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Examination of Witnesses

Fire Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:58 am on 25th June 2020.

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Dennis Davis and James Carpenter gave evidence.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Q Good morning. I welcome Mr Davis and Mr Carpenter, from the Fire Sector Federation and the L&Q Group respectively. As we begin, could you please introduce yourselves for the record? Perhaps Mr Carpenter should go first, because we can see you.

James Carpenter:

I am James Carpenter, head of fire safety at L&Q. If you are not aware, L&Q Group is a large housing provider in London, and we currently manage more than 110,000 homes. I have been in the housing sector since 2007. Prior to that, I was a firefighter in the Royal Air Force. We are also, as a group, involved with and an early adopter of the building safety programme, and we are a strong supporter of the brief on fire safety across the built environment, to improve existing buildings but also new buildings coming out of construction. Our aim is to support that continuous improvement in fire safety to avoid tragedies such as those we have seen.

In offering evidence, we hope to ensure that amendments to the Bill are realistic and, more importantly, achievable for those who manage buildings and for residents, so that they understand what those challenges are and, ultimately, so that we can give reassurance about the safety of people’s homes.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Q Thank you. Mr Davis, you may introduce yourself, and I think you have a short opening statement.

Dennis Davis:

Thank you. I am Dennis Davis, the executive officer of the Fire Sector Federation, which is a not-for-profit non-government organisation. We are an organisation of organisations, so our membership comprises professional bodies, trade associations, unions and commercial enterprises. Our collective work is really to improve public fire safety. We work as a group, and I lead work around competency and fire risk assessment.

We, like many others, have been working for a long period to try to improve overall competencies—our work predates the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire—and most recently we have been working with the Government and others to try to improve fire risk assessor competency across the board. We, too, welcome the Bill and look forward to its guidance, but we have concerns about definitions and clarity, and concerns about the implications of taking it forward in practice.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you. We have a number of questions for you from Members of Parliament on the Committee. We will start with Sarah Jones, who leads for the Labour party on this matter.

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Mr Davis, you are a fire engineer and have a master’s degree, so you are enormously well qualified. Can you talk us through your model of what good looks like in fire risk assessors, fire engineers and the whole landscape of how we ensure we have enough competent fire risk assessors and a proper system to implement the Bill?

Mr Carpenter, one of our amendments is about how the definition of responsible persons should not include leaseholders. One issue that has been raised with us is how you implement a Bill when you are looking at a building in its totality and, as a freeholder, you have a responsibility to look, for example, at doors that might belong to the flat owner rather than you. How on earth can you do that? How do you know if changes are made or things happen when parts of the building are not in your control? How does that work?

Dennis Davis:

The first thing to say is that the built environment—the part we are concerned with—is very complex. Buildings, of course, are infinitely variable, from a small single-storey dwelling to a block of flats on top of a commercial development that has got car parking, leisure activities and so on. So the environment you are looking at is complex, but fire risk in particular is holistic. By that, I mean it is about the way people interact with the building, the building itself, the structures and the way the whole process is put together. One big issue that often arises is that when the way you design, construct and build—the professional leadership in the process—is transferred on to the ground, and more importantly into the life of the building, you find that things you thought had been constructed, developed and managed in a certain way are not.

The first point I would like to make, therefore, is that in trying to look at the competence of individuals, you are first trying to ensure that there is a common platform of understanding about fire and its behaviour, and about people and how they behave, before going into the complexities and granularity of buildings themselves. You could have a fire engineer—I am a qualified fire engineer—who specialises in a particular area. You might have someone working offshore, in the radiation industry or on high-rise buildings. You cannot take one simple snapshot and say, “Oh, he or she is qualified as such and therefore is able to develop himself or herself into all these areas.”

Secondly, many of these things are not mandated, in terms of qualification. You can become qualified, but when it comes to applications in the real world, often there is no specific legislation that says, “You must use one of these people.” Because of the need for flexibility, the legislation has to ensure that it asks for competent people and, on that basis, you become reliant on a definition of what is competent. If we can pass through that, we can start to understand how difficult these issues can become.

Most of what we do in more complex environments involves a team-based assessment, rather than an individual one. We are talking about fire risk assessment or fire engineering. An individual may be capable of handling a project, but if that project evolves and becomes bigger and more complex, you add more skills and colleagues, and there is more team-based working. That has to be applied through the life of the building. The built stock is the difficult bit. New buildings should be well regulated, but once a building is occupied and used, it becomes a different environment again.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Mr Davis, thank you for that. We have a lot of questions to get through in the next 25 minutes. That was an excellent and comprehensive answer, but I would be grateful if we could have slightly more concise answers.

James Carpenter:

I think the key point is around access and, as you mentioned, doors. With residential housing, a lot of buildings might be fairly straightforward in their basic design. The complexities come with the various management arrangements, lease agreements and so on.

The biggest question and challenge for housing providers is one of access. We cannot have it, we do not have it—there is no right of access. With tenants, we might be able to go to court and get injunctions to gain access to a home, but with leases, that challenge becomes even more difficult. It is their private space and we cannot touch it. When it comes to self-closers and checking inside doors, it is optional and voluntary for the leaseholder to listen or to comply with what we are asking. That is a big concern.

As we submitted in the evidence, in my view and in that of others, it would be useful if the law would allow leaseholders to be held responsible for their actions. That could allow building owners some leverage in getting leaseholders to co-operate. Also, if we got to that final point, action could be taken directly against them by enforcing authorities, which would solve the challenge that there has been in housing for the last 13 years or so.

Photo of David Simmonds David Simmonds Conservative, Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner

Q My question draws out something that was touched on in the previous response. What powers do responsible persons need in order to be able discharge these duties? If the answer is that there are no powers that would allow them to discharge those duties in practice, do you have a view about what else needs to be done to make the powers real?

From personal experience, I refer to the example of a structure that has been signed off by building control— an independent contractor of the contractor who has built the structure—but, when occupying the building, the local authority discovers that the fire door has been installed against a false ceiling so that it is, in effect, not providing any fire safety at all. One would only know that by taking the whole thing down and finding that that was the case. Such intrusive activity is a significant step into leaseholders’ property. Does the accountable individual need powers, or does something else around building control need to be done to change this situation?

James Carpenter:

Ultimately, if there was a way of transferring ownership of a leaseholder’s property through legislation so that it is no longer theirs but the building owner’s, that could solve the problem, because it is now our door and not theirs. I do not know whether that is possible, but that could be something to look into. Other than that, I am not sure. If leaseholders, or whoever it is, have a responsibility to ensure that something is there, safe and how it should be, they have a duty to ensure that that continues and must not make any changes to jeopardise that. That is where I think the law needs to be able to hold multiple people responsible, as opposed to just a single building owner. While I appreciate that having one person in control of everything would make things a lot easier, realistically, I do not think that that is possible.

Dennis Davis:

It is quite a difficult one. Again, it is worth remembering that there is another Bill, which will take some of those powers and is about trying to ensure that a building is maintained as well as constructed to a standard. Some of that legislative power may exist within those requirements. We picked up the point about common doors in our submission, because it is an issue. It needs to be very clear that the responsible person has access and can control those elements in the same way that they can control the fire safety systems—alarms or detectors—within a dwelling. Clarity in that area would be helpful; there is no doubt about that.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Can you see us all right, Mr Davis? Are you watching this?

Dennis Davis:

Yes, I am watching.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Q I think there is quite a lot of support for this Bill. The issue is whether what it is trying to achieve is clear enough and how it will be enforced. It is already clear that, where landlords are trying to do remedial work, that is highly problematic, first because it is confusing what types of building it applies to—what sort of height and what sort of materials—and secondly because there is prioritisation.

For example, a building that is mainly brick but has some detailing made from aluminium composite material or high-pressure laminate will have a much lower priority than one that has complete cladding. Also, there just are not the people there to carry out the enforcement. For example, a social landlord—and social landlords are much better than private landlords, in my experience—that is not L&Q is telling occupants of a particular building in my constituency that it might take four years for this to be done. That is problematic in itself, and it has the additional problem that the EWS1 form and the process to be gone through effectively stops any sale or movement during that time. Are you aware of those problems, and how can you see them being resolved?

James Carpenter:

L&Q currently has 191 buildings that are over 18 metres, and we estimate at the moment that those buildings will cost in excess of £450 million to resolve, which may take up to 10 years. The G15, as a wider group of housing providers in London, has over 1,100 buildings, and the estimated cost could be as high as £6.8 billion for those buildings. I appreciate that there are extreme challenges with buildings.

On the point about sales, I think it is really important that the insurance industry, which seemed to be holding up the EWS1 forms being completed, works with mortgage lenders to try to open the market again, to allow at least one of those problems to be resolved. If the building insurance covered the cladding, would mortgage lenders be happier to lend, on the basis that their money is not at risk, because it is covered by the wider building insurance?

The situation of leaseholder and mortgage prisoners, as they have been referred to in the press, is extremely unfortunate, and I do not think that that is right at all. People should be able to buy and sell their homes regardless of whether the walls have a different material on them. It is right that we all work towards the end goal of making sure all those buildings are safe. We can look at the numbers for how much money it will cost to resolve some of these buildings, but we must deal with it by risk. It has to be about safety risk, where we have concerns with lower-rise buildings that might be able to move if we can solve the cladding issue by just issuing a certificate. We need to keep focusing on safety risk. We have to continue working with and lobbying mortgage lenders, with the Government, to make sure those measures do not hold up the lending process and stop people moving.

Dennis Davis:

As a first answer, we are very much aware of these issues, and I think that comes out in our evidence. The clarity that we are seeking is around definitions, for some of the reasons that have been touched on. External walls are a team event, as I have made clear. Therefore, it is about scaling part of this process—how many people are available to undertake the sort of area of cover that we are dealing with. The impact assessment suggests that it is a very large number of properties, rather than just the over 18 metres.

On the example of over 18 metres, where the Government has funded the schemes of remediation, you can see how progress can be made. Equally, even with funds, dedication and teams, it is a relatively slow process. We are three years on and the National Audit Office is saying we are getting there. The issue is how we manage it. As Mr Carpenter said, it is about managing the process through prioritisation of the risk. We are working with the Government, hopefully through a new task-and-finish group, to try to move that forward in a positive way.

There has to be due diligence from the responsible person to make sure this is happening, but it is worth remembering that a lot of these people are in relatively low-risk low-rise buildings, which are now within the scope. We need a process to manage that that is very open and transparent, so that tenants know they are safe. We can work on that together.

The EWS1 form has created its own problem. It was intended originally for high rises, but it is now being used to free up the whole mortgage market. The problem that we see with that is that you get unqualified assessors signing off forms just so that the market can move. Risk assessors have found it difficult to get indemnity cover. We have spoken to the insurance world about that as a trade body—our people have contacted them—and the people who want that level of insurance can get it. You are dealing with a broad spectrum of risk, and we need to get the elephant down to bitesize chunks.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Q I am persuaded that you understand what the problem is, but who will solve it, given that there are so many interests involved? It is unacceptable to expect people to wait 10 years before they can sell their flat, apart from anything else. Who will resolve it? Will it be a joint industry initiative? Does it need Government intervention? Who are you looking at to do this? You have explained the problem, which we are all familiar with, but I do not see the solution there.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Mr Davis, do you have a solution for us?

Dennis Davis:

I think the solution, Chairman, is shared work between those responsible for the buildings; the owners, like L&Q; those who are actually applying the skills, techniques and competences; the enforcers; and the Government. As I understand it, the initiative that is being created by the Home Office to try to work this process through will do that. Where and when the result of that will be seen, and how much and who pays—I am afraid I cannot answer that.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Q Thank you. Mr Carpenter, do you have a quick comment on the follow-up question? Is there a solution to anything?

James Carpenter:

With that particular issue, I do not know what the answer is. I think there needs to be an understanding. The key is to separate the two points. Resolving the mortgage lending issue should be looked at completely separately to solving the cladding issue. Separating them completely would solve the concerns that have been raised with leaseholders. But we still need to appreciate that the sums of money involved in remediating buildings are very expensive and it will take time. There is no quick solution to finding either the money for it or the skilled people to do it. But I think the answer is to take mortgage lending and view it completely separately. How to do that I am not quite sure, but to take the risk of cladding away from lending would be the right thing to do.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you. We have time for two more questions, which will be asked by Daisy Cooper followed by Karen Buck, and then the Minister may want to come in quickly at the end.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Q This question is to Mr Davis. In your written evidence, you talked about the standard of risk assessor training being “infinitely variable” and said that only some people may be “competent”. Could you expand on that and explain what the lowest end of being competent is, compared with the highest end, in order that we can understand what you are saying? For people at the lowest end of being qualified or competent, are you saying that they need one day’s training or two years’ training? What is the gap? If you could explain it, that would be helpful.

I also have a quick question for Mr Carpenter, following up on your last point. What do you think is the fairest way of managing the costs? I say that as an MP with constituents who are being asked to pay 20 grand or more as an up-front, one-off cost, as well as having their service charges increased sixfold. Some of them are trapped financially because they cannot fight, and they have no mechanism to raise the money that is needed to pay for the remedial work. So that is a question for each of you, quickly.

Dennis Davis:

It is difficult to give you a very quick answer. There could be 50,000 people who call themselves risk assessors. Some of them will be employed by a company specific to their premises and will help to maintain the integrity of that company’s building facility etc. They will be trained, maybe on a week’s course and maybe in particular areas, and that will be their skill base and they will do that.

The fire safety order, when it was brought in, was deliberately intended to be applied by individuals if they so wished. Part of the phrasing, I think, at the time was that it was not intended by the Government to be a consultants charter. The inference from that is that you should be able to apply a lot of common sense, and the Government published a very detailed series of guides to assist in that.

So at one level you need no qualification; you can do this yourself, provided that the premises are simple. At the other end of the spectrum, you certainly would need degree-level education—level 4 and above—to be able to apply the standards to complex buildings. In addition to that, you might need a high level of granularity, as I have said, in a particular system. That might be the installation—that is, the cladding system—or the fire alarm system.

This spectrum is very wide. The problem, as we foresee it, is that there are people going around who say that they are fire risk assessors, but they do not have a qualification. They have not attended any form of course, training and so on, yet they purport to offer this service. Our worry is that the public are then placed in a situation where they think that they have received good advice, but they may not have done. There is certainly anecdotal evidence of that sort of application.

James Carpenter:

One of our asks is that we want to be able to reassure housing association residents that they will not need to foot the bill for these works. Obviously, there is the £1 billion building safety fund at the moment, but that is predicated on where the viability of the owners may be threatened by funding the works themselves, and it will involve submitting a business case and so on as to why they would be at risk without support.

We are currently assessing our position. However, it would be unlikely that large associations such as L&Q would be eligible under this particular scheme, and those that are would then have to notify the Regulator of Social Housing, which may in turn result in a downgrade of their viability. We are working jointly with the G15 on this. Neither our leaseholders nor tenants should pay the price for systemic issues in relation to building safety. We need to exhaust all possible options to claim the costs, or to get those that were responsible to pay for those things. Failing that, and in the absence of Government funding, we will have no choice but to consider those legal obligations that are set out in leases with residents. However, that is the last point. We have not done it with the buildings that we have remediated; we have not done it with leaseholders, but it is there as the last resort.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

I want to return to the issue of access, because I feel that the Government underestimated fairly consistently the complexities of access, be it in respect of fire doors or the issue of retrofitting sprinklers. There were local authorities that wanted to retrofit sprinklers, and even set aside money, but were unable to do so because of this issue of uncertainty of access. Could you two give us an idea of what you feel to be the scale of the problem?Q

It was widely believed that leaseholders would want to co-operate, for example, after the Lakanal fire, yet lawyers were saying that as many as one in three simply did not and would not. So can you give us an idea about the scale of the problem and the complexities? In London, there are particular issues with things such as the overseas ownership of property, which makes it difficult to track the true owners of properties. Can you also comment on why enforcement is difficult, for example, for housing associations and local government, in terms of the cost and the length of time it takes to take people to court?

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Mr Carpenter, for some fairly concise answers, if you will, please.

James Carpenter:

On the challenge, we have got more than 100,000 homes and there are tenants in a lot of those. The issue of access is not just in relation to leaseholders; we also have issues with tenants, where they do not want to help us to meet those demands. With leases, we have a separate issue. It is not just about inspecting; we can also have challenges where we want to make improvements to buildings, but they are objected to by residents, because they do not want sprinklers in their home or a fire alarm system. We may then manage to put a fire alarm system in someone’s home, and it is linked to the building to raise warning to others, and they unscrew detector heads and so on. So the challenge is a huge and, as a landlord, there is very little power we can take without going through a lengthy and costly court process—often the costs of that are not recoverable. That is the challenge, but I point out that that is not all tenants and all leaseholders. Obviously, we do get people who co-operate and understand, but there are also people who don’t want you accessing their home.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

Q Is that a significant minority, and we are not just talking about this being very rare?

James Carpenter:

Access is a significant problem for building owners to manage—it is not small in any sense. It is not all tenants who cause those issues, but this is a significant challenge for landlords.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

A quick answer from you, Mr Davis.

Dennis Davis:

I am very sorry but I cannot give you a scale on this, which is what you asked for. The anecdotal evidence certainly is that there are tenants, whether leaseholders or not, who do not like you to have access. In addition, there are difficulties in any case for everyone, because people work and so on. Therefore, access outside normal working hours can often be the norm if you are trying to visit inside someone’s dwelling. You can understand why those arrangements have to be made, but it is a serious issue for those seeking to maintain systems—there is absolutely no doubt about that.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

I believe we are not allowed to go beyond 12.30 pm by the programme motion, but the Minister has a quick point to make.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

I was just going to try to draw out some of the complexities of access, not just for fitting, but for maintenance. Just to clarify, the way the Bill is commenced will have significant effects. I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that one thing we have done is to convene this task and finish group, which Mr Davis referred to, with the various bodies, not least the NFCC and the Fire Sector Federation on it, to devise a recommendation to the Home Office as to how the Bill should be commenced. I know we have an amendment on commencement this afternoon, but that is going to be our method of making sure we get it right.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Thank you, that is very helpful.

Gentlemen, thank you very much indeed. We have now run out of time. Thank you, Mr Carpenter and Mr Davis for excellent answers. The Committee is very grateful. We must move on to our last set of witnesses.