Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 14 December 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 12:47, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I too am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Goddard for bringing this important and timely debate today. I am particularly looking forward to the Minister’s reply—I wish him the very best of luck.

I must first declare my interests as co-president of London Councils, the membership body that represents all 32 London boroughs and the City of London, and as patron of the charity Electrical Safety First. Both of these organisations have given me very helpful briefings on which I shall rely today. I also declare that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Today I will refer mainly to London—because that is what I know about and where my experience lies—but I am sure my comments will apply to all local authorities throughout England with similar responsibilities to London boroughs.

I was prompted to take part in this debate after I attended the London Fire Brigade’s drop-in event in Portcullis House two weeks ago about e-bike and e-scooter fires. The London Fire Brigade has given me much useful and important information, as has my Liberal Democrat colleague on the London Assembly, Hina Bokhari, who has been very active on this subject—it is a particularly important one in London.

As demand for e-bikes and e-scooters has expanded, there has inevitably been a corresponding growth in fires from the lithium-ion batteries that power them. When overheating through damage or flawed design, or using a substandard charger, lithium-ion batteries can create fierce, toxic fires, which heat up very rapidly and can reach temperatures of over 600 degrees centigrade.

Fires in e-bikes and e-scooters are London’s fastest-growing fire trend. So far this year, the London Fire Brigade has attended 142 e-bike fires, along with 28 blazes involving e-scooters. This is 47% more than in the previous year, 2022, which was itself a record-breaking year. Sadly, this year has also seen three deaths and around 60 injuries caused by such fires.

Many of these fires are caused by faulty, non-compliant or counterfeit products purchased from online marketplaces, or by wrong chargers being used with batteries. Electrical Safety First has found concerning trends in London-based e-bike and e-scooter users. For instance, it found that 71% of Greater London-based delivery riders using a converted e-bike did the conversion themselves; and 48% of those delivery riders who had a converted e-bike sourced the conversion kit and/or batteries from online marketplaces, which are not regulated in the same way as high street shops.

In a separate survey of e-bike and e-scooter owners, Electrical Safety First found that 40% of e-bike and e-scooter owners charged their batteries in the communal area of the property they live in, such as a hallway or stairwell; 52% of e-bike and e-scooter owners in Greater London charged their batteries overnight while sleeping; and 39% of them in Greater London did not have working smoke alarms in their properties.

Addressing the dangers posed by e-bike and e-scooter batteries requires new UK-wide fire regulations. Electrical Safety First proposes that new regulatory measures should include third-party approval for e-bikes and e-scooters and their batteries, mirroring regulations for fireworks.

In Committee, considering the Pedicabs (London) Bill on Monday, the Minister said:

“The Government recognise that there are issues with e-scooters that we need to address, but this Bill is not the appropriate place to do so. As has been mentioned, we recently extended the e-scooter trials until 31 May 2026 to continue to gather evidence on how best to legislate for micromobility, including e-scooters, in future. Given the pressure on legislative time, that legislation will not come forward in this Session, unfortunately. Ahead of that, the Government intend to consult on the detailed approach for regulating e-scooters”.—[Official Report, 11/12/23; col. GC 232.]

Given the obviously urgent need to deal with this rapidly increasing problem, will the Minister, when he replies today, tell us when this consultation will start and, particularly, when it will end? Most importantly, will he confirm that it will not wait until after the trials referred to have ended in 2026?

I turn now to another fire safety issue of particular importance and concern in London—that of high-rise buildings. In July this year, the Government defined 18 metres, or seven floors, as the height at which buildings are at higher risk and the threshold at which new buildings should have a second staircase. Some 67%—two-thirds—of all such high-rise residential buildings in the UK are situated in London.

None of the Government’s fire risk assessment guides have been revised since their publication in 2006. Two examples of issues where current guidance is not clear are evacuation lifts and multiple staircases. The timing for a revision is uncertain, so can the Minister tell us today when it will take place? The London Fire Brigade is also urging the Government to provide further guidance and revised building regulations, including those relating to access and use of buildings, particularly for those with accessibility needs. Further detail is also needed on the transitional arrangements for second staircases, to give developers, local authorities, fire services and communities clarity.

London local authority-managed housing stock is more likely to be older, densified, and found in flatted blocks rather than houses. London boroughs face multiple pressures beyond building safety, such as the need to raise standards, meet net-zero targets and supply new affordable homes. Housing revenue accounts in London are under significant strain, as they are everywhere. The Government’s 7% ceiling on social rent increases in 2023-24 is estimated to have a £590 million impact on London boroughs’ housing revenue account finances over the next five financial years. This exacerbated the impact of the four-year 1% rent reduction policy in place from 2016-17, which, by 2021-22, left London rents an estimated £459 million lower than expected.

Local authorities are facing an increasingly complex regulatory environment, with a multitude of changes and different regulators. Alignment between regulatory bodies must be central to developing new regulatory practice and requirements. The new fire and building safety requirements are stretching London borough resources—and I am sure those of every other local authority, too—and their capacity. The building safety regulator charging regime will put significant additional financial pressure on local authorities, particularly those with a high number of complex buildings.

Lastly, I turn to building control. Local authority building control teams are at the forefront of new responsibilities relating to high-rise residential buildings, especially with the formation of the building safety regulator’s multidisciplinary teams that will come into force imminently. The Government must work with local authorities to ensure that building control teams are sufficiently resourced and enabled to meet new obligations to ensure residents’ safety. London borough building control teams urgently require clarity and guidance on their roles within the multidisciplinary hub, to ensure that it is implemented effectively. When will that clarity be given?

In conclusion, London borough resources and capacity are stretched to the limit—I am sure all local authorities are in the same position—as a result of financial pressures on the housing revenue account and a lack of sufficiently qualified staff to deliver these functions. Local authorities urgently need more funding and greater financial flexibility in order to meet fire and building safety requirements, at the same time as raising the standards of tenants’ homes, meeting new consumer standards and delivering new affordable housing. This should include allowing a rent catch-up so that social housing providers can gradually recover some of the reduced financial investment available as a result of the 7% rent ceiling.

A post-2025 rent settlement that provides sufficient funding and certainty is also needed, and London Councils encourages the Government to launch a consultation at the earliest opportunity. Specifically, the Government should recognise and unlock barriers faced by boroughs attempting to access, and make best use of, remedial funding to realise intended outcomes for residents. For example, local authorities receive remedial funding only for external cladding, not for other corrective fire and building safety works.

I recognise that the Minister may not have been briefed on all these points and may not anyway have time, even in his 20 minutes, to answer all the questions he has been asked today, so I would be grateful if he would write to me, and indeed to other noble Lords, answering the many questions that so far remain unanswered.