Fire Safety Regulations and Guidance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 14 December 2023.

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Photo of The Earl of Lytton The Earl of Lytton Crossbench 1:00, 14 December 2023

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, on his excellent introduction; I certainly cannot match his expertise in this field. I remind your Lordships of my professional involvement with buildings and construction as a chartered surveyor and as a patron of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, to which body I am very grateful for some background information. I am also grateful to the Library staff for digging out a lot of information and to Chris Waterman for his very pertinent comments.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which came into effect in 2006, we had a regime of responsibility on individuals within organisations for risk assessments to identify, manage and reduce fire risks. However, prior to this order, all public and commercial buildings and all non-single household domestic buildings, save for houses in multiple occupation, needed a fire certificate issued annually following inspection. Post 2006, that was replaced with a system of third-party assessors but with no mandated timeframe for checks nor any professional competence set out. Furthermore, it did not normally apply to domestic premises.

I believe these changes were significant. In 2013, I am told the fire service found that 14% of risk assessments were non-compliant. In 2018, it was found that 500 out of a total of 800 assessors—a small enough number in itself—were not registered with any accredited body, so their credentials were not monitored. In between, there was a transfer of responsibility in 2016 from DCLG to the Home Office. As the noble Lord, Lord Goddard, said, there are split departmental responsibilities, gaps and all sorts of other problems. The past history has been one of little regulatory enforcement since 2006; in the case of much residential property, I would go as far as saying there is a significant lacuna.

Moving on to the current situation, there remain inconsistencies. While those occupying business premises are obliged to carry out reasonably thorough risk assessments just to get insurance and are driven by that aspect, for the freeholder it may be a matter mainly of common parts. The responsible person in any given instance may be several people. They are supposed to liaise but very likely have an imperfect understanding of each other’s risk profile. There is some guidance about risk assessments, but I see no requirement for accreditation or need for any construction knowledge.

That may be fine for straightforward, simple cases where there is evidently low risk, but I do not think it is generally true. As of now, for low and medium-rise residential property, there is seemingly no obligation on occupiers at all, despite the concerns around batteries and the use of certain types of equipment, identified by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. The obligation of the block manager seemingly is for common parts only, with no further obligation to investigate in additional detail.

Yet the incidence of fires is, I am told, far greater for domestic premises than for other types of use. I wonder how many residents in Victorian terraced houses divided into say two, three or four self-contained units are aware that they may now have collective responsibilities? If we are not enforcing regulatory compliance—and I hear the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, about inadequacy of resources, a point also made by others—one has to question the purpose and direction of policy in this whole area.

I believe that it is not necessarily generally the failure of equipment itself. The inherent safety in many cases is really quite good, but it depends on the use and occupation and the category of that occupation—for instance, as other noble Lords mentioned, trying to charge lithium-ion batteries with unsuitable chargers or inadequate storage space, with items packed into areas that lack ventilation or a way to allow heat to escape.

While I am fine with a light touch for low-rise blocks of flats, there needs to be a minimum standard of efficacy and the regime has to be proportionate to the actual risks. In July 2021, the independent experts advising the Government produced a statement determining that low-rise buildings were at materially lower risk from a life-critical fire safety standpoint. This fed into the legislation, despite noble Lords, including me, contending in this House that low rise did not equate to acceptably low risk. Moreover, the independent experts did not consider other structural issues of which fire safety surely forms part and parcel in any holistic approach.

The position of the responsible person or persons seems precarious if fire safety deficiencies are suspected but not actually known, where they have simply never been looked into at all, or where they are known but the original developer—as I am told in one case—declined to step in to remediate because, as it apparently put it, “the level of risk has not been established”, or words to that effect. Residents are inevitably put at a degree of unquantified risk.

But the statement from the independent experts did not cover economic security or the effects on those in buildings requiring remediation but with no clear recourse or defence against huge costs, financial ruin, disruption to lives, lifestyles and life chances because under the Building Safety Act they might not in any way be protected against such eventualities. I also did not detect that the structural integrity of buildings—which cannot be considered in isolation from fire safety itself—was part of their remit.

Turning to the points made earlier by noble Lords, I entirely take the point about the calculation of risk assessment, but it seems that at various points things are stopped part way for policy reasons. I think this is fundamentally a dangerous approach. There is a particular lesson that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, will be familiar with: the year before the independent experts’ statement came out, there was a major fire in one of several similar blocks. This was not mentioned by the independent experts, but it could have been. It clearly indicated that fire risk in some low-rise buildings is a critical matter and very much depends on the characteristics of the buildings in question, especially construction quality and use of materials internally. The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, made exactly that point, and I can verify it from my own direct experience.

The reason for half-hour or one-hour fire resistant compartmentation is primarily to enable safe escape and, where escape is not possible, to enable fire and rescue services to control the outbreak. In a higher-rise building, it is clearly a question of staying put, or at least staying put in certain parts of the building, because of the sheer impossibility of people getting down 20 floors to safety, so stay put has to be in place. However, the fire that I am referring to that the independent experts seem to have ignored was in fact in a low-rise building. Were it not for the fact that the occupants decided they were going to ignore to a man the stay-put advice and get out, several of them would have been killed or injured because the building was effectively completely ablaze after 11 minutes from the time of the 999 call. It clearly was not going to maintain any structural integrity, but buildings need to retain structural integrity in terms of modern usage. For vulnerable occupants, things are much worse still.

Yet there seems to be little appetite for a regime of professional or other curiosity that might foresee and counter risk that may be self-evident, or for a regulatory regime to encourage that. It might be too much to insist on individual owners and occupiers of residential flats carrying out assessments or immediately ceasing the habits of a lifetime, but I venture to suggest that a programme of public awareness, like the ones with graphic images that I remember in relation to drink-driving and the failure to buckle up your seat belt, would be beneficial. We did that effectively with Covid. I invite the Minister to agree that more needs to be done to tidy up, update and clarify the regulation as to who is responsible and to create a more holistic approach, leaving fewer things to differential interpretation and avoiding the risk of matters being left to happenstance or falling between the jurisdictions of different government departments.

The noble Lord, Lord Goddard, referred to the situation in which the standards of fire suppression that we now know are necessary have been abandoned. That is lamentable. The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, referred in detail to the Luton Airport car park fire. I am told, I think on reasonable authority, that the structure of that car park was lightweight. I am tempted to wonder what the wider safety issues and possible fire consequences would have been if all the cars had been electric, with the weight considerations in such a structure.

There is a great deal that needs to be brought together here in this Motion. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, referred to non-ACM combustible materials. I simply refer to the widespread use within buildings of expanded polystyrene, a product that was researched under commission from the Victorian Building Authority in Australia and considered to be as bad as ACM or worse.

It is not acceptable to conduct public administration by expecting safe outcomes from underspecifying assessments and regulatory adherence. I wish not to add to regulation but to design it to be efficient and likely to be observed. I am therefore entirely supportive of the Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Goddard.