduction of sprinklers in new school buildings reduced dramatically as developers found ways around the guidance.

I mention that because we should be looking at changes not to guidance but to the actual regulations. After all, that was what was thought important when we made changes to the regulations in respect of cladding. That was not a change to guidance; it was a change to regulation. That is why my Amendments 1 and 16 would introduce into regulation measures to provide improvements to property protection. I say to the Minister, who I know is interested in this issue, that that would not be a particularly strange thing to do. After all, many other countries have thought it important to do this; for instance, Germany, Sweden, the United States, Canada, Japan and a number of others have already introduced such measures. I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to my proposals or, if he is not prepared to accept the amendments, give us an update on the research that is currently being done and what the Government’s plans are to make changes—in due course, sadly—to the regulations in this matter.

I have another amendment in this group, Amendment 8, which relates to the need for the regulator to

“within two years … carry out and publish an assessment of the benefits and costs of measures on improving the safety of people in or about buildings relating to … certification of electrical equipment and systems”— that is the installations, not the equipment running off them. In Committee, I pointed out the inequality that exists whereby private landlords in high-rise buildings are required by law to have a valid electrical safety certificate, whereas social landlords are not. This is strange, as the Government want equality between the two. The social housing charter states unequivocally:

“Safety measures in the social sector should be in line with the legal protections afforded to private sector tenants. Responses to the social housing Green Paper showed overwhelming support for consistency in safety measures across social and private rented housing.”

The Minister said:

“The Bill is unapologetically ambitious, creating a world-class building safety regulatory regime that holds all”—

I emphasise “all”—

“to the same high standard.”—[Official Report, 2/2/22; col. 916.]

Yet elsewhere, the Minister appeared less committed, saying only that

“In the Social Housing White Paper we committed to consult on electrical safety requirements in the social sector”.

Commitment to consult is a far cry from a commitment to achieve the same regulatory standard. The Minister continued:

“We will consider whether the best way forward to protect social residents from harm is to mandate checks and bring parity with standards in the private rented sector.”—[Official Report, 2/3/22; col. GC 319.]

A commitment to consider mandatory checks is a far cry from the words in the social housing charter and the Minister’s own words at Second Reading.

The mandatory checks every five years that I am proposing have the support of the National Fire Chiefs Council—the people at the very sharp end who have to deal with fires; we should certainly listen to them—Electrical Safety First, the National Home Improvement Council, the Electrical Safety Roundtable and industry itself, including NAPIT and Certsure. Social housing landlords support such checks. A consultation by Electrical Safety First showed overwhelming support for mandatory checks in the social rented sector: 98% of the social housing providers responding, including many of the largest ones, supported them. That is why my proposal, in the amendment of my noble friends on the Front Bench, is so important.

There should be a change to bring equality among leaseholders too. Leaseholders, particularly those in mixed tenure high-rise buildings who recognise that fire takes no account of the status of residents because it can spread from one to another, are clearly supportive. Some 87% of leaseholders support the introduction of mandatory electrical safety checks. The same survey found that 91% of leaseholders were more concerned for their safety and that of their tenants as a result of what they saw in the tragic fire at Grenfell.

I am well aware that concerns have been expressed about costs to leaseholders in the light of other changes being proposed in this legislation. I support the measures now being proposed, but I just say to the Minister that checks to these electrical installations cost £150 for a five-year period. That means £30 per year or 60p per week to improve significantly the safety of people living in high-rise buildings.

I have proposed as quickly as I can three important measures that I hope the Government will be willing to take on board. I look forward to the Minister’s response and beg to move Amendment 1.

Photo of Lord Crisp Lord Crisp Crossbench 11:15 am, 29th March 2022

My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 2, I thank those noble Lords who have added their names to it. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, has asked me to inform your Lordships that he cannot be in his place today as he has Covid. I am sure that we send him our best wishes. However, I am delighted that the noble Lords, Lord Bethell and Lord Stunell, are here and I thank them and others who will speak to this amendment. In passing, I also thank the TCPA and other organisations outside your Lordships’ House which very much support this amendment and have provided support and notes to a number of Members.

I emphasise that this is very much a cross-party amendment. I know that there is a lot of support for the principles involved. It is very simple and quite profound. It offers a simple definition of safety: the risk of harm to the health and well-being of an individual. It is a very simple, common-sense notion that applies to safe stairways, electrical wiring, dampness and cold as much as it does to fire.

In Committee, the Minister in effect argued in response that there did not need to be a definition and that definitions were satisfactorily covered in the current arrangements. There is no legal duty in the planning system that deals with human health. For that reason alone, it is important that we have a definition. More widely than that, I think that we need one for both negative and positive reasons. The negative reason is that, unless there is a definition, I believe that a Government of any party will always be in reactive mode. Amendment 8, which I am happy to support, is a perfect example; it lists four specifics related to human health and well-being and to safety and draws them to the House’s attention as of particular concern.

There will be others. One could produce a much longer list and there are things that we have not thought of yet. We could think about subsistence, air pollution and all kinds of areas that might be caught. The Government will need to continue to address all these issues as they come up—tactically, if you like, and on an ad hoc basis. I am quite sure that, as the Bill was being prepared, the Minister and his colleagues will have wanted to ensure that not too many things were added to it. The danger is that they may not be added to the Bill but will be added to parliamentary and government time afterwards.

There is an enormous advantage to being strategic—to setting out a definition that asks the regulator, and therefore everyone else in the system, to pay attention to health and safety, which embraces all these issues. That will help to bring about the cultural change in line with what I believe the Government want from the Bill. It will allow them to get ahead of the game and be ambitious, as the Long Title suggests that the Bill should be about

“safety … in or about buildings”.

There are positive reasons too; I have already talked about being ambitious. With their proposals around levelling up and elsewhere, the Government are undoubtedly seeking to improve the lives of citizens in the country. Housing and the built environment are absolutely at the heart of those ambitions. Covid has reminded us that our homes, if not being our castles, are certainly the foundations of much else in life: they are our sanctuary, a place for education and a place for stability and safety. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, will say more about the impact of Covid and the relationship between health and housing and buildings more generally. We have always known about that link and so have Governments in the past. For something like 50 years, the Secretary of State for Health was also the Secretary of State for Housing; the two were intimately linked. Partly as a result of that, no doubt, we saw the excellent standard of council housing built between the two wars, for example.

These are long and profound links. The way we design and build our homes and the whole built environment matters not only to people but to the Government’s policies around levelling up, around achieving net zero and around health inequality, to mention just three of the things that have been debated in this House in recent times. I would add the importance of preparation for the next pandemic and more generally for securing increased resilience in the country as a whole.

I have not decided whether to press for a vote and I will obviously listen carefully to what is said by the Minister. I will ask him what steps he will take to meet the concerns that the amendment raises and the need for a profound link between health and housing and whether he will meet me and colleagues to discuss these issues further. I believe that he is also the Minister for Levelling Up, so these issues will undoubtedly return in another guise and at another time. The quality of homes, communities and the built environment is fundamental to levelling up our society. I will also listen with great interest to noble Lords who represent the other political parties in the Chamber. I hope that they will support these principles and will similarly consider how, in the longer term, the links between health, housing and the built environment can be developed and taken forward.

My point here is a simple but big one. In wider society, people have made the connection between health and well-being and the built environment, just as they have made it between health and well-being and the natural environment. The issue will keep coming back to your Lordships’ House. It is far better to get ahead and be strategic and ambitious. This is an idea whose time is coming. The built environment, like the natural environment, is crucial to the health and well-being of the population and therefore to the future prosperity of the country.

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell Conservative

My Lords, I support Amendment 2. It is a great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Crisp; he put the arguments for the amendment incredibly well so I will keep my comments as brief as I can.

As Health Minister during the pandemic, I realised how unhealthy our country is. Time and again, one saw from the front line of Covid—through the ICUs and test and trace teams—reports of how connected the spread of the disease was to the housing conditions of the country and how the comorbidities of those arriving in our ICUs were often connected to the environment in which they lived. Housing and illness are inextricably linked; I came face to face with that during the pandemic.

The pandemic led to a huge amount of misery through loss of life and severe disease. It also hit the country’s economy extremely hard; there is no doubt that we had longer and harder lockdowns as a result of the fact that our country is so poorly. However, we cannot ask the NHS and our healthcare system on their own to be responsible for the improvement of our national health. There is a role to be played by education, sports, scientists, civic society—all the parts of our country, including and especially housing. That is why I support the healthy homes principle from the TCPA.

This issue is recognised in the levelling-up White Paper, to which the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, referred. However, it is not clearly recognised in the Bill. The priority that housing should support health and well-being should be fundamental to the underpinnings of this Bill. That is the purpose of this amendment, which is why I put my name to it. I ask the Minister to put on record a commitment that the department will look at ways to augment the Bill’s focus to bear on the health and well-being aspects of housing regulation, and to meet the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, myself and others to discuss how this might be done.

Photo of Lord Aberdare Lord Aberdare Crossbench

My Lords, having had the very last amendment debated in Committee, I now mount my retentions hobby-horse once again, but riding on a slightly different course and in the first group on Report. My Amendment 7 would give the building safety regulator a duty to keep possible safety risks arising from contractual arrangements, including payment conditions such as retentions, under review in fulfilling his or her role of improving building safety and standards.

Procurement and contractual arrangements are crucial in setting the tone for relationships between different-level contractors in a building or building maintenance project. They can determine whether those relationships are adversarial—seeking advantage for one side against the other and looking to minimise cost—or collaborative, mutually beneficial and focused on adding value and maximising safety.

Yesterday, I attended a webinar hosted by King’s College London to launch the Guidance on Collaborative Procurement for Design and Construction to Support Building Safety, produced by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities with the support of its procurement advisory group. To quote the invitation,

“preventing another Grenfell Tower disaster depends on a major overhaul of construction procurement practices, breaking away from the adversarial ‘race to the bottom’ through which low prices undermine safety and quality.”

The first speaker was none other than Dame Judith Hackitt, who gave her strong support to the guidance. She emphasised that culture change in construction has to start at the very beginning of projects, and that contractual arrangements are crucial in setting the tone for relationships between different-level contractors. She also restated her view that retention policies are totally inconsistent with collaborative procurement and do not encourage a focus on building safety. Contractors assume that they will not receive the funds withheld and look for other ways to reduce costs, through cutting investment in training and quality or using substandard materials. I only wish that Dame Judith could be speaking on my amendment.

Professor David Mosey, who was one of the two authors of the guidance, gave an outline. It sets out how improved collaborative procurement practices should be linked to safety approvals for any in-scope new build or refurbishment, following four principles: first, selection of teams on value rather than cost criteria; secondly, early involvement of supply-chain participants; thirdly, collaborative relationships, including with residents; and, finally, ensuring the golden thread of digital information throughout the life of a project. The guidance is closely aligned with the gateway process created by the Bill, spelling out questions to be addressed at each gateway to ensure that these four principles are met. It also makes specific reference to retentions, echoing Dame Judith’s views in stating:

“Arguably, any collaborative relationship should exclude the use of cash retentions. If exceptional circumstances require a retention, then it should be held in an account ring-fenced by a trust arrangement.”

The one thing that concerns me about this excellent and highly practical guidance is whether it will actually be followed. I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Foster, about guidance being not followed more often than followed. Professor Mosey mentioned what he described as

“the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of idealistic debate”— probably what we are having now—

“cynical criticism and unrealised good intentions”, into which so many worthy previous initiatives have disappeared without trace. Lots of good advice is available, including the Construction Playbook developed by the Cabinet Office and the Prompt Payment Code, but it often seems to be honoured more in the breach than the observance. Meanwhile, after several years of work by BEIS, the Government still have not decided on a legislative approach to tackle retentions, claiming to be waiting for the emergence of an industry consensus, which seems even less likely to arrive than Godot.

My amendment seeks to ensure that this guidance fares better. By requiring the building safety regulator to look for safety risks arising from contractual arrangements, it would create a process for highlighting the safety impacts of inappropriate procurement arrangements and contract terms, including the use of retentions, and enabling intervention if necessary.

If the Minister cannot accept this modest but important improvement to the Bill, I hope that he may commit to finding another way to formally incorporate his department’s collaborative procurement guidance in the new regime, perhaps through secondary legislation. The guidance is clearly intended to be part of the regulatory framework, but I do not see how this will happen as it stands. Guidance is by its nature voluntary and past experience shows all too often that the construction sector does not do voluntary. Some sort of statutory underpinning is needed to ensure that the fundamental importance of procurement and contractual arrangements to the building safety regime embodied in this Bill is recognised and acted on. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Baroness Finlay of Llandaff Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 11:30 am, 29th March 2022

My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and others. I had the privilege to be on the Select Committee on National Policy for the Built Environment, which reported six years ago with Building Better Places. We had extensive evidence from Public Health England on the impacts of the built environment on health. That built on the work done by Michael Marmot on the social determinants of health and the evidence of the cost to the nation of poor housing. In our report, we recommended that those working in housing should take account of the health impacts of their decisions. The relevant paragraph of the government response to our report said:

“The Government recognises the importance of considering health as part of the planning process and believes health impacts should be considered as part of the wider policy environment.”

The plea that we heard from the noble Lords, Lord Crisp and Lord Bethell, to integrate these factors and consider them at every stage has been supported by the evidence for many years. I hope that the Government will listen to the evidence that they themselves took on board in responding to our report.

Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Conservative

My Lords, I added my name to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, in Committee but was unable to speak to it, so I welcome the opportunity to add a brief footnote to the excellent speech that he made a few moments ago. I do so having been responsible for building control under the Thatcher and Major Administrations.

No one could object to the aspirations behind the amendment and the Healthy Homes Act campaign and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond sympathetically. I understand that so far the Government have objected to the proposal on the grounds that this is a matter for planning rather than for building regulations. The boundary between the two is inevitably not clearly marked and many people think that, if they have planning consent, that is the end of their interface with the local authority.

I have just one suggestion to make. The Minister may take the view that some of the objectives in the TCPA brief fall on the planning side rather than the building regulations side. I quote from its manifesto, which says that homes should

“be built to design out crime and be secure … all new homes should … provide access to sustainable transport and walkable services, including green infrastructure and play space” and should have a minimum liveable space. Those all seem to be entirely reasonable requests. If my noble friend takes that view and believes that they are not appropriate to this Bill, can he give an assurance that they will be incorporated into the next planning Bill so that we can get to the same destination, albeit via a different route?

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench

My Lords, I, too, support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. In so doing, I declare that I am a trustee of the Nationwide Foundation, which supports the TCPA’s Healthy Homes Act campaign. I shall not detain the House for too long other than to reiterate the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, who introduced the amendment admirably. This is a simple but profound amendment that should be taken note of. As we have heard, we already have a great deal of evidence about the impact of housing on both health and education—Covid highlighted all of that—and how that contributes to inequalities in health. For all those reasons, it is important that we take note of the amendment and make sure that it is incorporated, whether into this Bill or a planning Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Young, said. One cannot fault the logic of what has been recommended, so I strongly support the amendment and look forward to the Minister’s response. I also urge him to agree to meet some of us to see how this issue can be taken forward.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I offer Green support for all these amendments, which have been so powerfully and comprehensively introduced. I am not going to go over any of the same ground but shall focus particularly on Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, with full cross-party backing, particularly the wording,

“‘safety’ means the risk of harm arising from the location … of buildings”.

In some ways that might be seen to deliver the aims of two amendments that I tabled in Committee but have not brought back on Report, Amendments 132A and 132B, which would have delivered what has been called Zane’s law, targeting the issue of contaminated land and the risks that such land may represent to residents and others in nearby buildings. For those who do not know, Zane’s law refers to the tragic child Zane Gbangbola, who died and whose father was disabled when flooding carried contaminants from nearby land into their home.

If we had a safe location for every building, that would seem to deal with the issue. However, looking at our debate in Committee, I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, kindly offered support for amendments in this direction. What she said then clearly sets out the problem:

“If we can identify the size and scale in every part of the country where contamination is, that would be a very logical starting point to prevent future risk to life and support local authorities in tackling the whole issue of contamination”.

In responding, the Minister suggested that the Building Safety Bill was not the right place to bring in Zane’s law because it would take the focus away from the environment and put it only on buildings. I think that she was right in that supposition, which is why I have not brought the amendments back now; the planning Bill, if indeed we see one, may well be the place to do that. However, where I disagree with the Minister—she was responding to my noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, who kindly introduced these amendments as I could not be present—is where she noted that Section 143 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990

“was repealed, but it was replaced by Part IIA of the Environmental Protection Act 1990”.—[GC 333-34.]">Official Report, 2/3/22; cols. GC 333-34.]

However, that was a significant downgrading of the protection and the powers offered by local authorities. It is worth looking at what was known as, perhaps rather unfortunately, the Red Tape Challenge: Environment Theme Proposals from March 2012, which effectively downgraded three-quarters of environmental regulation. Those changes to the guidelines said that they were

“anticipated to save business £140 million a year by reducing uncertainty about when land needs to be remediated”.

“Reducing uncertainty” is a phrase that needs to be re-examined and reconsidered.

I commend all the amendments, particularly Amendment 2, which focuses on the issue of the safe location of buildings. A great deal of regulatory work would have to be done to deliver that, which would include Zane’s law. If this becomes part of the Bill, the Government would have to look at that, but it would be a big step forward if we focused adequately on ensuring that—in this age of the Anthropocene and the climate emergency, in which new risks are emerging that were not present before—no one has a home or building in a place that is dangerous.

Photo of Lord Best Lord Best Crossbench

My Lords, I will briefly speak to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, and declare an interest as chair of Oxford University’s Commission on Creating Healthy Cities. I also declare my interest as a vice-president of the Town and Country Planning Association.

An obvious case of building safety impacting on health and well-being is surely the permitted development rights regime. Submissions to the Oxford Commission on Creating Healthy Cities have revealed widespread condemnation of the appalling building standards allowed via permitted development rights, which permit conversions of commercial and industrial buildings into accommodation without the need for normal planning consents. This has led to the creation of some ghastly, substandard new slums often on non-residential business parks full of safety hazards, with no facilities, no play areas for children and danger from traffic. Research at University College London reveals that a very large proportion of the well over 100,000 homes delivered through these permitted development rights have been substandard.

I am pleased that there has now been some regulatory change and requirements for at least some natural light and minimum space standards. However, this controversy has highlighted the importance of adequate space, sufficient daylight, protection from noise and a surrounding environment that is not hostile and unhealthy. That underlines the need for bringing together housing and health issues under the banner of minimum standards that recognise the broader definition of safety in the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. This would engage the new regulator in the process and require attention to be paid to health and well-being as essential aspects of the homes that we build and the places that we make. I support Amendment 2.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, it has been an interesting debate so far and I hope that I will not let the standard drop. Three excellent amendments have been proposed. I have added my name to Amendment 2 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, but I could equally well have done so to the others as well. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

In different ways, the amendments all look at the strategic vision for what building safety should be and how it should perform. The noble Lord, Lord Foster, made a strong argument for widening the purposes of building regulations from the simple protection of life to the protection of property.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, has renewed his persistent and well-justified point that there is a terrible shortage of performance from the construction industry, driven by its dysfunctional character—in particular, as he highlighted, the use of retentions in building contracts, which makes a collaborative process difficult to achieve in the industry. He referenced the Construction Playbook and what BEIS is doing. If the Minister is just going to say kind words to the noble Lord, will he also undertake to get the Department for Education to follow the Construction Playbook and get rid of retentions in the contracts that it signs? All the questions that I have asked of the Department for Education have been answered in a rather injured tone. It says that it is doing its best for the public purse—not while it continues to insist on retentions, which undermine the collaborative way the construction industry has to go.

The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, has had many supporters who have spoken with great eloquence and much more expertise than I on Amendment 2 and the call for a broader definition of well-being. I strongly support this cross-party amendment and have added my name to it. Well-being of the individual must be added to avoiding harm.

I think that the Minister will say that all three amendments are strategic overreach as far as this Bill is concerned. I am sure that he will find good reasons to say that this is not the right time or Bill to add these wide-ranging extra provisions. I hope that he will not say that, but I sense from the way he has responded to other debates so far that he probably will.

That brings me to Amendment 8 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Pinnock. This is within scope of the Bill; there can be no argument that this is the wrong Bill for it or that these are the wrong topics for the building safety regulator. I hope that the Minister will support the preceding three amendments to which I have referred, but I very much want him to support Amendment 8 or give us some degree of comfort that he understands the issues and will provide a solution to your Lordships to the problems raised.

In Committee, passionate arguments were produced in support of each of the four features in the amendment, which requires the building safety regulator in its first two years of operation to produce

“an assessment of the benefits and costs of measures on improving the safety of people in or about buildings relating to”, first, fire suppression systems. That is a posh phrase for sprinklers, but it also includes other ways in which fire might be suppressed, including, as my noble friend has said more than once, how buildings are compartmented so that fire does not spread from one area to another.

Then there is the

“safety of stairways and ramps”.

We heard plenty of evidence in Committee that there is a standard but it is just not enforced. It needs to be; let us hear what the building safety regulator says, because various noble Lords advanced with much eloquence a strong case for improvements to be made. This amendment says, “Let’s just ask the new regulator of building safety to come back within the next two years and say whether noble Lords have been exaggerating—whether these are real problems or whether there is some issue we can tackle through regulations.”

The third thing listed in the amendment is the

“certification of electrical equipment and systems”, on which my noble friend Lord Foster is an outstanding expert. Again, evidence was adduced in Committee of the costs and loss of life that arise from poorly certified or uncertified electrical equipment. An evaluation by the building safety regulator is the way to get to the bottom of each of these issues where such concern is felt by the public and such passion has been expressed by noble Lords in previous debates. Let us get to the bottom of that and get the building safety regulator to look at it.

Fourthly, there is the provision for people with disabilities. My noble friend Lady Brinton and other noble Lords with direct personal experience have clearly highlighted the difficulties that there are for people with disabilities in emergency situations in buildings. As I have said before, there is a direct conflict between some of the requirements that fire officers talk about and some of the requirements that people with disabilities see as essential. Let us get the building safety regulator to look at that.

Noble Lords have helpfully added a number of other things that might be there. Well, they are not. Only these four things have come forward in the past two years. However, the end of my amendment says that the building safety regulator may

“identify and give notice of such other matters relating to safety of people in or about buildings that they determine require further examination.”

That is the catch-all, if you like, but I say to the Minister that these issues are not going to go away. They, and the noble Lords who advocate on their behalf, are going to pester him—and his successors, if necessary—to get this problem tackled. Here is an opportunity, with a clean slate and a new building safety regulator, to set out clearly in this Bill the four topics that need the most urgent attention. Let us hear what the building safety regulator has to say about it. If they come back and say that I am hopelessly exaggerating the concerns and problems so it is not necessary to regulate, let us hear it. However, if it is necessary to regulate, let us hear that as well. We want to hear a positive reply from the Minister. If we do not, we will certainly want to test the opinion of the House.

Photo of Lord Blencathra Lord Blencathra Conservative 11:45 am, 29th March 2022

My Lords, briefly, I wish to support the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, in his amendment on retention. I am not sure whether this is the right Bill for it but there is a problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. My only experience of it—I think it was a form of retention—was many years ago, in the early 1990s, when I had a derelict farmhouse and barns done up in Cumbria. About half way through the job, I said to the electrician, “You must be making a pretty penny out of this.” “Some hope”, he said, “it’ll be next year before I get paid and I’m fourth down the line.” I asked what he meant by that. He said, “The contractor said I’ll get paid for your job only when I have bid for three others and done them. Once I finish the third one, then they’ll pay me for yours.” I was appalled but he said, “Oh, that’s standard practice in the trade, guv, nothing we can do about it.”

I do not know whether that is standard practice in the trade, or whether it actually is retention, but it is a racket that ought not to continue. I hope that, at some time in the future—in some other legislation if not in this Bill—my noble friend the Minister will be able to crack down on that sort of racket. I know that there are views on both sides of this issue but it is not right at all because there are safety implications. The electrician was to get paid for the job he did for me only if he went in at a rock-bottom price to win three other jobs. That is a safety issue.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, turning first to Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, we agree that longer-term protections for residents’ safety are absolutely critical. His amendment also raises the importance of how we manage longer-term protections relating to fire safety.

Look at the government cuts to the fire service. Between 2010 and 2016, the Government cut central funding to fire and rescue services by 28% in real terms. In 2020, that was followed by a further cut of 15%. If the Government are really serious about tackling fire safety—there is a lot of good stuff in this Bill—they need to look at reversing those cuts to our fire safety organisations to make sure that they have the proper support they need to do the job that needs to be done.

Turning to Amendment 2 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, I assure him that, in principle, we support what he is trying to achieve. The issues that he raises are important. Health and well-being need to be considered in a lot of our legislation and we too often overlook it. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, introduced his Amendment 7 very ably, as he always does, and we certainly support in principle what he is trying to achieve with it. We have every sympathy with many of his practical suggestions for what could be done to improve things in this area.

Amendment 8, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, which he just clearly introduced, is particularly important given the areas that it includes and to which he referred. We had a long debate in Committee on the importance of the safety of staircases and making sure that the minimum standards are properly applied. We heard from many noble Lords about the RoSPA campaign and the number of people who die falling down staircases. This is an opportunity to do something about that.

We also had much debate in Committee on electrical certification and the importance of the safety of electricity systems. It is important that this also includes provision for disabilities. I am aware that the Government have introduced amendments on disabilities, but this is another opportunity to support that.

It is important that we have an amendment that looks at timely intervention—timely action—on safety issues. Grenfell was not the first time in recent years that a fire in a high-rise block of flats resulted in loss of life. In 2013, coroners wrote to Ministers about two separate fires: first, Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009, in which six people died, and then Shirley Towers in Southampton in 2010, in which two firefighters died. The coroner’s letters included clear points of criticism and recommendations, which were not acted on. These also included retrofitting sprinklers into high-rise social housing blocks. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, includes the importance of sprinklers. The Lakanal House fire involved high-pressure laminate cladding, but that was not ordered to be removed from buildings until 2019—between 2009 and 2019 is 10 years.

It is important that when coroners, for example, or anyone who understands the safety of buildings writes to Ministers about genuine and serious concerns with actions that need to be taken, these are acted on in a timely way. That is why we strongly support Amendment 8, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Stunell and, if he decides to divide the House on it, we will support him.

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh The Minister of State, Home Department, Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

My Lords, I thought that it would be helpful to reflect on why the Bill is before us today. It is entirely driven by the Grenfell fire tragedy, which took place on 14 June 2017 and resulted in the largest loss of life in a residential fire since the Second World War. It was also the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since Piper Alpha in 1988. As the Minister who has taken on responsibility for both building safety and fire, as Building Safety Minister in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Fire Minister in the Home Office, I have reflected on the factors that drove that outcome of such a loss of life. One of those was the corrosive construction industry culture that uses the sort of Spanish practices mentioned by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. I have had similar experiences in construction—we all have, to a greater or lesser extent. Anyone who has undertaken any kind of construction project knows that the margins are squeezed and the people you value, the tradesmen who are on the job, are often simply not paid. It is shocking.

But there are also two other reasons why that tragedy happened. The first was a regulatory system that is essentially broken, which is why we have the Bill to establish the new building safety regulator, which will then take on responsibility for building regulations. Secondly, there was an inadequate response on the night by fire and rescue services. The Home Secretary will shortly launch, and I will support her, a White Paper on fundamental reform of fire and rescue services.

A considerable amount of money has been invested in fire and rescue services in the past three years while I have been Fire Minister, particularly on fire protection. There had been a loss of skills in those people who were very capable of assessing the built environment in fire and rescue services, so we introduced a £30 million uplift to try to repair that. It is not just about numbers and investment; it is about ensuring that we have the right skilled people in our fire and rescue services. We will continue with further investments on fire protection because we recognise that we have to prevent fires from happening in the first place, but we also have to ensure that we build in a way that is safe both from a fire perspective and in every other sense of the word.

All the amendments ask the building safety regulator to do a little bit more, so I think that we should return and understand that we are asking it to implement a new and more stringent regulatory regime for high-risk buildings. Because of Grenfell, we recognise that we need such a new regime. We are asking it to oversee the safety and performance of all buildings—the entire built environment. Also, we know that there is a huge challenge, which we have talked about in this group of amendments, in the competence of the built environment industry and registered building inspectors—those people who sign off buildings. We need to raise the competence of those approved inspectors and to see competence improve in the built environment, with a more systematic approach to carrying out projects. I want us to have that in the back of our minds as we turn to each amendment.

Amendments 1 and 16 are from the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath. I thank him for raising this important matter but, as set out in Committee, the Government will not be able to accept the amendments. Amendment 1 would add an additional objective for the building safety regulator around property protection. I am concerned that adding additional objectives for it at this early stage in its life could distract it and hinder its success. Instead, we should include this issue in the first statutory review of how well the regulator is working. That is an undertaking.

I turn to the detail. I am sure that noble Lords agree that the regulator should focus on exercising its functions in line with its first objective:

“securing the safety of people in or about buildings”.

The regulator’s second objective is:

“improving the standard of buildings”.

Crucially, this already gives the regulator the remit to address issues relating to property protection by improving regulatory standards relating to security, resilience and fire safety. Adding a specific objective around property protection has two further downsides. First, it would put property protection on a par with resident safety as a priority of the regulator. The Government believe that the regulator should prioritise resident safety. Secondly, it risks skewing the building safety regulator’s oversight function. The Government want the regulator to be able to use evidence to identify the most pressing issues with the safety and performance of buildings and to make recommendations to Ministers on improvements where needed. The pre-legislative scrutiny committee considered property protection but found that the regulator’s existing objectives were a sensible starting point and suggested that the Government keep this under review. We are committed to doing that through the provision in Clause 152 for a regular independent review of the effectiveness of the regulator and the wider regulatory system.

I turn to Amendment 16. There are already powers for building regulations to cover specific aspects of building resilience. We believe that it is better that building regulations are targeted on specific issues rather than having open-ended requirements. The building regulations already make provision to ensure reasonable standards of health and safety for people in and around buildings. When followed, they also provide benefits for the protection of buildings from fire spread. However, we recognise that further research into property protection is warranted for residential buildings. The impact of the loss of a home is significant, so we are taking that forward as part of the technical review of approved document B. Directly in response to the noble Lord, Lord Foster, I say that this a really complex research project. I would love to be able to deliver the response and give updates, but it takes time. It is driven by professionals—building engineers, fire safety engineers, facade engineers, all the technical people who advise the Government—and the Government themselves doing research in a proper, planned way.

I thank the noble Lord for suggesting the amendments and I hope I have reassured the House that the building safety regulator’s objectives and functions enable it to identify building safety and standards issues relevant to property protection. I believe that this achieves the aims of his amendments without diluting the focus of the regulator.

I turn to Amendment 2 by the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, who has assembled an array of support from the Cross Benches, my own Benches and the Opposition Benches. As someone who is the son of a surgeon who worked all his life in the NHS, I say that the noble Lord is about the only chief executive that I remember by name, so when he tables an amendment I listen to it very carefully. I am not the lead Minister for levelling up but I have been in a lot of the Cabinet committees, and it is an issue that I feel interested in and strongly about. I undertake to meet him and other interested parties, including my noble friend Lord Bethell, and to work on the agenda about how to bring health and well-being into the built environment.

There was a very helpful intervention from my noble friend Lord Young. Of course there is a link between housing and health; the question is where to focus within the planning system and where you focus within building regulations. There is a strong opportunity to think about health and well-being in the same way that in public safety we think about “secure by design”. That is a job of work to be done and a definition is a starting point. I am happy to engage on that as a personal priority with the noble Lord, Lord Crisp. I hope that on that basis he will consider not pressing his amendment.

I have grown to have a fond attachment to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare. He raises an important issue around cash retentions; they are pernicious, and we need to address that very carefully. I point out that on the specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, I have undertaken to meet him to proselytise this point with the Department for Education and to use my own personal heft—and considerable weight—in pushing the department in the right direction. The noble Lord is right: the Construction Playbook is a way for the public sector to set the standards and culture for how we approach building projects, whether it is for schools, hospitals or public housing. I am happy that he has raised this issue repeatedly through the stages of the Bill and I am happy to make that undertaking. I also point out that my noble friend Lord Callanan, the BEIS Minister, is set to meet my noble friend Lady Barran at the Department for Education to take that even further. Let us make it a triumvirate to get this over the line.

There is an important equality agenda. I have done my best to point the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, towards the Housing Quality Network, which embraces the reform of cash retentions, and to put him in touch with Amanda Long from Building A Safer Future, who is a tremendous advocate for the change in culture that he seeks.

I turn to Amendment 8 from the noble Lord, Lord Stunell, about publishing an assessment of benefits and costs. I am afraid the Government will not be accepting this amendment. I hope to reassure noble Lords that, as I have mentioned, the Bill already places an existing duty on the regulator to keep safety and standards under review. Clause 5 places a broad horizon-scanning duty on the building safety regulator to keep the safety and standards of all buildings under continuous review. That will include keeping under review issues such as fire suppression systems, the safety of stairways and ramps, the certification of electrical equipment and systems and provision for people with disabilities.

The regulator will work with the construction industry and technical experts, commission research, conduct consultations and make recommendations to the Government for improving regulations and guidance where required. The building safety regulator will be required to report annually on the performance of its building functions, under changes that the Bill makes to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

The Bill also ensures that crucial aspects of the new system are included in the regulator’s annual reporting—notably engagement with residents, under Clause 19, and mandatory occurrence reports, which can help industry to track safety issues, under Clause 20. Clause 3 further requires the regulator to have regard to the principles of transparency and accountability. The Government intend that the regulator’s published strategic plan, required by Clause 17, will set out in further detail what it must report on. In the light of the regulator’s duty under Clause 5 to keep the safety and standards of all buildings under continuous review, along with the strong reporting requirements already contained in the Bill, I believe that this amendment is not needed.

I have some statistics on investment in fire and rescue services. I do not think that it is helpful to start trading statistics on budgets, but there is a real commitment on all sides of this House to ensure that we improve the built environment, whether for fire protection purposes or building safety purposes, and recognise its close bond with health and well-being.

I hope I have provided a degree of reassurance that the issues raised are really important and that the Government are addressing the concerns raised in this debate. I hope that noble Lords will be content to withdraw or not press their amendments.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Chair, Rural Economy Committee, Chair, Rural Economy Committee 12:00 pm, 29th March 2022

My Lords, there is a wide range of amendments in this first group relating to the role and scope of the new building safety regulator, which will oversee the new safety regime not least for—but not exclusively for, as the amendments suggest—high-risk buildings. For instance, there is my amendment to further the protection of property through the introduction of measures such as sprinklers and compartmentation. There is also the important amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, to widen the definition of “safety” to include health and well-being because, as we have heard, a building can have a profound effect on a person’s physical and mental health. There is the important measure in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, related to addressing the safety risks that can—and do—arise from contractual arrangements. Then there is my noble friend Lord Stunell’s amendment, which aims to get the new regulator to look at and report on a range of issues of concern, from fire suppression systems to stairways, ramps, electrical equipment and measures to support people with disabilities.

The Minister’s response was to say that he welcomes these proposals and that they will be looked at over time but, of course, he does not want to burden the new regulator with additional responsibilities at this stage—notwithstanding the fact that he said that noble Lords were merely asking the regulator to do “a little bit more”. None the less, I am sure that those who have spoken to their own amendments will make a decision on what they wish to do at later stages of this Bill.

I was disturbed by the Minister suggesting that acceptance of my Amendments 1 and 16 would put the safety of the building on a par with the safety of its occupants. I must tell him that this absolutely misunderstands the importance of property protection measures. Often, the introduction of sprinklers and compartmentation, for example, gives the occupants of a building a longer period of time in which to escape and improves safety. Clearly the Minister has accepted that in terms of, for instance, reducing the height of tall buildings when it is expected, at least under guidance, that sprinklers will be introduced.

I acknowledge that the Minister has offered to have a further meeting with my noble friend and provide his not inconsiderable weight, as he described it, to move some measures forward. I hope that he will use his considerable weight to move the measures I have proposed forward in, as he suggested, the first statutory review of the work of the new regulator. Given that rather modest assurance, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Amendment 2 not moved.

Clause 4: Duty to facilitate building safety: higher-risk buildings